Panetta testifies before Benghazi committee

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Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sat down for five hours in a closed-door meeting of the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Friday as part of a rush of interviews the committee is conducting early in the year. 

Panetta’s appearance on Friday follows a four-hour Wednesday interview with former CIA Director David Petraeus and as a session on Thursday with Charlene Lamb, a former State Department official in charge of diplomatic security.

Panetta declined to answer questions from reporters after exiting the meeting in the basement of the Capitol on Friday.

A day before the interview, Panetta said on MSNBC that the Obama administration had done all it could to save the lives of the four Americans killed in the diplomatic compound in Libya in 2012.

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“There was never any order to stand down,” he said on Thursday. “On the contrary, the whole effort was to do everything possible to try to save lives.”

Lawmakers appear to be questioning the status of U.S. forces during the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attacks, among other issues.

“If we did not have assets in the region ... why did we not have assets in the region on the anniversary of 9/11?” Chairman Trey GowdyTrey GowdyTrump is right about one thing Benghazi Report and Hillary: What it means for Philadelphia Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation MORE (R-S.C.) said on Fox News on Thursday.

On MSNBC, Panetta claimed that he “immediately” put forces in position to assist the Americans on the ground in Benghazi.

“The problem was that attack ended quickly and because of time and distance, we never had a chance to get there,” he claimed. “This is a tragic event.”

Critics of the Benghazi Committee’s work, including its Democrat members, have accused Gowdy of dragging out the panel’s work in order to damage the political prospects of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

On Friday Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel's top Democrat, claimed that Panetta, who endorsed Clinton for president on Thursday, was not asked to appear before the panel until the day after Clinton’s high-profile testimony in October.

“The problem is that even Republicans condemned their marathon hearing with Secretary Clinton as an epic failure, so now they are trying to clean up their mess,” Cummings said in a statement.

Gowdy and other Republicans have repeatedly denied allegations that their investigation is politically motivated. Instead, they say, the probe has been prolonged by the Obama administration’s refusal to cooperate.

“I want to get it done as soon as possible,” Gowdy said on CNN on Thursday. “I want to wrap up tomorrow, but I've got a dozen more witnesses and I've got three departments that haven't given me my documents," he added. 

This week, Gowdy predicted that the committee would finalize its slate of interviews my mid-February and then turn to compiling and writing up its findings. The analysis is expected to be released at some point later this year.

This story was updated at 3:49 p.m.