WASHINGTON — U.S. military personnel knew early on that the Benghazi attack was a "hostile action" and not a protest gone awry, according to a retired general who served at U.S. Africa Command's headquarters in Germany during the attack.
While the exact nature of the attack was not clear from the start, "what we did know early on was that this was a hostile action," Retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Lovell said in his prepared statement Thursday morning to members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. "This was no demonstration gone terribly awry."
Lovell's testimony contradicts the story that the Obama administration gave in the early days following the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. Consulate that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Back then the administration insisted that the best intelligence it had from CIA and other officials indicated that the attack was a protest against an anti-Islam video that turned violent.
Lovell's testimony is the first from a member of the military who was at Africa Command at the time of the attack. Lovell was deputy director for intelligence at Africa Command.
Lovell did not question the Pentagon claim that it could not have scrambled forces in the region quickly enough to have prevented the deaths of the Americans. Lovell said no one at the time of the attack knew how long it would go, so could not have determined then that there was no use in trying.
"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.
While people on the ground were fighting for their lives, discussions among U.S. leaders outside Libya "churned on about what we should do," but the military waited for a request for assistance from the State Department, Lovell said.
There were questions about whether the U.S. military could have responded to Benghazi in time, but "we should have tried," Lovell said.
Most Democratic committee members directed their questions to other witnesses, who spoke about the political situation in Libya since the U.S.-assisted overthrow in 2011 of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, cited the testimony of then-commander of AFRICOM Gen. Carter Ham and others who testified that the military moved a special forces unit from Europe to Sicily while the attack was ongoing, and sent a special anti-terrorism team of Marines to Tripoli within a day of the attack.
"Why are you testifying that the U.S. military did not try to save lives," Cummings asked.
Lovell said he was not disputing that information.
"I did not say we did not try," Lovell said. "What I'm speaking to is that we as a nation need to try to do more, in preparations, so that in the future ... we can support the people and have their backs."
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., asked Lovell if he disagreed with Rep. Howard "Buck"s McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, who told reporters last month that the military responded reasonably in Benghazi.
"I think I've pretty well been satisfied 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," McKeon said.
Lovell did not deny what McKeon said. "We should have continued to move forward with whatever forces we had to move forward with," Lovell said.
He described a sense of desperation while attack unfolded when asked by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, how the military responded during the attack.
"We sent a drone overhead," Lovell said, almost mumbling. "It was desperation.... There was a lot of waiting for State Department for what it was that they wanted."
"Did they ever tell you to go to Benghazi?" Chaffetz asked.
Lovell is testifying in a week of other Benghazi-related news.
Chaffetz also submitted a Sept. 12, 2012, email from then-Acting Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones to then- State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland and others that attributed the attack to Ansar al Sharia, a militia in Benghazi associated with al Qaeda.
In the email, Jones said she told Libya's then-ambassador to the U.S., Ali Aujali, at 9:45 a.m. that morning "that the group that conducted the attacks – Ansar Al Sharia – is affiliated with extremists."
Some Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and oversight committee chairman Darrel Issa, R.-Calif., have questioned whether the military did all it could to protect U.S. personnel as terrorists overran the State Department's compound in Benghazi and assaulted a CIA compound nearby.
Congress has heard from Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. They agreed with a State Department review headed by former Admiral Mike Mullen that said: "the interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time, given the speed of the attacks, for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."
On Tuesday, a conservative watchdog group released an e-mail showing that White House aide Ben Rhodes wanted to blame the 2012 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on a protest that never happened there.
Referring to Benghazi and Middle East unrest, he said that then-national security adviser Susan Rice should "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that sentence in the e-mail, which was among several provided to the oversight committee as related to Benghazi, referred to protests occurring in Arab capitals, not to the Benghazi attack.
The White House later acknowledged the attack on Benghazi was a planned terrorist attack and not preceded by a protest.