WASHINGTON - House Republicans insist the Obama administration is covering up information about last year's deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, rejecting administration assurances to the contrary and stoking a controversy with implications for the 2016 presidential race.
Republicans on five House committees are pressing ahead with their own investigations despite an exhaustive independent review that blistered the State Department, more than 25,000 pages of documents sent to Congress and hours of testimony from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Three State Department witnesses, including the former deputy chief in Libya, are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at a session certain to attract attention after recent disclosures from the panel's Republicans.
The panel's Republican chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, said the witnesses deserve to be heard as the session got underway.
The hearing is the latest in a long-running and bitter dispute between the administration and congressional Republicans who have challenged the White House's actions before and after the Benghazi attack.
Democrats see it differently.
"It's politics," said Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat and a member of the Oversight panel.
"If it's a fair-minded question of what we could do better (on security), that would benefit us all. But if it's intended to embarrass the president or perhaps Hillary Clinton then it will be damaging no matter who the next secretary of state is or who the next president is," Welch added.
The target of much of the conservative wrath is Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016 who stepped down after four grueling years as the nation's top diplomat with sky-high approval ratings. In her last appearance before Congress in January, a defiant Clinton took responsibility for the department's missteps leading up to the assault while rejecting suggestions that the administration had tried to mislead the country about the attack.
The scheduled witnesses were Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, the former deputy of mission in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer in Libya who testified before the panel in October.
On Sept. 11, 2012, two separate attacks hours apart on the U.S. facility in Benghazi killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. An independent panel led by former top diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Gen. Mike Mullen concluded that management and leadership failures at the State Department led to "grossly" inadequate security at the mission. The panel's report singled out the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near East Affairs.
The report failed to placate Republican lawmakers, conservatives and outside groups, some of whom contend Benghazi is comparable to the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals and deserves a thorough examination. Two of the outside groups -- Special Operations Speaks and Special Ops OPSEC -- have been raising money on the issue.
The Watergate scandal brought down President Richard Nixon in the 1970s and Iran-Contra arms deal tarnished the administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
In her January testimony Clinton insisted that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn't reach her desk.
"I did not see these requests," she said. "They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them."
Yet Republicans are pressing ahead, holding hearings and issuing an interim report that criticized her.
"It looks pretty clear that there was some catastrophic decision-making that in some way contributed to the death of those four Americans," said Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. "And that part I think is what the investigation will unfold."
The Pentagon provided Congress with a timeline of the actions of security personnel and other senior officials around the attack last November, but Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday that it was insufficient.
The Oversight committee is looking to its witnesses to "put forward information about Benghazi that the Obama administration has tried to suppress," said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the panel.
Last week , Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican and another possible 2016 candidate, said Clinton's "dereliction of duty" in handling Libya should preclude her from holding office.
Committee Democrats argue that the investigation has become politicized, pointing to their exclusion from much of the inquiry. Two Democratic staffers participated in an April 11 interview with Hicks, but the panel's top Democrat said their efforts to find out about Thompson have been thwarted and they've been unable to talk to the witness.