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It's been a little more than a year since four Americans died during attacks on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya. Many congressional hearings have delved into the matter almost always at the behest of Republicans. But this week it was Democrats, and the House Government and Oversight Committee who demanded the latest session on Benghazi. It featured the two lead investigators of an independent report on that episode testifying for the first time in public about their conclusions.
As NPR's David Welna reports, they got a rough reception from Republicans on the panel.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, California Republican Darrell Issa has aggressively probed Benghazi. He and many other Republicans see a shirking of responsibility at the highest levels of the Obama administration. But as he gaveled in Thursday's hearing, Issa sounded a conciliatory note. He read a letter from the family of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who died in Benghazi.
DARRELL ISSA: What Chris would never have accepted was the idea that his death would be used for political purposes.
WELNA: And yet, Issa then went on to question not only the work of the independent panel on Benghazi, but its very independence.
ISSA: Obviously this was not a gotcha panel because nobody was gotchaed.
WELNA: That panel did fault the lack of security in Benghazi. In a report released last December, it also criticized the performance of four mid-level State Department officials in the episode. But Florida Republican John Mica had criticism of his own for the two investigators seated at the witness table.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN MICA: The vast majority of Americans feel that your report was a whitewash. He said whitewash or cover up, but that's what people feel.
WELNA: One of the investigators that barb was aimed at was Thomas Pickering, a career diplomat who served as U.N. ambassador under the first President Bush. Pickering characterized his Benghazi report as free of cover-up and political tilt.
THOMAS PICKERING: It was produced with a deep sense that we had to get it right, politics, elections, personal controversy and all other external factors aside.
WELNA: If that's so, Mica replied, why was then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton not formally interviewed for the report? Pickering told him that according to the rules given his panel, they were only to talk with those directly involved in the Benghazi episode. Mica remains skeptical.
MICA: Secretary wasn't involved. I must be on another planet. Thank you.
WELNA: Benghazi critics also say the U.S. military should have done more, but former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen, told the committee that was not what the independent panel he served on had concluded.
ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: There was nothing the U.S. military could have done to respond to the attack on the compound or to deter the subsequent attack on the annex. The actions of our military, which moved many assets that night, were fully appropriate and professional.
WELNA: That angered Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz.
REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: You presided as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs when we bombed Libya for months. We did so on connection with our NATO partners and you never asked those NATO partners to help and engage that...
MULLEN: I commanded, I actually commanded NATO forces, and the likelihood that NATO could respond in a situation like that was absolutely zero.
WELNA: Like other committee Democrats, former combat helicopter pilot, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who lost both legs in Iraq, protested that Republicans were taking this too far.
REPRESENTATIVE TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Admiral Mullen, I really don't understand this, you know, because it used to be that when our nation came under attack, we would rally together and especially, especially around our men and women in uniform.
WELNA: But South Carolina Republican, Trey Gowdy, said he was just serving his constituents.
REPRESENTATIVE TREY GOWDY: I am asked about Benghazi more than any other issue. It has not been forgotten.
WELNA: Not if Oversight Committee Chairman Issa can help it. He says he's issuing subpoenas for more witnesses from the State Department. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.
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