Hoping to funnel into one chronological timeline the rampantly varying accounts of how President Obama's administration responded last Sept. 11 in the wake of an attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday will hear from three "whistleblowers" expected to offer testimony enormously at odds with the administration's characterization of a strike that killed four Americans.
Testifying are Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant Secretary of State for counterterrorism; Greg Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, former regional security officer in Libya. Excerpts of an interview Hicks did with investigators that were released to CBS News' "Face the Nation" on Sunday boomeranged the Benghazi politics back into the spotlight four months after hearings on the issue in the House and Senate.
According to Hicks, "everybody in the mission" believed it was an act of terror "from the get-go." But on Sept. 16 - five days after the attack - U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice hit the Sunday show circuit, peddling the theory that the strike began "spontaneously" out of protests in Egypt and was not a premeditated terrorist act. Rice's spot on "Face the Nation" that day was preceded by the new president of Libya, Mohammed al-Magariaf, who said his government had "no doubt that this was pre-planned, predetermined."
"I've never been as embarrassed in my life, in my career, as on that day," Hicks told investigators of Rice's appearances.
The top official in Libya after Amb. Chris Stevens died in the attack, Hicks said he was never consulted about the administration's talking points that puppeteered Rice's remarks: "I was personally known to one of Rice's staff members," he said. "Even on Sunday morning, I could have been called, and, you know, the phone call could have been, 'Hey, Greg, Amb. Rice is going to say blah, blah, blah,' and I could have said, 'No, that's not the right thing.' That phone call was never made."
Administration officials have staunchly stood by Rice, whose vilification after the attack cost her top billing on the short list to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At a Tuesday night gala at which Rice was receiving an award, Vice President Joe Biden said she had "the absolute, total, complete confidence of the president."
Critics, though, of the Benghazi "cover-up" have continued to rally attention to the White House's bungled talking points, as well as reports that the State Department deliberately declined requests for additional security in Benghazi.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who will oversee Wednesday's hearing, told CBS News on Monday that the administration's ever-evolving statements were likely perpetrated by political concerns, three weeks out of a major election. Or, he suggested, "it could be a general want to believe that we're closer to an end of the war on terror than right in the middle of it."
Issa said he expects this week to find someone from Clinton's circle - if not the former secretary of state herself - at the heart of covering tracks after any missteps by the administration. Clinton testified on Benghazi in January before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she took responsibility but conceded there was no "clear picture" of what happened Sept. 11 as the situation unraveled.
"If Hillary Clinton is not responsible for the before, during and after mistakes... it's somebody close," Issa said. "There certainly are plenty of people close to the former secretary who knew, and apparently were part of the problem."
Those close to Clinton who may have engaged in "deliberately, premeditated lying to the American people," Issa said, could include Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy or Beth Jones, acting assistant secretary for near eastern affairs at the State Department. Hicks said one day after Rice's media blitz, he called Jones to inquire about the source for the ambassador's statements; the tone of her answer - "I don't know," he continued - indicated that "I perhaps asked a question that I should not have asked."
Earlier this week, Fox News reported that Thompson plans to testify Wednesday that Clinton attempted to cut out the counterterrorism bureau from communications about the attack - a charge that would likely cripple her pristine record as secretary, as well as any chance that she'll mount a presidential bid in 2016.
Citing in particular Hicks's claim that a team of Special Forces prepared to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi during the attack was forbidden from doing so by U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, CBS News national security analyst Juan Zarate said during a Tuesday edition of "Flash Points" that the reputation of the administration, as a whole, hangs in the lurch.
"The stakes are pretty high," Zarate said. "If it turns out that there's some indication that the White House or others were not only manipulating talking points, framing how Susan Rice was talking about this on the Sunday talk shows, but was actually trying to construe this in a way that demonstrated it wasn't a terror attack, and that actually impacted our response - the fact that perhaps they didn't put things in motion was because it was purposely not being treated or discussed as a terror attack from the get-go, that's a real problem."