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And I'm Robert Siegel. The Obama administration has spent weeks defending itself after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya. Today, the State Department made its defense on Capitol Hill. In a hearing, congressional Republicans hammered the administration; saying it downplayed the terrorist threat in Libya, and changed its story about how the four men, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed.
Initially, U.S. officials said armed men took advantage of a protest and stormed the U.S. consulate. But now, State Department officials say the attack started suddenly on a mostly quiet day. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says the State Department is finally coming clean about what happened that night in Benghazi, Libya. California Republican Darrell Issa opened his hearing saying it was clear there was never a protest, but that this was a terrorist attack.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Contrary to early assertions by the administration, let's understand, there was no protest; and cameras reveal that. And the State Department, the FBI and others have that video.
KELEMEN: On the eve of the hearing, one State Department official said that security agents never believed it was a protest gone awry. Officials say when guards first heard gunfire outside the compound, on the night of Sept. 11, they looked at security cameras and saw heavily armed men coming in. The attackers torched the building where the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and another diplomat, Sean Smith, died of smoke inhalation. Two other Americans were killed later that night, in a mortar attack on a nearby annex.
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz says the Benghazi compound had been targeted twice before; and he accuses the Obama administration of keeping silent about that.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: We pretended it didn't happen. Well, guess what? The third time the terrorists came to attack us, they were success - even more successful, killing four Americans. I believe - personally - with more assets, more resources, just meeting the minimum standards, we could have, and should have, saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other people that were there.
KELEMEN: Chaffetz says the U.S. failed to beef up security because it wanted to make things look normal. Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who commanded a security team in Libya, told the committee that security was constant struggle.
LT. COL. ANDREW WOOD: Targeted attacks against Westerners were on the increase. In June, the ambassador received a threat on Facebook, with a public announcement that he liked to run around the embassy compound in Tripoli.
KELEMEN: The Utah National Guardsman says he used to go on runs with the ambassador, and thinks that the security team should have been extended beyond August. Another witness, Eric Nordstrom, who was a State Department regional security officer in Libya, says having an extra half-dozen guards would not have helped with the kind of assault that happened in Benghazi.
ERIC NORDSTROM: I had not seen an attack of such ferocity and intensity previously, in Libya; nor in my time with the diplomatic security service.
KELEMEN: But Nordstrom had been urging the State Department to keep extra security guards in Libya, before he left over the summer. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb told Chairman Issa that Nordstrom had recommended, but not formally requested, more resources. And she says she wouldn't have approved it, anyway.
CHARLENE LAMB: Sir, we had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11, for what had been agreed upon.
ISSA: OK, my time has expired. To start off by saying you had the correct number; and our ambassador and three other individuals are dead - and people are in the hospital, recovering - because it only took moments to breach that facility; somehow doesn't seem to ring true to the American people.
KELEMEN: Democrats accuse Issa of playing politics with this investigation. The committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, called for a bipartisan investigation and also suggested that Congress restore hundreds of millions of dollars cut by House Republicans from the State Department's security budget.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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