The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was holding a hearing Wednesday on what happened leading up to and in the aftermath of the terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died.
House Republicans released an interview with a diplomat Gregory Hicks, at the time deputy chief of the mission, who said when he asked for military help several miles away from the embassy, he was overruled. The Pentagon said the commandos had to stay and defend the embassy in Tripoli and were not prepared for a combat assault mission.
The Sept. 11, 2012, assault killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Nearly eight months later, Republicans insist that the Obama administration is guilty of a cover-up of the events despite a scathing independent report that faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the diplomatic mission.
Hicks' comments and the hearing are likely to revive the politically charged debate in which GOP lawmakers and outside groups have faulted former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
After the first word of the attack in Benghazi, a seven-member security team, including two military personnel, flew from Tripoli to Benghazi. Upon their arrival, they learned that Stevens was missing and the situation had calmed after the first attack, according to a Pentagon timeline released last year.
Meanwhile, a second team was preparing to leave on a Libyan C-130 cargo plane from Tripoli to Benghazi when Hicks said he learned from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens was dead. The Libyan military agreed to transport additional personnel as reinforcements to Benghazi on its cargo plane, but Hicks complained the special forces were told not to make the trip.
"They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it," Hicks told GOP committee staff. Pressed on why, he said, "I guess they just didn't have the right authority from the right level."
Defense officials said Monday that four members of Army special forces were in Tripoli on Sept. 11, 2012, as part of a regular training mission. The officials said they were trying to track down information about the Libyan cargo plane and could not verify whether or not the special forces were told not to get on the plane.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said it is normal procedure for U.S. service members to get permission to fly on another country's military aircraft.
That flight left Tripoli after the second attack on the CIA annex that killed two security officers — Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Hicks also contended that if the U.S. military has scrambled jet fighters after the first attack that it would have prevented the mortar attack on the CIA annex around 5:15 a.m.
"I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them," Hicks said, according to the excerpts.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military leaders have said there wasn't enough time for the military to respond as the events in Benghazi occurred too quickly — a point reinforced by the Pentagon on Monday.
"The fact of the matter remains, as we have repeatedly indicated, that U.S. military forces could not have arrived in time to mount a rescue of those Americans who were killed and injured that night," said Pentagon press secretary George Little.
At the State Department on Monday, spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the committee's work appeared to have political aims rather than ensuring the protection of U.S. diplomats serving overseas.
"It certainly seems so, so far," he replied when asked if the department believed the investigation to be driven by partisan politics. "I mean, this is not sort of a collaborative process where the committee is working directly with us and trying to establish facts that would help as we look to keep our people safe overseas in a very complex environment."
Democrats on the committee said Monday they have been excluded from the investigation.
Ventrell said the department had not seen the full transcript of Hicks' statements to committee investigators and could not comment until it had or until after his testimony on Wednesday. At the same time, he insisted that the department was not blocking any employee from appearing before Congress or intimidating them into silence.
"We understand this testimony's going to go forward, and we want people to go and tell the truth," he told reporters. "But in terms of the full context of these remarks or these sort of accusations, we don't have the full context, so it's hard for us to respond."
Ventrell also pushed back against allegations from congressional Republicans and their surrogates that the independent panel appointed by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had not conducted a comprehensive or credible investigation into the Benghazi incident and were somehow involved in a cover-up.
He noted that the independent panel, called the Accountability Review Board, had produced a harshly critical report, blaming systematic leadership and management failures at senior levels of the State Department for the inadequate security at the Benghazi compound.
Meanwhile the co-chairs of the review board, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former senior diplomat Thomas Pickering, released a statement rejecting claims that their panel had been denied access to key witnesses or had conducted anything less than a thorough and impartial probe.
"From the beginning of the ARB process, we had unfettered access to everyone and everything including all the documentation we needed," the two men said. "Our marching orders were to get to the bottom of what happened, and that's what we did."
Meanwhile, the former head of the State Department's counterterrorism bureau, Daniel Benjamin, denied allegations that his office had been cut out of the loop in the discussions and decision-making processes in the aftermath of the attack.
"This charge is simply untrue," he said. "At no time did I feel that the bureau was in any way being left out of deliberations that it should have been part of."