WASHINGTON, Nov 16 – Ex-CIA chief David Petraeus began his testimony before lawmakers on Friday about the September 11 assault on the US mission in Benghazi, his first appearance since resigning suddenly a week ago.
Packs of reporters and camera crews were on hand at the US Capitol hoping to catch Petraeus entering the highly-anticipated, closed-door hearing of the House Intelligence Committee but they were left disappointed.
The retired general was escorted through a side door, a staffer said, and lawmakers who used the main entrance declined to discuss what they hoped to hear from Petraeus, who is embroiled in scandal over an extra-marital affair.
Republicans have blasted the White House over its response to the Benghazi attack – which killed the US ambassador and three other Americans – and its initial conflicting explanations of what happened, hinting at a wider cover-up.
The mission in Benghazi, Libya included a CIA operation, which Petraeus would have overseen before quitting as spy chief last week over his affair with biographer Paula Broadwell, which was uncovered by the FBI.
Republicans have accused Washington’s UN envoy Susan Rice of misleading the country by telling Sunday talk shows after the attack that it was part of a “spontaneous” protest against an anti-Islam video.
It eventually emerged that there was no protest, but rather a coordinated assault on the compound believed to have been carried out by Al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia militants.
Petraeus will testify at two closed-door hearings on Friday, and according to CNN will say he knew “almost immediately” that Ansar al-Sharia was behind the attack, but that there was “confusion” about the assault.
The retired four-star general will also reportedly say that 20 intelligence reports linked the attack to the video, which sparked violent protests the same day in Cairo, where demonstrators scaled the walls of the US embassy.
Several congressional hearings, most of them closed to the public, are probing the Benghazi killings this week. A heated House hearing Thursday saw lawmakers exchange bitter accusations about the assault and the White House’s handling of it.
State Department and FBI probes into the attack are also currently under way, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has agreed to testify before House and Senate hearings once her department finishes a review of events in Benghazi. That report is expected by mid-December.
US senators got their first look Thursday at dramatic real-time video footage of the attack.
However, the hearings seem to have done little to resolve the partisan sparring over the administration’s response, with Republicans strongly hinting at a larger scandal and President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats appearing more reassured.