The Washington Times - May 8, 2013, 11:06AM

3:54 p.m.

Democrats Wednesday pooh-poohed charges of a cover-up of the Benghazi terror attacks last year, saying charges from Republican lawmakers and State Department employees were overblown and had been answered.


“I don’t think there’s a smoking gun here today,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin Democrat. “Not even a lukewarm slingshot.”

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

Mr. Pocan is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which held a hearing Wednesday to take testimony from State Department officials, including one who was one the ground in Libya during the attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

While Republicans on the panel raised questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the attack and its aftermath, many Democrats in their questions rushed to the administration’s defense.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts said the House Intelligence Committee had already looked at the issue of controversial “talking points” prepared by officials a few days after the attack.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

References to al Qaeda’s possible involvement in the attack were struck from the document, leading Republicans to charge that the White House had engineered the changes to hide al Qaeda’s involvement and help the president’s reelection campaign.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

“Gen. Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, made it clear that the change was made to protect classified sources of information — not to spin it, not to politicize it — and it wasn’t done at the direction of the White House,” Mr. Tierney insisted.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

SEE RELATED: Benghazi ‘talking points’ altered, White House and State Dept. officials say

— David Sands

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

3:19 p.m.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Benghazi Attack Under Microscope

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday he could not immediately respond to live testimony from the House hearing on the 2012 Benghazi attack.

“What I can tell you is that it was the assessment of our intelligence community that the attacks were participated in by extremists,” he told reporters at a regular daily briefing. “That’s what I’ve said. That’s what Ambassador [Susan E.] Rice said. She said on that Sunday that extremists were involved. What we didn’t know is what their exact affiliation was.”

— Susan Crabtree

3:06 p.m.

On several occasions during Tuesday’s hearing, Republicans on the House Oversight Committee sought to re-examine U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice’s appearances on Sunday talk shows after the Benghazi attacks.

During the appearances, Mrs. Rice argued that the attacks had grown out of a spontaneous demonstration against a U.S.-made anti-Islam video, as similar demonstrations had been occuring in other Mideast cities at the time.

House Republicans have accused the Obama White House and senior State Department officials of omitting references to al Qaeda, or terrorism in talking points that were given to Mrs. Rice, despite believing that the Benghazi attack had been carried out by Islamist extremists linked to al Qaeda.

Such omissions, the Republicans have argued, were made for political reasons ahead of last November’s presidential election — in order to protect Mr. Obama from being criticized for failing to prevent a terrorist attack that had killed Americans in Libya.

During one exchange on Tuesday, Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, also homed in on the fact that Mrs. Rice’s talkshow remarks directly contradicted statements made the same day by Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf, who described the attacks as being carried out by Islamic extremists with possible terrorist links.

Mr. Gowdy asked Gregory N. Hicks, who had been the State Department’s Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. in Libya at the time of the attacks, whether Mrs. Rice had spoken with him prior to appearing “on five Sunday talk shows?”

“No sir,” answered Mr. Hicks, who was then the second highest-ranking U.S. official in Libya.

“So Ambassador Rice directly contradicts the evidence on the ground in Libya. She directly contradicts the president of Libya. She directly contradicts the last statement uttered by Ambassador Stevens,” said Mr. Gowdy, who then asked Mr. Hicks: “Who is Beth Jones?”

Mr. Hicks responded that Mrs. Jones is “the acting assistant secretary for near eastern affairs at the State Department.”

In a moment of rich theater for the hearing, Mr. Gowdy then went on to read an excerpt from an email, which he claimed that Mrs. Jones had sent to others at the State Department — several days before Mrs. Rice appeared on the talkshows.

In the email, according to Mr. Gowdy, Mrs. Jones wrote that she had spoken with the Libyan ambassador to Washington and “I told him that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”

“Let me say that again,” said Mrs. Gowdy. “She told him, the State Department, on September 12, days before our ambassador went on national television, is telling the ambassador to Libya the group that conducted teh attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with terrorists.”

In light of the email, Mr. Gowdy added, “why in the world would Susan Rice go on five Sunday talk shows and perpetuate a demonstrably false narrative?”

Mr. Hicks responded that he could not provide an answer to the question, but that perhaps Mr. Gowdy should ask Mrs. Rice.

