By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former U.S. diplomat in Libya gave a dramatic account on Wednesday of the attack on the mission in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador, and told lawmakers that more could have been done to stop the assault by suspected Islamist militants.
Gregory Hicks, the second in command at the U.S. Embassy in Libya at the time, expressed his frustration in an emotionally charged congressional hearing that a U.S. military jet and special forces were not sent to help in Benghazi.
"They were furious," Hicks said of the four special operations members in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who wanted to go to Benghazi, but were told not to.
As the first U.S. official who was in Libya during the attack to testify publicly, Hicks detailed a series of frantic phone calls to Washington and between Tripoli and Benghazi the night of the attack on September 11, 2012.
One call from U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was cut off after Stevens said, "Greg, we're under attack."
Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack by suspected Islamists linked to al Qaeda on a lightly defended U.S. diplomatic mission and a more fortified CIA compound in Benghazi.
The testimony from Hicks and two other U.S. officials gave Republicans new fuel to assail President Barack Obama's administration over security lapses in Benghazi as well as early, conflicting accounts of what happened there.
The Benghazi incident followed Obama as he campaigned for re-election, with Republicans accusing him of being weak on foreign affairs. But after months of criticism, there is little sign it posed a serious threat to his reputation or his poll numbers.
Hicks gave an emotional account during the hearing of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee. His eyes grew teary and he choked up, collecting himself by sipping water as he gave a minute-by-minute description of the hectic night.
Hicks learned of Stevens' death in a 3 a.m. call from the Libyan prime minister. "I think it is the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life," he said.
If a U.S. jet had been scrambled and sent over the eastern Libyan city when the assault on the diplomatic facilities began, Hicks said, it might have deterred the assailants.
He was asked at one point how he responded to news that more resources would not be sent to Benghazi to help. He answered: "My reaction was that, 'OK, we're on our own. We're going to have to try to pull this off with the resources that we have available.'"
Democrats charged Republicans during the hearing - the latest of a series - with politicizing the attacks and making false accusations about members of the Obama administration.
"What we have seen over the past two weeks is a full- scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible and bipartisan way, but rather to launch ... unfounded accusations to smear public officials," said U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee.
Republicans focused their criticism on security, early accounts of the report and the conduct of the investigation, such as witness Eric Nordstrom not being questioned by the board probing Benghazi, although he had first-hand knowledge of the attacks.
"The witnesses before us are actual experts on what really happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks," said Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight Panel, who referred to Hicks, Mark Thompson and Nordstrom as "whistleblowers."
"These witnesses deserve to be heard on the Benghazi attacks, the flaws in the accountability review board's methodology, process and conclusion," he said.
Democratic members of Congress closely questioned Hicks and the other two witnesses: Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary for counterrorism at the State Department; and Nordstrom, a regional security officer in Libya.
Some noted, for example, that Hicks' assertion that a U.S. military plane could have been sent from Italy to help contradicted testimony by U.S. military commanders, including General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I have seen nothing to make me question the truthfulness of our nation's military commanders," Cummings said.
Benghazi became the topic of the day in Washington, featuring in media briefings at the State Department, Pentagon and White House as Obama administration officials tried to get out ahead of Republican criticism.
"It is a simple fact that from first hours of Benghazi attack there have been attempts by Republicans to politicize it," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
A State Department official said the department had participated in eight hearings, more than 20 inter-agency briefings and responded to more than 100 letters and questions since September 11.
Republicans deny that they are motivated by a desire to discredit a Democratic White House or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered a favorite to be the party's presidential nominee in 2016.
An official inquiry into the incident released in December concluded that "leadership and management failures" in two State Department bureaus led to a security posture "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria; Editing by Alistair Bell, Jim Loney and Peter Cooney)