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At Hearing, Libya Attack Details Remain Murky

At Hearing, Libya Attack Details Remain Murky

By Alexis Simendinger - October 11, 2012

At the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, there was never any spontaneous street mob angered about an anti-Muslim video, as was asserted by administration officials after a brutal attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, State Department officials told Congress Wednesday.

Why White House officials and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice publicly described a set of facts in September that quickly proved erroneous -- and who, exactly, supplied that information to them -- still seemed murky, despite a four-hour hearing convened by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The hearing was devoted to security risks at U.S. diplomatic installations, but with an election just weeks away and Congress out of session, the questioning by Republicans on the panel had a partisan tone as they asked why the administration launched an investigation of those lethal events last month, and then worked almost immediately to steer the public away from terrorism as a possible conclusion.

Democrats on the panel sought to insulate President Obama from criticism that his aides tried to tilt the facts to portray the four Americans’ deaths as tragic but unforeseeable. “There was absolutely no evidence put out about White House involvement,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the committee, told reporters at the conclusion of the hearing.

Mitt Romney has said the administration’s stories have not added up, and other Republicans have accused the Obama team of trying to duck responsibility for foreign policy and security failings.

Conditions in the Middle East, including in Libya and Syria, are expected to be discussed Thursday night by Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan during their debate in Kentucky, and later by Obama and Romney during their debates on Oct. 16 and Oct. 22.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa of California said the work of his panel is not done. He said he intends to ask Rice to testify to the committee in a classified session to describe what she knew, from whom her information derived and when she learned it, possibly next week. Republicans want to know why she appeared on television the Sunday after the attacks to forcefully argue that the anti-Muslim video sparked the Benghazi violence.

Issa also disclosed Wednesday that a government entity not the FBI -- presumably intelligence agencies -- possesses 50 minutes of video feed of the Benghazi attack. Issa said he wants his committee members to see that video, a copy of which the State Department has.

The House committee learned that administration officials knew or in some cases suspected almost immediately that the Benghazi assault was not the work of street hooligans reacting to an American-made video critical of Muslims and the Prophet Mohammed:

-- Deputy Secretary of State Charlene Lamb testified that once alerted to the ongoing attack and seated in the Diplomatic Security Command Center in Washington, D.C., she followed “in almost real-time” the “full-scale assault [on the Benghazi compound] that was unprecedented in its size and intensity.” During the assault on the compound, she communicated with a diplomatic security agent at the compound, who described the siege as it was happening and sought help from colleagues in Washington and Libya. GOP lawmakers said they were skeptical that Lamb could have monitored an eight- or 10-hour assault on the consulate from inside a command center and come away believing it was the work of a spontaneous mob. “It happened so fast when they rushed through the gate, it was not clear,” she explained.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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