At a hearing on Capitol Hill Republicans yesterday sought to eviscerate the Obama administration over its handling of the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, saying officials failed to heed security warnings and dissembled in their public statements in its aftermath.
Opening the politically charged session, Congressman Darrel Issa said warnings from US personnel in Libya about the worsening security situation were ignored. "They repeatedly warned Washington officials about the dangerous situation in Libya," he said, adding that the administration refused to respond because it was "preoccupied with the concept of normalisation" in Libya and didn't want to acknowledge that terror threats existed there.
Among those called to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee were two senior State Department officials responsible for the security of US diplomats, as well as Lieutenant-Colonel Andy Wood, a former head of US security who has said calls by himself and by Ambassador Stevens in the months before the attack for beefed-up measures in Benghazi were ignored in Washington.
Last month The Independent revealed the US State Department had credible information that American missions were in danger of being targeted 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert.
Noting that in June an attack was launched on a convoy bearing the British ambassador in Benghazi, Lt-Col Woods said he had been concerned about insufficient security: "Libyans struggled with the transitional government hesitating to make decisions... fighting between militias was common," he told the hearing. "The security in Benghazi remained a struggle throughout my time there."
Earlier he told CBS News: "We tried to show them how dangerous and how volatile and just unpredictable that whole environment was over there. So to decrease security in the face of that is just unbelievable."
In written testimony, Lt-Col Wood, who served in Libya until early August, said: "The RSO [regional security officer] struggled to obtain additional personnel there [in Benghazi], but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with."
But Patrick Kennedy, one of two State Department officials testifying, denied the government had fallen down on the job. "The Department of State regularly assesses risk and allocation of resources for security; a process which involves the considered judgments of experienced professionals on the ground and in Washington, using the best information available," he said, adding: "The assault that occurred on the evening of 11 September, however, was an unprecedented attack by dozens of heavily armed men."
Also at issue, however, was the timeline of statements by US officials who for several days after the attacks continued to blame the tragedy on a mob reacting to a US-made video insulting Islam even though, it now appears, the State Department itself never reached that conclusion and intelligence briefings available the next day stated that the consulate had instead come under a sustained and planned attack.
Republicans have aimed their harshest fire at Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the United Nations, accusing her of dissembling when she stuck to the line even the Sunday after the attack that Ambassador Stevens and the other victims died because of a mob riot that went out of control.
Ms Rice, who was not called to testify, has defended herself saying she was speaking on the basis of intelligence information available at the time which has since evolved.
Claims by Democrats that the hearings were politically motivated and aimed at embarrassing President Barack Obama just weeks before the election were denied by Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of a House Sub-Committee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations. "I didn't plan on having four Americans murdered in Libya," he said. "That was not part of the game plan. It would be totally irresponsible to punt this until after the election. Imagine the outrage, rightfully so, if we just ignored this until after the election."
Speaking before the hearing's start, Mr Chaffetz said he believed the White House and the State Department had worked together to resist calls for increased security in Benghazi. "It seems to be a coordinated effort between the White House and the State Department, from Secretary Clinton to President Obama's White House," Mr Chaffetz said. "My personal opinion is that they wanted the appearance of normalisation in Libya, and that putting up barbed wire on our facility would lead to the wrong impression."