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Kuster says Libya is not in Middle East, won't answer voter's Benghazi question

Senior Political Reporter

December 09. 2013 3:49PM

MANCHESTER -- The event was billed as an opportunity to "come hear NH Congresswoman Ann Kuster speak about her trip to Israel" and listen to her "share experiences of her summer trip to Israel and answer questions about Israel and the Middle East."

But when a question came up at the Nov. 25 event at the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire about the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Kuster refused to answer it, saying, "I'm certainly not here to talk about it. I'm here to talk about the Middle East."

"That is the Middle East," a woman in the audience says in a video made at the event by a Republican former state lawmaker and self-described Zionist.

A man's voice adds in the video, "Libya is, like, right in the middle of the Middle East."

"I think she has a lot of education to do as far as the Middle East goes," said former Rep. Greg Salts of Manchester, who made the video and said he is active in a group called "NH for Israel."

He said he shared the brief clip of Kuster, a Democrat, with a friend, and it was made public by GOP activists on Monday. Soon, the video went viral.

The National Republican Congressional Committee called it "pathetic." The conservative group Citizens for a Strong New Hampshire called it "indefensible" and evidence that Kuster has a "puddle-deep understanding" of all foreign policy issues. GOP congressional candidate Gary Lambert said, "We deserve better."

State Republican Party chair Jennifer Horn said it showed Kuster is "ill-informed and "refuses to answer basic questions from her constituents."

Kuster responded late Monday in a statement, "Like all Americans, I was horrified by the tragic attack on our Embassy in Benghazi that killed four patriotic Americans. Our focus must remain on finding those responsible, bringing them to justice, and taking every necessary step to prevent an attack like this from ever happening again."

Her office said that she was not as clear as she would have liked to have been in her response, but she believes the U.S. government needs to get to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi and bring those responsible to justice.

Kuster's office pointed out she has traveled to Israel and Africa, and at this event was speaking about her most recent trip to Israel at the request of the Jewish Federation.

Kuster's comments touched off a bit of a debate on whether Libya is officially in the Middle East at all.

The NRCC pointed out that the Eisenhower Doctrine of 1957, as described by then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, defined the Middle East as "the area lying between and including Libya on the west and Pakistan on the east, Syria and Iraq on the North and the Arabian peninsula to the south, plus the Sudan and Ethiopia."

A Democratic source then pointed out that in 1958, the State Department dropped Libya from its definition of the "Middle East."

Today, the State Department has no official definition for "Middle East," although it does use the term. The department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs includes Libya in its area of interest, however.

The State Department's web site says the Near Eastern bureau "deals with U.S. foreign policy and U.S. diplomatic relations with Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Regional policy issues that NEA handles include Iraq, Middle East peace, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and political and economic reform."

The bureau also includes Libya on its official web map.

When Kuster's office announced the early August visit, it said she and 35 other House members would be headed to Israel and the West Bank, and the trip would include meetings with Israeli and Palestinian government officials.

The trip was organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization.

Although Kuster's announcement made it clear the focus of the trip was on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, with no mention of Libya or northern Africa, that's no excuse for Kuster refusing to answer a question on Benghazi, said Ian Prior, spokesman for the NRCC.

"Annie Kuster is a United States congresswoman," he said. "Four Americans died as a result of the attacks in Benghazi. For her not to even address a voter's questions about what the United States government is doing to get answers on those terrorist attacks makes her unqualified for the office which she holds."

Salts said there were about 35 people in the audience at the federation office on Beech Street. He said Kuster began with a slide show of her trip.

He said she took written questions and that he was "surprised" when she did not answer the written Benghazi question, which asked her position on a resolution that would "authorize a select committee to get to the bottom of Benghazi."

"I don't have -- it's a Senate -- I don't think we have anything about that in the House," Kuster said, according to the video.

In fact, however, HR 36, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolfe, R-West Virginia, established "a select committee to investigate and report on the attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya."

"And the rest of this (question)," Kuster continued, "is also about Benghazi, so," and her voice trailed off.

"Can you address Benghazi?" a woman then asked. "What are you going to do about Benghazi? Why isn't Benghazi at the top of your issue?"

Kuster then said she was "not here to talk about it," and was "here to talk about the Middle East."

After audience members told her that Libya is in the Middle East, Kuster looked to the moderator, who asked for a "civil discussion that sticks to the format."

The video ended there. Officials of the federation and the Jewish Community Relations Council, which cosponsored the event, did not respond to the Union Leader's calls.

Salts said, "We have a dead American ambassador and it doesn't seem to be a priority for her and she is having an issue finding geographically exactly where Libya is and whether or not it and the people of Libya are part of the Middle East. They are part of the Middle East going all the way back to the Eisenhower administration."

Salts described himself as a Zionist and said he is no longer "very active" in the Republican Party. He said he now tries to keep a "low electronic footprint" and has "drawn back from politics." He was formerly active in an effort to implement a tax cap in Manchester.

In 2002, Salts, as House member, sparked controversy by videotaping then-state Rep. and current state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, a Democrat, sleeping on the House floor, which led to a rule barring members from using video cameras or flash photography during House sessions. Clark had been diagnosed with sleep apnea.

Salts said Monday he is "not a Republican operative" and his attendance "had nothing to do with the Republican Party. I was not there trying to sandbag a Democrat."

He said the subject "happened to be in my area of interest. "

But, he said, "When she was asked that question, I happened to capture it" on video. "I was waiting for the Q-and-A to see where her heart really was."

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