WASHINGTON — On the eve of the first congressional hearing on the attacks last month at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, members of the House committee investigating the assaults spent Tuesday accusing one another of exploiting the violence to score political points.
The hearing, four weeks after the attacks that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, is expected to focus on any potential intelligence failures in assessing a growing militant threat in Benghazi and eastern Libya; possible security lapses at the mission; and whether the Obama administration underestimated the dangers posed by al-Qaida's franchise in northern Africa and other extremist groups in Libya.
Summoned to testify today before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are two senior State Department officials responsible for embassy security worldwide, a former head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and the former head of a U.S. military team assigned to provide security at the embassy.
Underscoring the attacks' increasing political and policy significance, President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, visited Libya on Tuesday to discuss with U.S. and Libyan officials the FBI's investigation into the killings. And in a sign of the administration's concerns over the House hearing, the State Department held a hastily arranged conference call with reporters Tuesday night to offer its first extended account of what happened in Benghazi the night of Sept. 11 after having repeatedly cited a continuing FBI investigation as a reason for not releasing information on the attacks.
Democrats and Republicans on the oversight committee traded similar accusations — that the other party has shown scant interest in dealing with the broader issues of intelligence warnings and security matters, and has focused instead on trying to show that their party is better equipped to address volatile and shifting national security challenges.
"Never in all of my years in Congress have I seen such a startling and damaging series of partisan abuses," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel's ranking Democrat. "The Republicans are in full campaign mode."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who heads the panel's subcommittee on national security issues, said the Democrats' strategy was to "blame it on politics rather than addressing the nature of the issue."
Democrats accused the Republicans of preventing them from interviewing witnesses they plan to call at the hearing, including Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who led the military security team in Tripoli. Wood has appeared on several national television programs in recent days and said that he and other embassy officials unsuccessfully sought to extend his team's tour at the embassy because of mounting security concerns.