Hanging over Wednesday's hearing on administration failings during the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, was former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's question: "What difference at this point does it make?"
For House Republicans, and for the three State Department witnesses they called to testify, the answer is that the events leading up to and on the night of the terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic post made a huge difference.
"The committee's labors to uncover what happened prior, during and after the attack matter. It matters to me personally, and it matters to my colleagues," said Eric Nordstrom, former State Department regional security officer in Libya, choking up as he listed the names of the four Americans who died in the attack.
"It matters to the friends and family of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on September 11th, 2012."
Democrats praised the three witnesses for coming forward and promised to protect them as whistleblowers.
But they questioned the entire direction of the hearings, saying it appeared to be a political show rather than an honest inquiry.
"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," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.
"Today's hearing is not the full story. I hope we will eventually hear our military, our intelligence and our diplomatic officials," he said. "Then I hope we can turn to the real work as the chairman has said of this committee, which is ensuring that the department implements the recommendations to improve the security of our diplomatic officials serving overseas, those who are so often unseen, unnoticed, unappreciated and unapplauded."
Wednesday's hearing before the House oversight committee was a high-drama spectacle highlighted by an intimate, minute-by-minute walkthrough the horror that unfolded in Benghazi.
The soft-voiced, emotional testimony by Gregory N. Hicks, the State Department's deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the attacks, stood out in a city known more for overblown political oratory.
In a Capitol Hill room crammed with lawmakers, reporters, cameras and curious onlookers, Mr. Hicks offered the most personalized eyewitness account to date of what happened in Benghazi, beginning with the moment when U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens alerted him by cellphone: "Greg! We're under attack!"
Mr. Cummings also appeared on the verge of choking up after Mr. Hicks' testimony. So did Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican.
Although the hearing was framed as a showcasing of Benghazi whistleblowers, there were few revelations not already disclosed by officials during previous hearings, or by the Obama administration-appointed report delivered to Congress earlier this year.
That did little to detract from the drama or the sobriety of the three State Department employees' testimony, such as when Mr. Hicks explained how the bodies of slain former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were pulled from a rooftop after mortar rounds rained in on a CIA annex in the Libyan city.
Throughout, Mr. Hicks, Mr. Nordstrom and the third witness, Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, served as foils for each side's charges.
Committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, said his goal was simple: "Make certain that our government learns the proper lessons from this tragedy so that it never happens again."
He also lashed out at Democrats, saying that time and again over the past eight months they have "sat silent" while Republicans sought answers from an administration that "has not been cooperative."
Mr. Cummings shot back that Mr. Issa was willfully leveling "false accusations" at the White House, engaging in 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."
Things got particularly heated on the subject of Republican accusations that the White House engaged in foul play with regard to "talking points" given to U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who appeared on several television talk shows about a week after the Benghazi attacks.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle cued up video clips of statements by top intelligence and State Department officials — including tape of Mrs. Clinton's question during her own testimony to Congress in January, when she asked if it mattered whether the attack was spurred by an anti-Islamic video or was an orchestrated terrorist assault.
"The fact is we had four dead Americans. 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?" she said. "What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again."
In every case, the lawmakers appeared eager to goad Mr. Hicks into delivering a reaction that might prove the administration's guilt or innocence — and each time, they came up short.
"I don't know anything about the development of those talking points," Mr. Hicks said.
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