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U.S. Response To Benghazi Attack Questioned At Contentious Hearing

A burned car is seen in front of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after it was attacked and set on fire by gunmen on September 11, 2012.
WASHINGTON -- U.S. State Department officials have expressed concern over the Obama administration's response to last year's terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, at a congressional hearing punctuated by political accusations.

The three officials, described as "whistle-blowers" by Republicans, included the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Gregory Hicks.

The group was testifying on May 8 before the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in the latest episode of a monthslong push by the party to expose what they call an administration "cover-up" of the attack.

Republicans have particularly targeted Hillary Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state at the time of the attack and a possible Democratic candidate for president in 2016. Democrats say the Republicans are politicizing a tragedy.

Gregory Hicks testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Gregory Hicks testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Hicks was visibly emotional as he offered a harrowing minute-by-minute account of the September 11, 2012, siege that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

"I received a call from the prime minister of Libya. I think it was the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life. He told me Ambassador Stevens had passed away," Hicks said.

He would go on to express frustration at the military's decision to turn down a request for Tripoli-based special operations soldiers to travel to Benghazi in the midst of the attack.

Top U.S. military and intelligence officials say American forces could not have reached Benghazi in time to save any of the lives lost.

Hicks also said that he and his colleagues on the ground immediately knew that the September 11 attack was an act of terrorism and relayed that information to Washington.

He said he was "stunned" and "embarrassed" when Washington's UN Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters days later that the attack appeared to be associated with spontaneous demonstrations against an anti-Islam video.

The Pentagon has said that those now-discredited talking points were based on the information they had at the time.

Eric Nordstrom, the State Department's former regional security officer in Libya, and Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, testified alongside Hicks.

In his written testimony, Nordstrom said key voices were left out of a report on the Benghazi attack released in December by an independent review panel.

As is, the report paints a scathing picture of mismanagement at various levels of the State Department and "grossly" inadequate security at the Benghazi mission -- issues that the department says it has made progress in correcting.

U.S. Representative Darrell Issa (Republican-California)
U.S. Representative Darrell Issa (Republican-California)
The testimonies, which provided no major revelations, were at times overshadowed by political accusations traded by lawmakers on the committee.

In opening the hearing, Chairman Darrell Issa (Republican-California) accused the Obama administration of failing to cooperate with Republican requests for information.

He had told the U.S. television network CBS two days earlier that someone from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's circle, if not Clinton herself, was involved in a "cover-up" of the administration's mistakes in responding to the Benghazi attack.

Testifying on the attacks before Congress in January, Clinton said she took "responsibility" for her department's actions.

The committee's top democrat, Elijah Cummings (Maryland), fired back at Issa.

"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 manner but rather to launch unfounded accusations and to smear public officials," he said.

Lawmakers have called for further hearings on the topic.

Kevin Cirilli is a reporter for "Politico" who has followed congressional actions on the Benghazi attack. He told RFE/RL that Clinton's legacy isn't likely to be tarnished by the inquiries, as long as Democrats maintain their stance.

"Right now, this is a partisan fight. In some scandals, we see everyone kind of desert the party leadership and desert the person at the center of the scandal. That has not happened at this point," he said.

"If [Democrats] were to do that, it would spell a lot of trouble for the Obama administration and, as a result, perhaps Hillary Clinton. But if that doesn't happen, I don't think this will get beyond a partisan battle in Washington."