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House Hearing Is Latest Chapter in Political Dispute Over Benghazi Attack

May 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
At a House hearing, clear battle lines were drawn and arguments were renewed over the Benghazi consulate attack and the Obama administration's initial explanation of events last September. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman covers the political wranglings and testimony by three State Department officials.

JEFFREY BROWN: The battle over the Benghazi Consulate attack was renewed today in Congress. At a lengthy hearing, a House committee heard new testimony about what happened during the deadly assault and after.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: From the opening gavel, the political battle lines were clear. Republicans still accuse the Obama administration of deception about the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi eight months ago that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

California Republican Darrell Issa chaired today’s hearing.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-Calif.: I want those watching this proceeding to know that we have made extensive efforts to engage the administration and to see and hear their facts. The administration, however, has not been cooperative, and, unfortunately, our minority has mostly sat silent as we have made these requests.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Maryland’s Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Government Oversight Committee, led his party’s response that Republicans merely are pursuing political gain.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-Md.: What we have seen over the past two weeks is a full-scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible and bipartisan way, but rather a launch unfounded — of unfounded accusations and to smear public officials.

Let me be clear. I am not questioning the motives of our witnesses. I am questioning the motives of those who want to use their statements for political purposes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Committee Republicans invited three State Department officials whose statements about the U.S. response to the attack have resurrected the issue.

Veteran Foreign Service Officer Gregory Hicks was deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the attack.

GREGORY HICKS, Former Deputy Chief of Mission, Libya: That none of us should ever again experience what we went through in Tripoli and Benghazi on 9/11/2012.

KWAME HOLMAN: Hicks was based in Tripoli, more than 600 miles from Benghazi. He spoke with then-Secretary of State Clinton in the early hours of the assault.

GREGORY HICKS: She asked me what was going on, and I briefed her on developments. Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens.

It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi. And I told her we would need to evacuate, that was the right — she said that was the right thing to do.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Hicks said his staff also was wary of walking into a trap. And he described futile attempts to call in help from the U.S. African Command and a U.S. air base in Italy.

GREGORY HICKS: I asked the Defense Attaché who had been talking with Africom and with the joint staff, is anything coming? Will they be sending us any help? Is there something out there? And he answered that the nearest help was in Aviano, the nearest where there were fighter planes. And he said that it would take two to three hours for them to get on site, but that there also were no tankers available for them to refuel.

KWAME HOLMAN: In an e-mail on Monday, Pentagon spokesman George Little defended the U.S. military’s response. He said: “Department officials started taking action immediately after learning that an attack was under way. But our forces were unable to reach it in time to intervene to stop the attacks.”

Today’s hearing is the latest chapter in a political dispute arising from the attack on the Benghazi facility last fall. A total of five House committees, led by Republicans, have conducted investigations. Last month, they issued a report together charging that the Obama administration had — quote — “willfully perpetuated a deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative.”

In the days just after the attack, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and others in the administration suggested it could have been triggered by Muslim protests, like an earlier incident at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt.

U.N. AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE, United States: What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo.

KWAME HOLMAN: The administration has said Rice was simply following unclassified talking points based on the best information available at the time.

Republicans insist officials knew almost immediately that it was a terrorist attack, but didn’t want to say so in the midst of President Obama’s reelection campaign. Secretary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, confronted the claims at a January hearing just before stepping down.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Former U.S. Secretary of State: The fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because some guys out for a walk one night who decided they would go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make?

KWAME HOLMAN: But at the hearing today, Eric Nordstrom, the former regional security officer in Libya, said it does make a difference.

ERIC NORDSTROM, Former Regional Security Officer, Libya: It matters to me personally, and it matters to my colleagues — to my colleagues at Department of State. It matters to the American public for whom we serve. And, most importantly, excuse me, it matters to the friends and family of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on Sept. 11th, 2012.

KWAME HOLMAN: A review board led by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Former Navy Admiral Mike Mullen found that serious management and leadership failures at the State Department led to grossly inadequate security in Benghazi.

Republicans argued today the review did not get at all the facts and that a cover-up continues. In turn, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted the administration has cooperated fully, and he lashed out at the critics.

JAY CARNEY, White House Spokesman: Attempts to politicize this, which have guided Republicans unfortunately since the hours after the attack, and the Republican nominee for president issued a highly misguided press release about it in an attempt to turn it into a political issue, have been unfortunate and haven’t been focused on the problem itself.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s hearing may have resolved little, but there’s more to come. Republicans say the investigations will go on, and they say former Secretary Clinton may be subpoenaed to testify again.