Lawmakers questioned President Barack Obama’s nominees for top Defense Department posts about last year’s attack on Americans in Benghazi, the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and the Navy’s alternative-energy plans.
The Senate Armed Services Committee met today to consider the nominations of Stephen Preston to be general counsel, Jon Rymer to be inspector general, Susan Rabern to be assistant secretary of the Navy for financial management and comptroller, and Dennis McGinn to be assistant secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment.
The panel’s top Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, asked Preston, general counsel of the Central Intelligence Agency, about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
“My role in the aftermath of Benghazi was extremely limited,” Preston said.
Inhofe asked Preston whether he had any role in writing or editing the talking points used by administration officials in the aftermath of the attack.
“No, sir,” Preston said.
Inhofe called the White House’s initial response to the incident — in which then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice said the attack was a response from a protest, not a planned terrorist attack — one of the most egregious cover-ups in the history of U.S. government.
In response to a question from the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Preston said he opposed the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists.
“I believe under current law waterboarding is torture,” he said. “I support the president’s decision to ban waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques.”
However, Preston said he understood personnel who carried out the interrogations were acting in a lawful manner based on legal opinions issued at the time by the Justice Department. Those opinions, he said, have since been disavowed and withdrawn.
Preston also said he backs the administration’s policy of seeking to transfer detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The committee has voted for legislation that would give the Pentagon greater flexibility in transferring detainees from the facility to foreign countries.
Preston said he had some involvement in, but didn’t oversee, the CIA’s response to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s study on the agency’s detention and interrogation program. The agency reportedly objected to most of the findings and called them politically biased.
“The agency’s comments are an appropriate response,” he said. “I don’t believe that there is anything legally objectionable.”
Inhofe wasted no time distancing himself from McGinn, a retired Navy vice admiral who headed the president’s American Council on Renewable Energy. If confirmed, the former Navy pilot would be tasked with helping to implement the Navy’s so-called Great Green Fleet initiative to generate half of its energy from alternative fuels by 2020.
“As you know, we completely disagree on these issues, but thankfully, implementing a national policy for climate change will not be one of your core responsibilities if confirmed,” Inhofe said in his opening remarks. “Instead, you will be tasked with helping the Navy navigate a complex range of installation and environmental issues as well as its fiscally irresponsible pursuit of the Great Green Fleet.”
Later during questioning, Inhofe said he agreed with McGinn’s support for expanding the Marine Corps’ training range at Twentynine Palms, Calif., and smiled as he acknowledged their differences of opinion on the topic of alternative energy.
“An area where we don’t agree is in the use of a lot of our funds that would otherwise be used for readiness and for defense purposes for biofuels and these other things,” he said. “We’ll have a chance to talk about this in the future and we have in the past.”
“I look forward to it, senator,” McGinn said.
McGinn was introduced and praised by former Sen. John Warner, a Republican from Virginia who served as chairman of the committee and secretary of the Navy. Warner touted the accomplishments of each of the four nominees.
“These four resumes constitute an extraordinary body of knowledge needed in these respective positions,” he said.
The hearing came a week after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., helped broker a deal between Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate majority leader, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, to avert a constitutional showdown over president nominations.
The committee is expected to vote on the nominees sometime after it meets next week to decide on the nomination of Army Gen. Martin Dempsey to another two-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.