WASHINGTON — Partisan politics loomed over a House hearing Wednesday on the deadly September 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, as Republicans and Democrats clashed over the meaning of testimony from three witnesses who had little new to add to the story.
The hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee began with the chairman, Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), complaining that the Obama administration and Democrats on the committee have not supported his efforts to get to the truth.
The ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), promptly accused the Republican chairman of politicizing his inquiry and making baseless assertions about a potential military response that have been refuted by top generals.
“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 … unfounded accusations to smear public officials,” Cummings said. “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.”
Cummings challenged Issa’s recent statements that the military could have done more to respond to the attack on the U.S. mission in eastern Libya that killed four Americans.
He noted that top military officials, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have said there was no feasible military option that could have been deployed in time.
An independent review concluded that the U.S. response “was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.” It found “no evidence of any undue delays in decision-making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders.”
“Chairman Issa has accused the administration of intentionally withholding military assets which could have helped save lives on the night of the attacks, I say, for political reasons,” Cummings said.
“Of all the irresponsible allegations leveled over the past two weeks, this is the most troubling. And based on what our military commanders have told us, this allegation is simply untrue.”
Issa did not respond, but moved to opening statements of his witnesses, whom he called “whistle-blowers.”
The three State Department officials, one of whom had testified before, offered a few new pieces of information, but did not shed much light on the key allegations put forth by critics, some of whom have called Benghazi “worse than Watergate.”
The most explosive charge leveled by those who feel that way is that President Obama, his aides and his top generals either incompetently or intentionally prevented a potential military intervention that could have disrupted the attack.
One of the witnesses — Greg Hicks, who was deputy chief of mission in Libya — expressed a view that fighter aircraft flying low overhead could have thwarted a mortar attack that killed two CIA contractors hours after the initial assault was over. But Hicks acknowledged that he was not in a position to refute top generals who said the planes could not have gotten there in time.