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Panel grills ex-officials over Benghazi

| Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 9:18 p.m.

WASHINGTON — House Republicans investigating last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, pressed a former U.N. ambassador and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman on Thursday over their review of the Obama administration's handling of the matter.

GOP members of the House oversight committee asked why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials weren't questioned during the inquiry overseen by Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen. They chaired an independent panel that reviewed the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Their report last year harshly criticized the State Department for its security posture in the months before militants stormed the Benghazi facility. But House GOP members said it was incomplete and lacked independence.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., called the report by Pickering and Mullen a “whitewash” and asked why Clinton and Tom Donilon, then Obama's national security adviser, weren't interviewed. Pickering said they weren't involved in Benghazi security decisions.

“If the secretary wasn't involved, I must be on another planet,” Mica answered.

Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina later asked Mullen whether he interviewed President Obama.

Fellow Republican Rep. John Jordan of Ohio accused Mullen of tipping off Clinton's former chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, about the investigation. Rep. Jason Chaffetz , R-Utah, argued with Mullen about U.S. or allied military assets; Chaffetz insisted they could have been mobilized during the attack.

“When we bombed Libya for months, we did so in connection with our NATO partners, and you never asked that NATO partners to help and engage,” Chaffetz said.

Mullen responded sharply: “I actually commanded NATO forces, and the likelihood that NATO could respond in a situation like that was absolutely zero.”

Pickering was the U.N. envoy during President George H.W. Bush's administration. Mullen was the top U.S. general under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama.

Mullen defended his and Pickering's report.

“We had unfettered access to State Department personnel and documents. There were no limitations,” Mullen said. “We received the full cooperation of all witnesses and every State Department office. We interviewed everyone we thought it was necessary to interview. We operated independently and were given freedom to pursue the investigation as we deemed necessary.”

The hearing with Pickering and Mullen carried on for nearly five hours. After breaking, the panel heard from the father of slain Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods and the mother of Sean Smith, who worked as an information technology specialist when he was killed in Benghazi.

“I still do not know why there was insufficient security when clearly the people on the ground were begging for it,” said Pat Smith, who has strongly criticized Clinton and others in the Obama administration. “Why wasn't our military called in to help? That is what the military is for. They didn't even try.”

In advance of the hearing, House Democrats released an 80-page report that concluded the military wasn't ordered to “stand down” during the Benghazi attack .

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