“I would love the opportunity to do just that,” said Mr. Gowdy.

— Guy Taylor

2:08 p.m.

Former Secretary of State Hilary R. Clinton was the only person empowered by law to authorize the occupation of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya before the deadly terror attacks there last year, because the buildings did not meet State Department security standards, a House hearing heard Wednesday.

“It’s my understanding only the secretary of state could waive those requirements,” said Eric Nordstrom, who was regional security officer for the embassy in Libya until a few months before the attack.

The security standards were introduced after the bombing attacks against U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, he said.

“We did not meet any of those standards,” he said of the building in Benghazi, which was overrun and set ablaze by heavily armed extremists on Sept. 11 last year.

He spoke at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which heard testimony from State Department officials who were on the ground in Libya before and during the attacks.

He said the State Department-chartered investigation, known as an Accountability Review Board or ARB, had failed to interview senior-enough officials.

“It stopped short of the very people it should have asked — Undersecretary for Management [Patrick] Kennedy and above,” he said.

— Shaun Waterman

1:44 p.m.

During his moment-by-moment account of the attack, Gregory N. Hicks — the State Department’s Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. in Libya at the time — said mortar rounds that rained down on the CIA annex in Benghazi were “terribly precise.”

After Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had gone missing, a group of Americans fleeing the besieged U.S. consulate building in the city had arrived at the CIA annex a few miles away.

“Shortly after they arrived at the annex, the mortars came in,” said Mr. Hicks, adding that the “first mortar round was long,” or off-target, as it landed among a group of Libyans, who had just helped to transport the Americans to the facility.

“The next was short,” he said. “The next three landed on the roof.”

Those were the rounds that killed former Navy SEALS Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods and severly wounded another American, Mr. Hicks said.

“They didn’t know whether any more mortars were going to come in,” he said. “The accuracy was terribly precise. The call was, the next one is coming through the roof, maybe, if it hit.”

He added that two Americans who’d rushed from Tripoli to Benghazi on the night of the attack then “climbed up on the roof.”

“They carried Glen’s body and Tyrone’s body down,” said Mr. Hicks, adding that another American on the roof was also wounded.

“One guy … [in] combat gear, climbed up there, strapped David … who’s a large man, to his back, carried him down the ladder, saved him,” he said.

It was not immediately clear during the testimony whether Mr. Hicks was referring to David McFarland, whom he earlier said was serving as the State Department’s political section chief in Libya at the time of the attacks.

— Guy Taylor

1:23 p.m.

Providing a moment-by-moment account of the Benghazi attack during the hearing, Gregory N. Hicks — the State Department’s deputy chief of Mission for the U.S. in Libya at the time — said once it was clear U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was separated from other Americans, the immediate concern was that he had fallen into the hands of a group known to sympathize with al Qaeda.

Mr. Hicks said U.S. officials scrambling to figure out what was happening began to get information from sources around Benghazi about the attacks.

“We began to hear also that the ambassador’s been taken to a hospital,” he said. “We learn that it is in a hospital which is controlled by Ansar al-Shariah, the group that Twitter feeds had identified as leading the attack on the consulate.”

The information came in as a “response team” was arriving at the Benghazi airport from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Mr. Hicks said.

“At this point, this response team looks like it may be a hostage rescue team,” he said. “We are going to need to send them to try to save the ambassador who is in the hospital that is, as far as we know, under enemy control.”

He added that he and other officials began to worry whether they were being “baited into a trap.”

— Guy Taylor

1:20 p.m.

The U.S. special forces personnel who were told to stand down from a relief mission to Benghazi after the terror attacks there last year would have been used to secure the airport, not to defend U.S. facilities, which were already being evacuated, lawmakers were told Wednesday.

A hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony from Gregory N. Hicks, the man who took over from U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens after the ambassador and three other Americans perished in the attacks.

“We wanted to send a second team to secure the airport,” said Mr. Hicks, adding the four special forces personnel were “furious” they were not allowed to go.

He said the order to stand down came early in the morning, when the first phase of the attack was over and the second just about to begin. By the time the Libyan military plane that would have carried them took off on schedule for Benghazi at 6 a.m., the second phase was also over.

