Washington (CNN) — A House hearing exploring the aftermath of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans got under way Wednesday.
The session is focused on the Obama administration’s handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi terror attack, which has long sparked outrage from Republicans on Capitol Hill and fueled conspiracy theories on talk shows and across the blogosphere.
Three current State Department employees are expected to contradict their leadership, stances expected to touch off fireworks and sharp disagreement between Republicans and Democrats
U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the three witnesses have accounts before, during and after the Benghazi terror attacks that “deserve to be heard.” They have points that differ from what the Obama administration has said about the incident, Issa said. He also stressed that the administration hasn’t been “cooperative” in getting answers about the incident.
Those testifying are Mark Thompson, State Department acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, Eric Nordstrom, state diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya, and Gregory Hicks, state foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission/charge d’affairs in Libya.
“Our goal in this investigation is to get answers because their families deserve answers. They were promised answers at the highest level when their bodies came home,” Issa said. “We want to make certain those promises are kept on behalf of those individuals.”
Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, thanked the witnesses ahead of their testimony.
“Our committee has a fundamental obligation to conduct responsible oversight and that includes carefully examining the information that you and others provide but we also have a duty to thoroughly investigate these claims before we make public accusations. In contrast, what we have seen over the past two weeks is a full-scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible and bipartisan way but rather a launch of unfounded accusations to smear public officials,” he said, a reference to Republican criticisms of the Obama administration.
Since announcing the hearing, Issa has trickled out testimony from the witnesses — who allege the Obama administration did not do enough in response to the attacks — in an apparent attempt to build anticipation for the session. Hicks’ testimony has been Issa’s hallmark. Hicks is expected to discuss how the American military could have done more to protect those stationed in Benghazi.
Four Americans were killed in the Benghazi terrorist attack, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, when armed terrorists stormed the compound on September 11, 2012. Family members of those who were killed were expected to attend Wednesday’s hearing.
Hicks also will charge that the since the start of the attack, administration officials knew the culprit was al Qaeda and not — as was initially claimed — a spontaneous act that grew out of a demonstration over an anti-Islamic film made in the United States.
“I think everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning,” Hicks told investigators in interviews before the hearings.
Hicks’ allegations echo a charge long made by Republicans: that following the attacks, the administration talking points explaining what happened were altered, making them untrue. Republicans claim this change was made so the Benghazi investigation did not step on President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election.
“We want to find out who made this decision, who made the decision to change talking points in a way that caused the American people to be lied to,” Issa told CNN’s Chief Congressional Correspondent Dana Bash.
Democrats on the House committee said the hearing is nothing more than a political charade. The committee’s senior Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, said that Democrats on the committee have been “iced out” of the investigation.
“Everything that I’ve seen so far with regard to this investigation shows me that it is a one-sided investigation,” Cummings told CNN. “It leaves me sad, really. I just know that we’re better than that.”
Cummings insists he is interested in getting answers to what happened in Benghazi and why it happened — but the partisan way Republicans are handling it “makes the work product of the committee questionable.”
A GOP source countered that if Democrats were so hungry for the facts, they would have joined Republicans in pressing the State Department to hand over key documents and information Congress has had trouble getting.
The State Department, too, has charged that House Republicans are playing politics with the tragedy.
“This is not sort of a collaborative process where the committee is working directly with us in trying to establish facts that would help, you know, as we look to keep our people safe overseas in a very complex environment,” State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said on Monday.
Among other things, the State Department rejects GOP accusations that it has attempted to prevent would-be “whistleblowers” from speaking out.
An internal State Department document obtained by CNN says that any department employee “with information relevant to the (Accountability Review) Board’s examination of these incidents (in Benghazi) should contact the board promptly.”
The document, which went out to all State Department employees, is dated October 12, 2012 — the date the department’s Accountability Review Board for Benghazi was created.
Wednesday’s hearing will be another chapter in what has become an epic back and forth between Democrats and Republicans on Benghazi, partly stemming from televised comments after the attack by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. She was the face of the administration in the days following the attack, and maintained in several media appearances its account of events — that the assault on the compound was the result of a demonstration that turned violent.
Later, the administration called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. Rice and other officials said that her early comments relied on official talking points with the information the administration said it had at the time. Still, the initial statements and the resulting controversy cost her a likely nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
Some GOP members also sharply questioned Clinton over the administration’s explanation of events and the state of security at the compound at the time of the attack.
Clinton said she took responsibility for the deaths, stating that as secretary of state, she was “in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world.”
In January, Clinton testified for more than five hours before the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees. In her testimony, she acknowledged a “systematic breakdown” on Benghazi and said her department was taking additional steps to increase U.S. security at diplomatic posts.
At one point in the hearing, Clinton barely controlled her anger as she responded to Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who pressed her on the administration’s post-attack storyline.
Banging her fist on the table, she said, “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.”
Critics have questioned the validity of continued congressional scrutiny, especially Democrats, who say Republicans are only interested in discrediting the administration and hurting Clinton’s chances if she were to run for president in 2016.
On Tuesday, the Benghazi outrage was noticeably muted in the Senate when only three members of the 18-person Senate Foreign Relations Committee attended the hearing to confirm Stevens’ replacement, Ambassador Deborah Jones.
Jones, a career diplomat, said she would take responsibility for personnel security if confirmed as ambassador.
“On security — and again, this is something that is, well, as we know, it is deadly serious for us,” she said. “It is the role of the ambassador — the ambassador is the principal security officer at post. And it is the ambassador who has to decide whether to allow people to travel here or there, whether to ask for additional assets, whether to insist on additional assets.”
She also pledged to “work closely with the Libyan government to see that justice is realized” in the Benghazi attacks.
A muted response from Senate Republicans continued Wednesday when Sen. Bob Corker, one of the three senators who attended Jones confirmation hearing, told NBC News that he was “satisfied” with what he knows about Benghazi.
“I’ve been able to read all the cables. I’ve seen the films,” he said. “I feel like I know what happened in Benghazi. I’m fairly satisfied.”
“But look, the House wants to have hearings, I hope they’re done in a respectful way and hopefully it will shed some light on what happened.”
CNN’s Dana Bash and Elise Labott contributed to this story.