Washington - The US military acted properly on the night of the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, according to leaked testimony from a retired, three-star Army general who served as chief lawyer for Republicans on the House committee investigating the attacks.
Retired Army Lt General Dana Chipman "repeatedly commended the military's actions on the night of the attacks during closed interviews with Defense Department officials," including a Jan 8 interview with former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta.
Chipman, a former judge advocate general for the Army, served as chief counsel for Republicans on the House Benghazi panel from August 2014 until January.
Top Democrats on the committee - Representatives Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Adam Smith of Washington - released the testimony on Sunday in a letter to the panel's chair, Republican Trey Gowdy. The letter is the latest volley in an escalating, election-year fight over the House Benghazi investigation, which has lasted more than two years.
Democrats have called for panel to disband and say it is a thinly veiled excuse for Republicans to undermine Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks.
Republicans say the Obama administration has dragged its feet, failing to produce needed documents or interview subjects, delaying a final report in the twin assaults on Septrmber 11, 2012, that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The letter quotes Chipman as telling Panetta: "I think you ordered exactly the right forces to move out and to head toward a position where they could reinforce what was occurring in Benghazi or Tripoli or elsewhere in the region. And, sir, I don't disagree with the actions you took, the recommendations you made and the decisions you directed."
Chipman later told Panetta that he was "worried" that US officials were caught by surprise during the Benghazi raids, which occurred on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Still, Chipman told Panetta: "Nothing could have affected what occurred in Benghazi," the letter said.
Democrats said the comments by Chipman contradict a persistent GOP claim that the Obama administration could have done more to respond to the attacks. Previous investigations have blamed management failures at the State Department for a lack of security at the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, an issue that has dogged Clinton and other Obama administration officials.
"The conclusions of your former chief counsel match almost exactly the findings - from more than two years ago - of the House Committee on Armed Services, which conducted its own investigation into the attacks in Benghazi," Cummings and Smith wrote in a letter to Gowdy.
Select Benghazi panel
Cummings is the senior Democrat on the Benghazi panel, while Smith is senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He also serves on the Select Benghazi panel.
Jamal Ware, a spokesperson for the Benghazi panel, said he could not comment on the remarks attributed to Chipman, saying the panel "can't talk about any of the transcribed interviews" conducted in private. The panel has interviewed more than 90 witnesses, including at least 71 who have never been interviewed about Benghazi by a congressional committee, Ware said.
Gowdy has said the committee has made "considerable progress" in recent months and expects to issue a final report before summer.
Republicans emailed a statement from Chipman on Monday saying he agrees with Gowdy that if some witnesses refer the committee to other witnesses, "the responsible thing to do is interview them. The committee has an obligation to the American people to determine what can and cannot be substantiated, so if an individual makes public allegations about Benghazi, the committee should interview that person."
Cummings and Smith said Gowdy omitted Chipman's comments when he fired back at the Defence Department recently for criticizing the GOP-led investigation into the Benghazi attacks. Gowdy's actions, coupled with delays that have pushed the 2-year-old inquiry into the heat of the 2016 presidential race, "have damaged the credibility of the Select Committee beyond repair," they wrote.
The letter from the Democrats comes after Gowdy sent a letter to Defence Secretary Ash Carter complaining that a top Pentagon official had intentionally mischaracterised the House inquiry.
Gowdy said comments by Stephen C. Hedger, assistant secretary of defence for legislative affairs, were "riddled with factual inaccuracies" and did "a disservice to the public" and employees at the Defence Department.
Hedger, in an April 28 letter to Gowdy, expressed frustration with the Benghazi panel, citing a "crescendo" of costly, duplicative and unnecessary requests, including a few based on claims made on Facebook or talk radio.