House to hear long-sought testimony about Benghazi from task force chief

Congress will hear eagerly awaited testimony Wednesday on the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack from a special operations task force commander who is set to retire the next day.

Col. George Bristol, the former commander of a task force that operated in Northern and Western Africa, will appear at a classified, members-only briefing with a House Armed Services subcommittee, congressional and Defense sources told The Hill.

Republicans have been pressing the military to allow Bristol to testify.

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They argue he has a unique perspective, given their concerns that the military wasn’t prepared to respond quickly to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic annex that left four dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

“Col. Bristol has experience that could be valuable in deepening our understanding of the events of that day,” a committee source told The Hill.

“Of particular interest to the committee is what our posture was in the weeks and months that proceeded the attack.”

Republicans have accused the Obama administration of downplaying or covering up the attack amid the heat of the 2012 presidential election, and they criticized the military’s posture in the run-up to the Sept. 11 anniversary.

Bristol’s testimony has not been easy to obtain.

House Oversight subcommittee on National Security Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two of the most vocal critics of the administration’s Benghazi response, had requested that Bristol appear.

The Pentagon told CBS News on July 5 that Bristol, the commander of the Joint Special Forces Task Force-Trans Sahara, could not testify because he was retired.

But the Marine Corps Times first reported two weeks ago that Bristol had not yet retired and was actually on active duty, preparing for retirement through the end of the month.

Marine spokeswoman Maj. Shawn Haney said Bristol is in fact retiring from active duty on Aug. 1, which means he will be spending his last official day of service before Rep. Martha Roby’s (R-Ala.) Armed Services subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Haney said that Bristol was placed on the Marine Corps officers retired list on July 1, but he was voluntarily retained on active-duty until July 31 on terminal leave.

In response to the Times story, Graham quickly sent a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking for his request to be reconsidered.

“Due to his in-depth knowledge of the region, coupled with his close interaction with U.S. Special Operations Forces operating on the African content, I believed he would be the ideal person to speak with about what happened on the ground in Benghazi,” Graham wrote.

A Pentagon spokesman said Bristol was placed on the retired list on July 1 due to an administrative error. The spokesman said the Pentagon had been, and would continue to be, forthcoming on the investigation of the Benghazi attack.

Bristol left his post as the special operations task force commander in March. At the change-of-command ceremony, he said that “an evil” has descended on Africa, according to Stars and Stripes. “It is on us to stomp it out.”

Several other military officials have testified before congressional committees over the Benghazi attack, as have high-profile Pentagon and State Department officials.

House Republicans from numerous congressional committees have led the charge. The House issued a multicommittee report earlier this year that criticized the State Department — and to a lesser extent the Pentagon — for actions before, during and after the attack.

Democrats have accused Republicans of engaging in a political witch hunt by continuing to press a Benghazi investigation after an independent review board released its findings.

While much of the public attention has focused on the public hearings that have occurred in the House Oversight Committee, the House Armed Services panel has hosted a series of closed briefings with military officials.

The committee has already heard from the commander on the ground at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, the night of the attack.

After the briefing last month from Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, the commander of the Tripoli site security team, the Armed Services panel said there was no “stand down” order given the night of the attack. The accusation of a “stand down” order had been one of the most serious made by critics of the administration’s response to the attack.

“Contrary to news reports, Gibson was not ordered to ‘stand down’ by higher command authorities in response to his understandable desire to lead a group of three other Special Forces soldiers to Benghazi,” the Armed Services panel said in a readout of the meeting.

There has been some tension among Republicans over the way Benghazi is being investigated. Conservative lawmakers have pushed GOP House leadership to create a special committee to lead a single investigation.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas) said last week that he was circulating a discharge petition to force GOP leaders to allow a House vote on forming a select committee, a procedural move rarely invoked by a member of the majority party.

But Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the sponsor of the bill to create a Benghazi select committee, said he would not sign onto a discharge petition to force a vote.

The article was updated at 8 p.m.

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