Washington - Intelligence officials on Thursday showed lawmakers a real-time film of the deadly attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, and discussed a timeline of events in sometimes heated exchanges at a closed-door hearing, lawmakers said.
The House and Senate intelligence committees heard from intelligence, FBI and State Department officials on the events surrounding the September 11 attack that killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
Questions about the adequacy of security, the US response to the attack, and the administration's initial public comments have led to a growing rift between Republicans and President Barack Obama over where the fault lies.
Former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned last week over an extramarital affair, will testify about Benghazi before the same two committees on Friday morning.
Lawmakers said they would focus questions on events in Benghazi, where a CIA annex also came under attack as well as the U.S. diplomatic mission. But some of them also want to know whether Petraeus stepped down to avoid testifying before Congress about the attack.
“Director Petraeus went to Tripoli, he interviewed many of the people as I understand it, that were involved. So the opportunity to get his views, I think is very important,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein.
After Petraeus resigned, Feinstein, a Democrat, had been the most vocal lawmaker insisting the former CIA chief should still testify to Congress about the Benghazi attack.
She said the film on the attack included video from a Predator drone. “The film is a composite from a number of sources. It is real-time, it does begin from when the incident, before the incident started, and it goes through the incident and the exodus,” Feinstein told reporters.
Republicans have accused the Obama administration of providing misinformation in the early days following the attack.
Administration officials counter that their initial comments suggesting the attack grew spontaneously out of protests over an anti-Muslim film rather than a premeditated strike were based on the best available information at that time.
The State Department has come under scrutiny from critics who say it did not respond to requests from diplomats on the ground in Libya who sought greater security before the attack.
“We know mistakes were made and we've got to learn from that. Our membership asked some very hard and very tough questions of our witnesses today and we're going to continue to do that in our subsequent hearings,” Senator Saxby Chambliss, the senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said.
Senior Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have t hreatened to block any nomination of Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, for her comments on Sunday talk shows five days after the attack that suggested it was a spontaneous event.
Obama came to Rice's defence on Wednesday and said if she was the right person for a spot in his Cabinet, he would nominate her. If Republicans had a problem with the handling of Benghazi, he said, “they should go after me.”
Rice is considered a potential candidate to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has said she plans to leave, or for another top job in the administration.
Clinton is expected to testify before Congress about the Benghazi attack after a State Department initiated review is completed, possibly in December.
“In the end, the assessment was still the same - that in Benghazi, you had a group of extremists who took advantage of a situation and unfortunately we lost four American lives,” Representative CA Dutch Ruppersberger said after Thursday's intelligence hearing in the House.
Ruppersberger, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he planned to ask the former CIA chief, “General Petraeus, did your resignation have anything to do with the fact that you were supposed to testify before Congress?”
Ruppersberger said he had been told that was not the case, but wanted to clarify that. The issue of whether the Petraeus affair affected national security was sure to come up on Friday, he said.
When Petraeus first briefed lawmakers the day after the attack, based on a video of it, he had called it spontaneous, but also said extremists were involved, Ruppersberger said. “It was a combination of both.”
Feinstein and Chambliss said they planned more hearings, including one that would be public, on the Benghazi events before releasing unclassified findings.
In the House of Representatives, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff also said there would be more hearings, including on “the allegations concerning General Petraeus,” without elaborating.
Democrats who spoke after the House committee hearing were eager to portray the information behind closed doors as a vindication of the initial assessment that Rice gave.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA Director Michael Morell, National Counterterrorism Centre Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce and Undersecretary of State for Management Pat Kennedy testified at the hearings in the House and Senate.
Feinstein said lawmakers also heard from Major General Darryl Roberson, vice director of operations, on the Joint Staff “on what (military) assets are there, and what assets are not there.”
Schiff said he expected the questions for Petraeus on Friday to be “confined to the events in Benghazi, and we'll get his perspective on what information he knew and how his assessment of that intelligence changed over time.” - Reuters