By that time, the U.S. buildings in Benghazi had all been evacuated and the personnel were en route to the airport.

— Shaun Waterman

12:57 p.m.

Libyan security personnel were also killed in the terror attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya last year, lawmakers were reminded Wednesday.

Gregory N. Hicks, the man who took over from U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens after the ambassador and three other Americans perished in the attacks, said Libyan personnel had escorted a small reinforcement team from Benghazi airport to the CIA building known as the annex, arriving just before 5 am.

Within minutes, while the Libyans were still outside the building, the second phase of the attack began, when extremists rained mortar rounds down on the annex.

One of the first shots landed among the Libyan security personnel, Mr. Hicks said.

“They took casualties,” he said.

— Shaun Waterman

12:31 p.m.

During opening testimony, Gregory N. Hicks, who was the State Department’s Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. in Libya and was in Tripoli at the time of the Benghazi attacks, gave a moment-by-moment account of the night on which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed.

Mr. Hicks said he had spoken on the telephone early in the evening with Mr. Stevens and that there were no signs of unusual activity in Benghazi. Closing up shop for the evening in Tripoli, Mr. Hicks said he headed to a villa where he was staying and began relaxing and watching television.

Alerted by staff during the evening that an attack had begun in Benghazi, Mr. Hicks said he checked his cell phone and saw there were two missed calls, one from the Mr. Stevens’ cell phone and another from a number he didn’t recognize.

Mr. Hicks said he quickly called back the number he didn’t recognize and Mr. Stevens answered.

“Greg! We’re under attack!” said the ambassador, according to Mr. Hicks.

— Guy Taylor

12:10 p.m.

During his own opening statement, Rep. Elija E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat and the House Oversight Committee’s ranking member shot back that Mr. Issa has willfully leveled a host partisan and “false accusations” at the Obama administration regarding Benghazi.

“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,” Mr. Cummings said.

“Chairman Issa has accused the administration of intentionally withholding military assets, which could have helped save lives on the night of the attacks, for political reasons,” he said. “Of all the irresponsible allegations leveled over the past two weeks, this is the most troubling, and based on what our military commanders have told us, this allegation is false.”

— Guy Taylor

11:54 a.m.

Mr. Issa opened the hearing by saying that his goal was a simple one: “To make certain that our government learns the proper lessons from this tragedy so that it never happens again.”

Mr. Issa shot back at Democratic claims that this is all politically driven by claiming that time and again over the past eight months the minority side has “sat silent” while Republicans sought answers from the administration about Benghazi.

The “administration has not been cooperative,” Mr. Issa said.

— Guy Taylor

11:36 a.m.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, officially launches the hearing.

11:27 a.m.

News photographers and camera crews swarm the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing room in anticipation of whistle-blower testimony into the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The hearing is set to begin in moments.

It’s standing room only in the hearing room, with a line of 50 people standing outside the door. Reporters are jockeying with congressional staffers for seats.

— Guy Taylor

11:15 a.m.

Senior White House and State Department officials played a much larger role than they acknowledged in drafting erroneous administration “talking points” about the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, according to congressional investigators preparing for a dramatic hearing Wednesday in the House.

The House Oversight and Government Reform committee at 11:30 a.m. will hear from the man who took charge of the U.S. mission to Libya after the Benghazi attack left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

The Obama administration’s handling of the assault, and the way top officials first characterized the assault as a protest rather than a terrorist attack, will come under new scrutiny.

“I thought it was a terrorist attack from the get-go,” Gregory N. Hicks told congressional investigators. “I think everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning.”

— Shaun Waterman

11 a.m.

Sen. Lindsey Graham said testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday from former U.S. diplomats on the Benghazi attacks will challenge the Obama administration’s version of events and show that more could have been done to save the four people who died.

The South Carolina Republican said that the witnesses will say it was a terrorist attack from the “get go” and that there were other assets in the region that could have been deployed as part of a response to the attack.

“I think the story of Benghazi is that after the attack — seven weeks before an election — there was an effort by some senior people to put a political spin on this rather than to tell the story that it was a terrorist attack from the get go because they were so close to the election,” Mr. Graham said during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

— Seth McLaughlin