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Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Most Interesting Parts of the Benghazi Depositions

Olivier Knox | Fri, Jul 1 2:00 AM PDT | Yahoo News

AP A top aide to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton had a college friend who was in Benghazi the night of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks there. The chairman of the Republican-led special committee looking into the events of that night asked a former senior defense department official a series of seemingly irrelevant questions about his business dealings after leaving government. A request for Marines to change into civilian clothes — then back into their regular gear, then into civilian clothes again — appears to have delayed their deployment to Libya. And when a former senior intelligence official became the first to tell Congress publicly that terrorists connected with al-Qaida were likely behind the attacks, Clinton called Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to express “surprise” that he did so — even though she had suggested as much in private communications days before. These are some of the intriguing issues that stand out after a close reading of depositions collected by the Republican-run House Select Committee on Benghazi and made public by the panel’s minority Democrats.

Rather than reading through rival reports from either side, Yahoo News dug into the testimony lawmakers collected during their two-year investigation. Not all of the transcripts have been released, but those that have make for sobering, fascinating and sometimes bewildering reading, even to those who have covered the tragedy and its aftermath for years. Here are some of the most perplexing, eye-opening and little-covered passages. Huma Abedin’s mention of a mysterious college friend Abedin, who served as Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department and is now vice chair of her presidential campaign team, had one of the more curious exchanges in the voluminous testimony.

Abedin faced questions about Clinton’s exclusive use of a private server for official business during her entire tenure as the top U.S. diplomat. She broke little, if any, new ground in her testimony. But one brief exchange, on page 113 of her deposition, raised more questions than it answers. The committee Republicans’ deputy chief counsel, Sharon Jackson, zeroed in on an October 29, 2012, email from Abedin to Clinton. The message, read aloud by Jackson, said: “Had a long visit with my friend who was in Benghazi. Will download in person but think very important for you to call [redacted], the injured DS officer. He is now well enough to talk.” Who was that? Jackson asked. “DS” in this context stands for diplomatic security, the State Department division charged with protecting diplomatic compounds. “I had a friend from college who was in Benghazi that night,” replied Abedin, who attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “On the night of the attack? The night of the attack?” Jackson followed up. “Yes, ma’am,” Abedin responded. “Was your friend a witness in any way to the attacks?” Jackson asked. “I am not able to discuss that,” Abedin said. Her lawyer, former Clinton advisor Karen Dunn, stepped in to tell Jackson that they should discuss the matter off the record — without a transcript. Jackson agreed. Whatever they discussed seemed to satisfy Jackson, who did not return to that line of questioning.

Spokespeople from the Republican and Democratic sides of the committee declined to offer any additional details on the record. Dunn did not return a phone call seeking comment. While peculiar, there’s no reason to believe that the exchange concealed anything nefarious, as evidenced by the apparent Republican decision not to stay on the subject after the off-the-record discussion, or to highlight it in public. Clinton’s ‘surprise’ that officials blamed terrorists The night of the attacks, Clinton emailed her daughter, Chelsea, that “an al-Qaeda-like group” had killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and information officer Sean Smith. A day later, President Obama linked the Benghazi attack to the original 9/11 attacks and declared that “acts of terror” would not intimidate the United States. For a while after that, however, top U.S. officials stayed away from explicitly blaming terrorists for the attacks. Then, on Sept. 19, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the events in Benghazi were “a terrorist attack” and that U.S. intelligence was looking at possible connections between the perpetrators and al-Qaeda. Not long after, Olsen told the Benghazi committee, according to page 83 of his deposition, he heard from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Clapper said “that he’d heard from Secretary Clinton, you know, of some surprise about me saying that it was a terrorist attack,” according to Olsen. “He’d gotten a call or had heard from Secretary Clinton about surprise that one of his guys was talking about this being a terrorist attack.” Olsen, asked whether Clapper had spelled out why Clinton was surprised, replied: “No.”

