Benghazi siege: New testimony, old political games

Libyans climb up electricity towers to watch the march against Ansar al-Shariah Brigades and other Islamic militias, in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 21,...
Libyans climb up electricity towers to watch the march against Ansar al-Shariah Brigades and other Islamic militias, in Benghazi, Libya, Friday, Sept. 21,...
AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon

It was a bad cell phone night in Tripoli.

The former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, Greg Hicks, recounted a harrowing night at the U.S. Embassy in Libya’s capital on September 11, 2012, trading dropped calls and text messages with U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who by the morning would be dead.

“I told him the [Cairo] embassy had been stormed,” Hicks told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a Wednesday hearing, “and he said, ‘Greg, we’re under attack.’”

Hick’s testimony of the events surrounding the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last fall, and his account of what he says were overruled attempts to send reinforcements and fighter jets to the the site of the siege, brought a months-old, bitter partisan divide back into the public spotlight.

House Republicans, who staged Wednesday’s hearing, say Hicks’ testimony along with that of two other State department officials lends crucial new information to the official Benghazi report prepared last December. Democrats have labeled the proceedings a political sideshow, aimed at marring the political future of former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, thought to be a presidential frontrunner in 2016.

“Over the past two weeks, we have seen a full-scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible, bipartisan way but rather launch unfounded accusations to smear public officials,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said Wednesday. “Let me be clear,” he continued, “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.”

Wednesday’s hearing follows a heated January showdown between Clinton and the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, a official December report by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, a tense November standoff between U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and Senate Republicans (eventually causing Rice to remove her name from consideration as head of the State Department), and a pivotal moment in an October presidential debate over whether the siege was “an act of terror.”

In January, Clinton defended herself from the accusation that she ignored a cable sent by Stevens a month before the attack, calling for more security at the Benghazi compound.

“A million cables a year come to the State Department. They’re not all addressed to me,” Clinton said.

“This cable went unnoticed by your office,” Rep Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, fired back. “That’s the bottom line.”

New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney defended the former secretary and lectured some of her colleagues Wednesday.

“I find it truly disturbing and very unfortunate that when Americans come under attack the first thing some did in this country was attack Americans! Attack the military! Attack the president! Attack the state department! Attack the former senator from the great state of New York, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.”

In an interview on Morning Joe Wednesday, Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said, “I think the story of Benghazi is that after the attack, seven weeks before an election, there was an effort by senior people to put a political spin on this rather than tell the story it was a terrorist attack from the get-go, because they were so close to the election.”

At issue Wednesday was the State Department’s official report, which Republicans blasted as insufficient. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa pointed to “flaws in the accountability review board’s methodology, process and conclusions.”

Issa said that Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, the ARB report’s co-chairs, were asked to testify about their investigation and findings. “They refused and our minority said nothing,” Issa said. “We asked Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen to speak with us informally. They again refused and again there was silence by the minority.”

“Yes, I’m willing to testify,” Pickering said in response to a question from msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell Wednesday. “I made that clear yesterday. The White House, I understand, made that clear to Mr. Issa. He declined.”

“I believe the Accountability Review Board did its work well,” Pickering told Mitchell. “I think the notion, quote, of ‘a cover-up’ has the elements of Pulitzer Prize fiction attached to it.”

Benghazi siege: New testimony, old political games