Democrats said Friday this week's dramatic House oversight committee hearing on the Benghazi terror attacks had created "potential misperceptions" among the public, charging Republicans had "attempted to distort and manipulate" the record at the hearing.
The charges, immediately rejected by House Republicans, came as State Department officials defended their role in changing unclassified "talking points" in the days after the attack, removing references to pre-attack warnings about the security situation in Benghazi and to the possible participation of al Qaeda-linked militia members in the assault.
In a letter to House Oversight and Government Reform GOP Committee Chairman Darrell Issa Friday, Maryland Rep. Elijah M. Cummings, the panel's ranking Democrat, asked the chairman to include in the hearing record the whole context of remarks from a pre-hearing interview with hearing witness Gregory N. Hicks.
"Unfortunately, some have attempted to distort and manipulate what Mr. Hicks actually told the committee," said Mr. Cummings.
Mr. Hicks, who became the senior diplomat in Libya when U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens perished in the attacks, described in the interview with committee staff his conversations with State Department officials in Washington before and after the visit to Tripoli of Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, one of the Republican leaders of the investigation into the attacks.
Republicans at the hearing sought to portray the calls as an effort to muzzle officials on the ground. Democrats say the full context of Mr. Hicks' remarks in the interview show that the only restriction was that none of the staff were to have "private interviews" with Mr. Chaffetz.
"As committee members are aware," Mr. Cummings wrote, "it is common practice for federal agencies to have attorneys present for committee interviews and briefings."
He asked the chairman to include the complete context of remarks read into the record Wednesday, "In order to ensure that the hearing record is complete and to address some potential misperceptions by committee members and the public."
Mr. Issa's spokesman, Frederick R. Hill, dismissed the letter.
Democrats had the interview transcripts "well before" Wednesday's hearing, he said, and Mr. Cummings "could easily have raised any issue he had" during the hearing.
"The committee is willing to include these additions in the record, but Mr. Cummings' after-the-fact letter is nothing more than an admission of sloppy preparation work by his staff," Mr. Hill told The Washington Times.
Across town, the State Department on Friday defended its role in shaping the talking points during the days after the attacks, reiterating a defense that the administration has made for nearly eight months now that the talking points were, in fact, based on the "best intelligence assessments at the time."
"These were talking points that were developed during the interagency process, led by the CIA, about how to communicate the best and most current information the administration had about the Benghazi attacks," said the department's deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell. "Despite some of the sort of cherry-picking or looking at one email or another, what was clear throughout was that extremists were involved in the attack, and we were clear about that."
"The question wasn't whether there were violent extremists, obviously there were. But rather the question was who exactly they were and whether it was also a demonstration at that time," said Mr. Ventrell. "It appears there wasn't, despite the best intelligence assessments at the time."
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