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State Department witnesses will challenge official Benghazi attack account

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by California Republican Darrell Issa, is set to hear the testimony of State Department officials wh
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in flames, September 11, 2012.
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in flames, September 11, 2012.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, headed by California Republican Darrell Issa, is set to hear the testimony of State Department officials who are questioning the official account of the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.

Mark Thompson, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, the former deputy mission chief in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya are scheduled to testify on Wednesday morning. Hicks claims the military overruled his attempts to send four special forces operatives from Tripoli to subdue the uprising at the U.S. compound, and that doing so could have saved two American lives. The Pentagon contends that those special forces operatives were necessary to protect the embassy in Tripoli.

The attack claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others in Benghazi.

"I believe if we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced...there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split," Hicks told House investigators, according to excerpts of their conversation.

According to a timeline of events released by the Pentagon in January, the assault on the U.S. consulate began just after 9:40 p.m. local time on September 11. Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Smith were killed in this assault. Around 5:15 a.m., according to the report, a second assault was launched on a U.S. compound, where two American security personnel were killed.

The Pentagon has challenged Hicks' suggestion of sending fighter jets over Benghazi, because they would require re-fueling during the five-hour trip and there were no refuelers present.

"The Accountability Review Board said there was no way to get any more assets [to Benghazi]," Congressman Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, told Andrea Mitchell Wednesday. "But what we've heard and what at least what we anticipate hearing tomorrow, is that Gregory Hicks is going to testify these gentlemen, these four, were dressed, they were ready to go. These are special operations types of people.  I'm not sure their exact title.  But they were going to get in the car to go to the airport.  They were told to stand down.

"The idea [is] that this attack started at 9:40 local time and it was still past 6:00 a.m. the next morning before they were able to get people out of there. Even if there was a few hours that it would take in order to stand up a supersonic plane to buzz the compound there to try to scare off the would-be attackers, there's still plenty of time. You get on a Delta flight out of Washington, D.C., and make it to Benghazi in less time," Chaffetz said. "It’s still not explained."

"From the beginning of the ARB [the special review board process], we had unfettered access to everyone and everything, including all the documentation we needed. Our marching orders were to get to the bottom of what happened and that's what we did," Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen said in a statement released by the State Department. A House Oversight and Government Reform Committee spokesperson said in an email Tuesday that the ARB did interview Hicks.

The Pentagon has been pushing back against allegations from the right that former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton withheld information or witnesses from being interviewed. Chaffetz took issue with Clinton's absence from the official ARB assessment.

"They never even interviewed Secretary Clinton. She was obviously involved. How can you do a credible report and not even interview the Secretary of State?" Chaffetz said on Andrea Mitchell Reports Tuesday. "The ARB, I think is really questionable, because they didn't necessarily interview everybody, including the Secretary of State."

Clinton testified on Benghazi before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January.

"With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans," Clinton said in a heated exchange with Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in January. "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? 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, Senator."

Check out Andrea Mitchell's interview with Rep. Jason Chaffetz below: