A Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. Consulate after an attack… (Mohammad Hannon / AP )
WASHINGTON — The latest chapter in the political battle over the killing of four Americans in Libya is unfolding this week, with Republicans pointing to the testimony of a State Department official as evidence that the U.S. military could have done more to disrupt the attack.
Democrats, in turn, cite an independent review's findings that there were no forces available to carry out a rescue mission.
House Republicans have released a partial transcript of remarks by Gregory Hicks, who was No. 2 at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli during the attack in September. His account is expected to be the central element at a hearing Wednesday.
In the excerpts released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Hicks does not appear to offer any evidence of a military option that could have made a difference. However, he expressed his opinion that a low-flying fighter aircraft over Benghazi might have prevented the second part of the assault, the firing of mortars at a CIA annex that killed CIA security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
"If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split," Hicks told House Republican investigators.
But Hicks acknowledged that he was informed as the attack was unfolding that the military did not have refueling aircraft in the area that could have supported a roughly 1,800-mile round-trip flight by the closest fighter aircraft, based in Aviano, Italy.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and communications specialist Sean Smith were killed in the first part of the attack.
Pentagon officials have said there was nothing the military could have done to respond in time to the attacks. A State Department accountability review board, led by former diplomat Thomas Pickering and Adm. Michael G. Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, backed that conclusion. Their report faulted State Department officials for inadequate security at the mission.
After the first attack, an eight-person rescue team organized by the CIA that included Doherty flew from Tripoli to Benghazi. The team made its way to the CIA annex, where Doherty joined Woods in a firing position on the roof. Hicks told investigators that other U.S. special operations troops were ordered not to board a second plane.
"There were military assets, there was military personnel, they were told to stand down," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said Monday on the Fox program "Fox and Friends." Chaffetz acknowledged in an interview published Monday with the Washington Post that they would have arrived after the attack on the CIA annex was over. He said they could have provided first aid.
Chaffetz's office said he was not available for comment Tuesday.
"I certainly don't see any smoking gun," said Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who served on the House Intelligence Committee. "It's not clear what's being covered up, or what more could have been done."