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Politics McCain ‘surprised’ by Petraeus testimony on Benghazi

Senator John McCain is calling for a select committee to investigate the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

Sándor Fizli

Senator John McCain met with former CIA director David Petraeus in a closed-door briefing on Benghazi – Mr. Petraeus's first official appearance since his resignation last week after admitting to an extramarital affair – just before coming to Nova Scotia for the Halifax International Security Forum.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail Friday, Mr. McCain called Mr. Petraeus's address "forthright" but said he was "surprised" to hear that President Barack Obama did not meet with him in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attack in Libya.

"I must say that I was very surprised to hear that the President of the United States never met with [Mr. Petraeus] from the time of the attack until he resigned," the veteran U.S. senator said.

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The Benghazi attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, took place on Sept. 11; Mr. Petraeus resigned his post just a week ago – almost two months later. The Obama administration's handling of Benghazi – and its mixed message about whether it knew it was a terrorist attack at the time – became a huge election issue.

"I can't imagine a president of the United States not meeting with the director of the CIA, particularly in light of the fact that three of the employees that were killed were CIA employees," said Mr. McCain, who ran unsuccessfully as the Republican presidential candidate against Mr. Obama in 2008.

Mr. McCain, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is one of more than 300 participants at this weekend's high-level security conference in Halifax. It has been referred to as the Davos of international security – a reference to the influential economic forum that takes place in Switzerland.

Mr. Petraeus was also supposed to attend the forum but he cancelled his appearance this week.

The forum, which was started four years ago as the brainchild of Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay, attracts ranking politicians, military officers, government officials, journalists and academics from about 50 countries.

This year it is taking place against the backdrop of an escalation of violence in the Middle East and the shock waves following the Petraeus scandal.

Mr. McCain called Mr. Petraeus's resignation a "tragedy" but congratulated him on his testimony.

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"I think it very well explained his role and the information they received and how they processed it," he told The Globe.

However, he repeated his calls for a select committee in Congress to look into the Benghazi attack. "We did after Watergate. We did after Iran-Contra. And we need a select committee that the American people can trust their judgment," he argued.

"Right now the American people are very skeptical … about all the information, about which is right, which is wrong, which is true, which is false. We have had another story every day that has been controversial."

The senator has asked for a committee of four Republicans and four Democrats to investigate. He has been very vocal in his outrage about the way in which the Obama administration handled the communications around the attack.

Concerning to the senator, too, is the situation in Israel. Mr. McCain says he is "very worried, very worried."

"I hope the Western diplomacy will be in full gear," he said. "The difference here is, of course, the difference in Egypt. … How Egypt reacts to all this is going to be very important."

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The outspoken senator will be participating Saturday in a panel with Mr. MacKay called "The Good Guys? The Special Burden of Democratic Nations."

Peter Van Praagh, president of the forum, says the idea is for leaders from all sectors to talk frankly with each other. He says the gathering has been purposely limited to several hundred people to keep it intimate and manageable.

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