WASHINGTON A former U.S. diplomat in Libya told lawmakers on Wednesday more could have been done to prevent last year's deadly assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi in which the U.S. ambassador was killed.
In a congressional hearing marked by emotional testimony and angry charges of political partisanship, Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of last year's attack, became the first U.S. official on the ground in Libya during the attacks to testify publicly.
He detailed a series of frantic phone calls to Washington and between Tripoli and Benghazi, including one from U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens that was cut off after Stevens said, "Greg, we're under attack."
Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack by suspected Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda on a lightly defended U.S. diplomatic mission and a more fortified CIA compound in Benghazi.
Hicks gave an emotional account during the hearing of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, at times choking up and stopping to collect himself and sip water as he described the telephone call from Stevens with the news that the U.S. diplomats were under attack.
Learning of Stevens' death "was the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life," Hicks said.
Hicks said a special forces team was not permitted to travel to Benghazi, although U.S. authorities had no idea how long the attacks would go on. If a U.S. aircraft had been sent to fly over the eastern Libyan city when the assault on the diplomatic facilities began, he said, it might have deterred the assailants.
The Benghazi incident was a headache for President Barack Obama as he campaigned for re-election. Republicans accused him of being weak on foreign affairs.
Opponents have continued to assail the Democratic president over security lapses in Benghazi as well as the administration's early, conflicting accounts of what happened there.
But after months of criticism, there is little sign that the Benghazi issue is hitting Obama's poll numbers or interfering with policy objectives like winning immigration reform or working out how to react to the Syrian civil war.
Democrats charged Republicans during the hearing - the latest of a series - with politicizing the attacks and making false accusations about members of the Obama administration.
"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 to launch ... unfounded accusations to smear public officials," said U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee.
Republicans focused their criticism on security, early accounts of the report and the conduct of the investigation, such as witness Eric Nordstrom not being questioned by the board probing Benghazi although he had first-hand knowledge of the attacks.
"The witnesses before us are actual experts on what really happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks," said U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight Panel, who referred to Hicks, Thompson and Nordstrom as "whistleblowers."
"These witnesses deserve to be heard on the Benghazi attacks, the flaws in the accountability review board's methodology, process and conclusion," he said.
Democratic members of Congress closely questioned Hicks and the other two witnesses: Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary for counterrorism at the State Department; and Nordstrom, a regional security officer in Libya.
Some noted, for example, that Hicks' assertion that a U.S. military plane could have been sent from Italy to help contradicted sworn testimony by U.S. military commanders, including General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I have seen nothing to make me question the truthfulness of our nation's military commanders," Cummings said.
Benghazi became the topic of the day in Washington, featuring in media briefings at the State Department, Pentagon and White House as Obama administration officials tried to get out ahead of Republican criticism.
"It is a simple fact that from first hours of Benghazi attack there have been attempts by Republicans to politicize it," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
A State Department official said the department has participated in eight hearings, more than 20 inter-agency briefings and responded to more than 100 letters and questions since September 11.
Republicans deny that they are motivated by a desire to discredit a Democratic White House or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered a favorite to be the party's presidential nominee in 2016.
An official inquiry into the incident released in December concluded that "leadership and management failures" in two State Department bureaus led to a security posture "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jim Loney)