WASHINGTON (AP) — 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.
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 Defense 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.
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