CNN "Erin Burnett Outfront" Transcript: Benghazi and Foreign Affairs

Interview

By:  Ron Johnson
Date: Jan. 23, 2013
Location: Unknown

BURNETT: An OUTFRONT exclusive, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Johnson, obviously, you hear that moment. That was your moment earlier today.

As the secretary said in such impassioned way, what difference does it make at this point what happened then when we need to prevent it from happening again? Does she have a point?

JOHNSON: Well, Erin, first of all, the reason it makes a difference is I think the American people first of all have the right to know what happened. American people also have the right to be told the truth. They should have an expectation, this administration, this president, will be honest with them.

And so it makes a big deal of difference. I tell you what I was surprised by Secretary Clinton's reaction to that because it was a pretty simple question. All I was wondering was why didn't you just call the evacuees and find out, was there a protest or wasn't there protest?

It could then easily -- you know that information could be easily obtained within a day or two. We wouldn't have had to go through these weeks of misinformation.

BURNETT: Look, clearly there were issues that happened at that the time, but I'm curious about this. And the reason I want to ask sit two weeks ago, the only person in custody for questioning was released and greeted by fellow rebels.

Now, the United States, of course as you know, has intercepts of communications from the attackers on the night of the actual attack on September 11th so there appears to be some sort of trail that's obviously been very hard to follow.

The former FBI assistant director, Tom Fuentes, told our program that no one may ever be held accountable for this attack because of the ongoing chaos. So Secretary Clinton, when she was asked today whether this person was involved in the Algeria attack, the one who's been free, she said we don't have any information about that.

I'm curious your point of view. I mean, isn't the bigger issue now still not what happened last fall, but holy cow, we might never have anybody go to jail for this?

JOHNSON: Nor held accountable for the State Department. That's really the point I was trying to make. I am incredulous. These are security professionals that did a fabulous job on the ground in Benghazi, but the fact we didn't have a standard operating procedure to immediately brief these people so we could get the information.

That's what we were told in a hearing earlier that there was -- there was no debriefing. No after action report and that's basically what Secretary Clinton again confirmed today. It would have been so important to talk to those individuals immediately so their memory is fresh.

I mean, every day that goes by, that information degrades, so I was stunned by the secretary's lack of concern for the fact the Tunisians released that one suspect. They said they were going to take these guys and they are going to punish the people, but they don't appear to really be pursuing that very aggressively.

BURNETT: Do you accept then that no one may ever go to jail for this? I mean, it sounds like from what you're saying and I mean, I'm not trying to take you out of context. I know you're not going this far, but you're saying it's more important to say what happened at that moment than to put people in jail and hold people accountable now?

JOHNSON: No, listen. I think we need to hold people accountable. We need to find the perpetrators and punish them. We also have to honestly take a look at the mistakes were made. By the way, this is the failure of leadership before, during and after the attack.

Primarily before and after and it is important to analyze what went wrong so we can protect Americans, brave Americans who are putting their lives on the line, our diplomatic corps. We have to learn from those mistakes, but yet I was asking just a very simple question.

Why wasn't a phone call made? Why didn't we find out was there a pro test or wasn't there so we didn't mislead the American people for weeks. We could have put an end to that controversy so we could have moved on to actually analyze what went wrong and correct that quickly so that other Americans won't at risk.

BURNETT: Secretary Clinton was very emotional during her testimony. She was emotional in that moment with you where she was very impassioned in talking about what she believes is important. She was also emotional on a personal level. I wanted to play that and get reaction. Here she is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLINTON: For me, this is not just a matter of policy. It's personal. I stood next to President Obama as the Marines carried those flag draped caskets off the plane at Andrews. I put my arms around the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters. And the wives left alone to raise their children.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Now, obviously she was prepared to talk about that, but still, that was emotion. She was choking up. Do you believe that that was real?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Listen, we all mourn for the loss of those four brave Americans. Listen, when you're in an organization and something happens below, you're going to take that personally. I understand that. That was part of my point.

You know, I've managed people, if something like that were to happen on my watch, you couldn't have gotten me not to call those individuals. How are things going? Are you OK? Can we do anything for your families?

The next question I would have asked, what happened? That was kind of my point. Why weren't those phone calls made? Why didn't we know immediately basic pieces of information?

BURNETT: So, you accept now, just curious, that they didn't know what happened as opposed to saying that perhaps they covered up or misled the American people about for example whether it was opportunistic or pre-planned whether al Qaeda linked groups were involved or not?

JOHNSON: Erin, I have no idea. I find it hard to believe. If they didn't know it was willful ignorance or just gross incompetence, the point I was trying to make, this was so easy to ascertain whether they were protests or not. From my standpoint, this administration just clung to that narrative because if bin laden was dead, al Qaeda was on the run, all was well.

Their policy of withdrawing from the world of leading from behind is working and in fact, it wasn't working. It helped get this president-elected by misleading the American public, but now, the chickens are coming home to roost and we're certain to find the truth and we're going to continue to pursue this until we find the truth.

BURNETT: All right, Senator, I want to ask you one other question based on what your Republican colleague, Rand Paul, said today. It was a pretty strong statement. Here he is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: Had I been president at the time and I found that you did not read the cables from Benghazi, you did read the cables from Ambassador Stevens, I would have relieved you of your post. I think it's inexcusable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BURNETT: Do you agree with Senator Paul?

JOHNSON: No, I'd say the issue is moot right now because Hillary Clinton is moving on and Senator Kerry's stepping up to the plate probably, so that's Rand Paul's opinion.

BURNETT: Do you think she's make a good president if she's elected? And I have to ask that because 67 percent of this country viewed her favorably. Her unfavorable is 28 percent. The president, anybody in this country would die for that.

JOHNSON: Listen, the people on the other side of the aisle aren't taking the fact this nation's going bankrupt seriously. So she's a member of that party, we haven't passed a budget in the United States Senate for almost four years. So no, I don't think she's made a very good president.

BURNETT: And finally, sir, the president, according to a new book, the reporter, Michael Hastings just wrote it. President Obama called the widow of one of the people who died in Benghazi, Sean Smith, the day after the attack and said, promise to, quote/unquote, "avenge the deaths of Americans." Do you believe him?

JOHNSON: Well, I'll take him as his word. But you know, that was another curious question I would like to ask Secretary Clinton is why when those bodies were coming home, she went up to Tyrone Woods' father and said we were going to bring this guy who created this video to justice. I mean, what happens what was that about? They're just trying to continue to perpetuate this false narrative. This wasn't caused by the fact that al Qaeda was on the rise. This was caused by something that had to do -- this administration, they're misleading the American public.

BURNETT: All right, Senator Johnson, thank you for taking the time tonight. Sir, we appreciate it.