A senior Pentagon official criticized the House Republican-led investigation into the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, saying the panel has made a "crescendo" of costly, duplicative and unnecessary requests, including some based on claims made on Facebook or talk radio.
Stephen C. Hedger, an assistant secretary of defense, expressed frustration with the Benghazi panel's potentially futile calls for witnesses and information, including some that were later withdrawn. Hedger also challenged a line of questioning of current and former military officials that focused on hypotheticals suggested by committee members or staff.
"This type of questioning poses the risk that your final report may be based on speculation rather than a fact-based analysis of what a military officer did do or could have done given his or her knowledge at the time of the attacks," Hedger wrote Thursday in a letter to Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Benghazi panel.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, died during the twin assaults on Sept. 11, 2012. Questions about security at the diplomatic facility have dogged Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time.
Hedger complained in the three-page letter that the committee asked the Pentagon to track down four pilots who did not deploy to Benghazi on the night of the attacks, as well an unnamed mechanic at an air base in Europe who claimed on Facebook that planes could have been sent to Benghazi to respond.
The panel also requested an interview with a person identified only as "John from Iowa," who told a talk radio show he operated a camera for a remotely piloted aircraft and saw a video feed related to Benghazi on the night of the attacks, Hedger said.
The request to interview the four pilots was later withdrawn. Hedger called the proposed interview with the mechanic unnecessary and said officials were unable to locate John from Iowa, despite expending "significant resources to locate anyone who might match the description."
The mechanic's claim is "easily dismissed" by statements from a number of high-level officials already interviewed by the Benghazi panel, Hedger said. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military officials have repeatedly told Congress there was not enough time to get planes from Europe to Libya to respond to the attacks, and the military lacked accurate intelligence about what was happening.
Democrats said Hedger's letter showed how far afield the GOP-led probe has gone since its launch in May 2014.
"The Department of Defense has a critical job to do, which is to keep our nation safe from those who would do us harm. But Republicans continue to squander millions of taxpayer dollars chasing right-wing conspiracy theories and forcing Pentagon officials to waste their time on this partisan fishing expedition," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel's senior Democrat.
A spokesman for the committee, however, called Hedger's letter "further proof the Benghazi Committee is conducting a thorough, fact-centered investigation" that includes interviews with dozens of people who were never interviewed in previous investigations.
At least seven previous congressional investigations and an independent panel led by a former U.N. ambassador and retired admiral have faulted security at the Benghazi compound, but debunked a range of other claims.
"It's unfortunate it took the threat of subpoenas for the Pentagon to make witnesses available earlier this year. This delayed the committee from learning a tremendous amount of new information from several witnesses," said committee spokesman Matt Wolking.
Gowdy has said he expects to issue a final report "before summer."
A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., gave Gowdy a vote of confidence Friday.
"Speaker Ryan believes Chairman Gowdy has run the committee with the highest level of integrity, and he has full confidence in his efforts to conduct a thorough and complete review of the events surrounding the Benghazi attack," spokeswoman Ashlee Strong said.