WASHINGTON - A retired U.S. general came under sharp criticism from a Republican committee chairman on Thursday after testifying that the Obama administration reacted weakly to the deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Retired Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell, the star witness at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, testified that U.S. forces "should have tried" to get to the outpost in time to help save the lives of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. He blamed the State Department for not making stronger requests for action.
A few hours later, the powerful chairman of the Armed Services panel, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., challenged the testimony of Lovell, who was in U.S. Africa Command's headquarters in Germany monitoring the attack.
The general "did not serve in a capacity that gave him reliable insight into operational options available to commanders during the attack, nor did he offer specific courses of action not taken," McKeon said.
The disagreement muddied a Republican attempt to raise fresh questions about the Obama administration's handling of the Sept. 11, 2012, assault by armed militants. The GOP has accused the administration of downplaying a terrorist attack just weeks before the election.
On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a frequent critic of the Obama administration's foreign policy in general and its handling of the Benghazi attack in particular, said White House officials who lied about the attack are "scumbags." He made the remark in an interview with radio host Mike Gallagher.
Lovell testified that it was clear that the attack was hostile action and not a protest run amok, as the Obama administration initially described it.
"Four individuals died. We obviously did not respond in time to get there," he said.
"There was a lot of looking to the State Department for what it was that they wanted, and in the deference to the Libyan people and the sense of deference to the desires of the State Department," he said.
Asked whether the military was allowed to adequately respond, Lovell said it was not. "The military could have made a response of some sort," he said.
McKeon's statement disputed Lovell's assertions based on his committee's interviews with more than a dozen witnesses in the operational chain of command and its review of thousands of pages of transcripts, emails and other documents.
"We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources the Defence Department had available to respond," McKeon said. "Lovell did not further the investigation or reveal anything new, he was another painful reminder of the agony our military felt that night: wanting to respond but unable to do so."
The unusual rebuke also pitted McKeon, who has said he was satisfied that the military did all it could, against Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a House committee chairman who has doggedly pursued the question of whether the military was told to "stand down" on the night of the attacks.
Congress has concluded that the military was never told to "stand down" and that assets such as fighter jets in Italy or other help weren't ready to respond in time for the two attacks that occurred eight hours apart.
Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on Armed Services, echoed McKeon's assessment, and said it was "deeply disturbing that false claims continue to be made about that tragic night."
The Obama administration initially described the attack as a response to the video that had sparked protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and elsewhere. Susan Rice, then the U.N. ambassador, went on Sunday television talk shows and described it as such. Those comments have stirred up political opposition ever since, as military and other officials have said it was clear it was a terror attack unrelated to the video.
The latest furor has centred on a newly released email from White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes that shows that within days of the attack the White House embraced talking points for Rice that blamed the turmoil that erupted in North African and Middle East cities in September 2012 on an anti-Islamic video.
Also at issue is why the Rhodes email, released through a Freedom of Information Act request from a conservative legal group, was not included among documents the White House released last year regarding the response to the Benghazi attack. White House spokesman Jay Carney said the email referred to the upheaval and rioting throughout the region, not Benghazi in particular, even though Benghazi is briefly mentioned.
"This release through a FOIA request, you know, has revived this story, but it doesn't mean that the facts have changed. They haven't," Carney said.
Angered by the omission of the email in material subpoenaed by the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before Congress.
On the Senate floor, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., renewed their call for a select committee to investigate.
"This is a coverup," McCain said.
Lovell told the committee it was clearly not an attack borne of the protests.
The U.S. has not yet identified those responsible or the attack but now believes it was carried out by Islamist militants who set fire to the diplomatic outpost and engaged Stevens' security officials and others in gunfire. Stevens died of smoke inhalation in a safe room in the diplomatic compound. The diplomats were aided by officials from a CIA outpost a mile away.
A Republican congressman is drafting legislation to give the military and intelligence agency the authority to kill those responsible for the attack. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California said Thursday that he will try to add his bill to the annual defence policy legislation when the House Armed Services Committee considers the measure on Wednesday.
Hunter said his legislation is the same as the authority that the Congress gave the government after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I don't know why they don't ask for it. They must not care," Hunter said in an interview. "It shouldn't take Congress to do this. They should have asked for this right after the attacks."
Hunter said his legislation was prompted by closed-door testimony from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told the panel in October that the U.S. cannot strike the perpetrators under the authorization for use of military force, the 2001 law that applies to terrorists.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
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