A detour into questions about hiring practices at a private company The House of Representatives gave the Benghazi committee a broad mandate to look at the before, during and after of the attacks. But Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chaired the panel, seemed to go in a curious direction in the deposition of Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the Defense Department under Secretary Leon Panetta. Starting on page 121 of Bash’s deposition, Gowdy asked Bash a string of questions about his consulting firm, Beacon Global Strategies — who his partners were, what government positions they held before joining the company, and when they discussed working with him. Gowdy seemed particularly interested in former Bush national security council aide Michael Allen, whose last job in government was as the Republican staff director on the House Intelligence Committee. Gowdy asked when Bash and Allen first discussed going into business together. At one point, the committee’s Democratic staff director, Susanne Sachsman Grooms, complained that Gowdy has gone “afield” of the panel’s inquiry and said she did not understand the connection between Bash’s firm and the Benghazi investigation. “By the time my questioning is over you might understand it better,” Gowdy shot back.

He never spelled the connection out. But the Republican lawmaker went on to note that Allen’s discussions about joining the firm must have occurred while he was still serving on the House Intelligence Committee. Gowdy is known to be sharply at odds with former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, whose panel also looked into the Benghazi attacks. Gowdy thinks Rogers pulled punches and ultimately failed to conduct a properly thorough investigation, according to knowledgeable sources. And the Benghazi committee’s final report includes a scathing assessment of Rogers’ probe, criticizing the number of witnesses to whom it spoke, and calling his conclusion that there were no intelligence failures “overly broad.” Gowdy also asked when Panetta and former CIA deputy director Michael Morrell joined the firm in an advisory capacity. Morrell and Panetta, himself a former CIA director before he became defense secretary, were both in the administration when the Benghazi attacks occurred. Bash did not return an email seeking comment. Democratic committee aides referred Yahoo News to their Republican counterparts. Republican committee aides did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

The U.S. embassy in Tripoli was not secure either U.S. military assets did not make it to the Benghazi in time to save the four Americans who were killed there: Ambassador Chris Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. But the military dispatched a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, or FAST, to Tripoli to secure the U.S. embassy there. On Sept 13, 2012, a Marine captain leading FAST troops surveyed the embassy compound and found the security conditions there lacking, to say the least. “It was referred to as ‘the villas,’ because they were just that,” the officer, whose name is redacted on his deposition, told the committee. “They were a series of villas inside of a gated compound. I mean, each villa had a pool.” After giving the area a thorough look, the commander assessed “the security of that [compound] was extremely poor,” according to page 61 of his deposition. The closed-circuit security cameras did not have a full 360-degree view around the compound. It was so easy to get a clear line of sight into the facility from surrounding buildings and natural features that “an untrained marksman could easily have wreaked havoc on personnel within,” as could a person armed with a mortar. There were gaps in the perimeter wall “that people could just walk over” and a fence “that a child could climb over.” The unidentified Marine carried out extensive security improvements, and said that he found the State Department “very cooperative.”

Marines changed into civilian clothes, then uniforms, then back again before deploying The FAST officer testified that his team’s departure from Rota, Spain, to Tripoli was delayed because of a debate about whether they should wear uniforms or civilian clothes and whether they should carry weapons. “We were told multiple times to change what we were wearing, to change from cammies into civilian attire, civilian attire into cammies, cammies into civilian attire,” the officer said, according to page 41 of his deposition. The Marines had civilian clothes with them, and changed aboard their fully loaded aircraft on the tarmac in Spain. It’s not clear whether the debate over weapons and uniforms was the cause of the three-hour delay.

At another point, a lawyer for committee Democrats asked whether the disagreement over attire affected the Marines’ ability to complete their mission, and the officer replied, “Absolutely not.” The FAST team was bound for Tripoli, not Benghazi, and only left Spain after the attacks in Benghazi were over. And it’s trained to secure a facility, not to rescue hostages. Still the delay could have had a serious impact if the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had come under attack. Admiral Kurt Tidd, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that the request for the Marines to be in civilian clothes came from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Given the urgency of deploying the FAST team, Tidd said he wanted to make sure that the Marines had civilian clothes with them and that they would not have to go back to their barracks. “What I wanted to know is: Is it more important to get them there or to have the signature in civilian clothes?” he testified on page 25 of his deposition. “As it turned out, it didn’t matter, because they had the civilian clothes with them already.” Still, the debate appears to have delayed the deployment. The embassy communicated with the State Department in Washington, which spoke to the Pentagon, which contacted the regional AFRICOM that oversees U.S. military forces in the region. “You can imagine it’s about six phone calls to work — ‘what do you want?’ — and work your way back through.” Andrew Bahl and Susanna Heller in New York City provided additional reporting.

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