Republicans Vow To Keep Pressure On Benghazi Probe

A House committee held a hearing Wednesday into last year's attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The event has been a key political weapon for Republicans, first against President Obama's re-election campaign, and now against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

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The events of September 11th, 2012 remain of intense interest to Congress. On that day last year, a U.S. ambassador was among four Americans killed in an attack on the consult in Benghazi, Libya. A State Department investigation has identified lapses in security before that attack, but House Republicans say they want to know more about the details of that battle. They have sought to trace responsibility to President Obama, or to his secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton.

Yesterday, a House committee took emotional testimony from a top U.S. official who was on the ground at the time.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: For many Republicans, Benghazi is a scandal that makes Watergate and Iran -Contra look puny. And many of them hope yesterday's hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would get a lot more people - including Democrats - furious about the Obama administration's handling of Benghazi.

Chairman Darrell Issa gaveled in the nearly six-hour hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The witnesses before us are actual experts on what really happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks.

WELNA: Issa called the three State Department employees at the witness table whistleblowers. So did the panel's top Democrat, Maryland's Elijah Cummings.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: I am glad the whistleblowers are here.

WELNA: But Cummings was not so happy about a media buildup to the hearing with what he called unfounded accusations aimed at smearing public officials.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

CUMMINGS: 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.

WELNA: Just one of the witnesses was actually in Libya the day of the Benghazi attacks. Gregory Hicks was the number-two diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

GREGORY HICKS: Till the aftermath of Benghazi, I loved every day of my job.

WELNA: Hicks told of getting a phone call from Ambassador Chris Stevens, who had traveled to the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

HICKS: And he said Greg, we're under attack.

WELNA: The line then went dead. Several hours later, Hicks got a call from Libya's prime minister.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

HICKS: I think it's the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life, and he told me that Ambassador Stevens had passed away.

WELNA: Hicks said he tried to no avail to scramble U.S. fighter jets to Benghazi. He also tried sending four special operations troops in Tripoli to Benghazi on a Libyan cargo plane, but the regional commander told them to stay put.

Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz wanted to know more.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: How did the personnel react to being told to stand down?

HICKS: They were furious. I will quote Lieutenant Colonel Gibson. He said: "This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military."

WELNA: And Chairman Issa wanted to know what then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Hicks when she called him on the night of the attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

ISSA: Did she ask about anything at all that would have allowed to answer the question of how Benghazi came to be attacked, as far as you know?

HICKS: I don't recall that being part of the conversation.

ISSA: So she wasn't interested in the cause of the attack?

WELNA: Republicans on the panel also replayed angry testimony from Clinton, who's now seen as a possible presidential contender. She appeared before a Senate hearing on Benghazi in January.

(SOUNDBITE OF SENATE COMMITTEE HEARING)

HILLARY CLINTON: The fact is, we had four dead Americans.

SENATOR RON JOHNSON: I understand...

CLINTON: Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they'd go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?

WELNA: South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy had an answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: Anyone wants to ask what difference does this make? It always matters, whether or not you can trust your government.

WELNA: For New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney, there was no doubt what this hearing was really about.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE CAROLYN MALONEY: Attack the military. Attack the president. Attack the State Department. Attack the former senator from the great state of New York, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

WELNA: And Wisconsin Democrat Mark Pocan called the hearing a bust.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

REPRESENTATIVE MARK POCAN: I don't think there's a smoking gun today. I don't even think there's a lukewarm slingshot.

WELNA: Still, Chairman Issa left clear there's more to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

ISSA: This hearing is closed, but this investigation is not over.

WELNA: David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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