Retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell, testifying before the House Oversight Committee's fourth hearing on the attack, said he and others at U.S. Armed Forces headquarters in Africa quickly came to the conclusion the attack was unrelated to the video, which had sparked a protest in Cairo earlier that day.
"As the attack was ongoing, it was unclear whether it was an attempted kidnapping, rescue, recovery, protracted hostile engagement or any or all of the above," Lovell said.
New documents released by court order Wednesday provided an opening for renewed criticism of the White House from Republicans, who repeatedly asked whether the State Department had shirked its responsibility to protect Americans abroad.
"The military could have made a response," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. "See, I believe we had the capability" to save at least the two Navy SEALs who died several hours after the beginning of the attack.
But Lovell said he agreed with the conclusion of Armed Services Committee Chair Buck McKeon, R-Calif., who said last month he believed "that given where the troops were, how quickly the thing all happened and how quickly it dissipated, we probably couldn't have done more than we did."
And yet, Lovell said, he felt the military could still have tried.
"We should have continued to move forward with whatever forces we had to move forward with," he testified.
Lovell's testimony comes in direct contradiction to that of then-Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell, who last month testified his analysts considered for several days the possibility of the attack having been brought on by extremists who took advantage of a protest over the video.
Thursday's hearing comes just hours after the release of 41 documents of State Department communications, declassified by court order Wednesday. Included among them was an email from then-White House aide Ben Rhodes, now a deputy national security advisor, outlining a communication strategy for then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's television appearances for the Sunday after the attack.
The goals, Rhodes wrote, were "to convey that the United States is doing everything we can do to protect our people and facilities abroad; to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not in a broader failure of policy; to show that we will be resolute in brining people who harm Americans to Justice, and stand steadfast through these protests; to reenforce the president and administration's strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges."
Republicans pounced on the documents, calling them proof that the White House "orchestrated an effort to deflect attention away from their failed Libya policy and the resurgence of al Qaeda another other terrorists."
"The emails provide additional evidence that senior officials knew the attack on our mission in Benghazi was a complex attack and not a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video," House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said in a statement Wednesday.
But the White House denied the emails were the smoking gun Republicans have been looking for, saying that Rhodes' email was actually addressing the larger situation of unrest, including the protests in Cairo and fears others might break out.
“In the e-mail, Ben Rhodes makes clear that our primary goals included making sure our people in the field were protected and bringing those responsible for the attacks to justice,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “The content reflects what the administration was saying at the time and what we understood to be the facts at the time.”
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