WASHINGTON -- A retired Air Force general on Thursday said the military should have reacted more aggressively to the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, bolstering Republicans' efforts to portray the administration's response to the assault as feckless.
Testifying to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, retired Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell, who was deputy head of intelligence at the Africa Command when the attack occurred, said he felt that military assets could have been deployed more adroitly to aid U.S. personnel under siege in the eastern Libyan city.
"There are accounts of time, space and capability discussions of the question: Could we have gotten there in time to make a difference," said Mr. Lowell, becoming the first senior military officer to offer a dissenting view on the plausibility of a U.S. military response to the attack. "The discussion is not in the could or could not in relation to time, space and capability -- the point is we should have tried." He added: "As another saying goes: 'Always move to the sound of the guns.' "
The testimony added to the voluminous record on the attacks Republicans have built over the past two years in an effort to detail what they describe as Obama administration failures to protect U.S. personnel in Libya and respond appropriately on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. But it yielded little substantive information about that night's events.
A White House email newly released Wednesday put senior aides to President Barack Obama on the defensive over Benghazi once again. Ben Rhodes, Mr. Obama's deputy national security adviser, wrote the email to help prepare Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for a round of interviews on Sunday TV talk shows to discuss the Benghazi attack and a wave of anti-American protests around the globe that week. He urged Ms. Rice "to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
Republicans and administration critics long have accused the White House and Ms. Rice, now the president's national security advisor, of falsely blaming the Benghazi attack on an anti-Islamic video to shield the president's image as a terrorism fighter in an election year.
Republicans have persistently sought new information about the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues, a pursuit that many Democrats see as an effort to undermine a potential 2016 presidential bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time.
In response to questions Thursday by GOP lawmakers, Mr. Lovell suggested that a more assertive military response that night was stymied by State Department officials' indecision. But the general, who was not then working in an operational capacity, did not detail specific military responses that may have saved lives. As officials discussed a military response, he said, considerations about "deference" to the State Department and Libyan government prevented a speedier response.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified last year that the Pentagon authorized deployment of troops to Benghazi, but that none of the teams was close enough to get there in time to make a difference.
A State Department spokeswoman pushed back Thursday against Mr. Lovell's testimony, noting that he was "a couple of levels" below the chairman. "I think there's a false premise out there that some have used for political purposes," spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
"There's a notion that anywhere in the world, military assets should be less than an hour away. Our military is the best in the world, but that just isn't how the world works." Suggesting the department failed to do more to help its people that night, she said, "is just disgusting, quite frankly."
Several Republicans have described the Rhodes email as a "smoking gun" that showed the White House sought to cover up a lethal terrorist attack for partisan gain.
The crude video to which he alluded, made privately in the United States, sparked protests and riots in more than 35 cities in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. But the CIA and other inquiries concluded that Libyan extremist groups carried out the Benghazi attack that killed the four Americans.
Mr. Rhodes' email was dated Sept. 14, 2012, three days after the attack. It was obtained by the conservative group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department. The White House has previously released emails detailing how "talking points" vetted by the CIA had shaped Ms. Rice's comments.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday that Mr. Carney's assertion that the email was not about Benghazi was a "total departure from reality." He also challenged Mr. Carney's statement that guidance to Ms. Rice was based on the best available intelligence. Mr. Rhodes "had no information that there was a spontaneous demonstration sparked by a video," Mr. McCain said on the Senate floor. " ... We need to know who gave her those talking points, because they are patently false."The Los Angeles Times contributed.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the email was not previously released because it did not deal specifically with Benghazi, but with the broader unrest.