Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said the Obama administration has failed to cooperate with his probe of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Issa, of California, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, also said Wednesday at a hearing of the panel that leaders of the State Department’s review board refused to testify before the panel.
Wednesday’s hearing revives efforts by Republicans to show the Obama administration didn’t provide enough security to U.S. diplomats in Libya before the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, failed to respond militarily during the assault, and engaged in what Issa has called a “cover-up” afterward to hide the role of terrorists linked to al-Qaida.
Obama administration officials have rejected all of those characterizations, and Democrats have said Republicans are trying to exploit a tragedy for political gain.
The oversight committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said Wednesday the Republicans are trying to “smear” officials in a “full-scale media campaign,” including with false statements that the military was told to stand down rather than sending aid during the attacks.
Cummings said the leaders of the Accountability Review Board, named by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to investigate the attacks and the department’s role — Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, and retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — should be asked to appear in the future.
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Witnesses testifying Wednesday will include Gregory Hicks, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Libya at the time of the attack.
In an excerpt released by the committee this week, he told House investigators he tried in vain to get fighter jets to fly over Benghazi to scare off the attackers. He also said four U.S. special forces troops were ordered not to board a Libyan military transport plane that flew to Benghazi from Tripoli in the hours after the attack.
“A fast-mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night,” Hicks said.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified last year troops were mobilized to prepare a response, though the military assets weren’t close enough to reach Benghazi in time. He said the Pentagon “spared no expense to save American lives.”
Hicks also said he knew from the outset there was no protest at the Benghazi mission that night, as the administration initially said. Republicans have questioned “talking points,” later corrected by the administration, that said the embassy attack grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Islamic video.
“I never reported a demonstration,” Hicks said. “I reported an attack on the consulate.”
Hicks described a 2 a.m. call from Clinton in the middle of the deadly assault amid confusion about the fate of Stevens and fears about the safety of additional American personnel.
"She asked me what was going on and I briefed her on developments. Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens," Hicks told the House oversight committee. "It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi and I told her we would need to evacuate and she said that was the right thing to do."
Haltingly, Hicks recounted "the saddest phone call in my life" — getting word from a Libyan official that Stevens had been killed.
Hicks said that shortly after he was told Stevens was dead, unidentified Libyans called Hicks' staff from the phone that had been with Stevens that night. These Libyans said Stevens was with them, and U.S. officials should come fetch the ambassador, Hicks said. Hicks said he believed Stevens' body was at a hospital at that point, but he could not be certain.
"We suspected we were being baited into a trap," Hicks told the committee, so the U.S. personnel did not follow the callers' instructions. "We did not want to send our people into an ambush," Hicks testified.
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