WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a question congressional investigators have long been seeking to answer: Could the military have reached the besieged diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, in time to prevent the killings of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, the night of Sept. 11, 2012?
The chairman of the House Benghazi committee — echoing comments by his top lawyer — now says no.
"Whether or not they could have gotten there in time, I don't think there is any issue with respect to that. They couldn't," Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told Fox News this week.
Democrats seized on the comment, saying Gowdy was dismissing a central element of the two-year investigation into the attacks. The sole purpose of the probe, they argue, is to undercut the presidential bid of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time.
Some Republicans have said military forces were either delayed or slow to respond to the violence as it was unfolding. Critics of the Obama administration have repeatedly suggested that U.S. forces could have been rushed to the scene of the attacks, but never received the call.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Benghazi panel, said Gowdy's statement proves that "a central Republican allegation" about the attacks is wrong, while Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Gowdy "has been forced to admit that one of the most pernicious ... theories" in the Benghazi investigation "has no basis in fact."
Reinforcing the Democratic message, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent the statements by Democratic committee members to reporters.
But committee Republicans said Gowdy's comment was not the end of the story.
In his interview with Fox on Tuesday, Gowdy went on to question why the military could not have saved American lives during the 13-hour, twin assaults, which began at a diplomatic outpost and extended to a nearby CIA annex.
"The next question is, why could you not" get there in time? Gowdy asked during the Fox interview. "Why were you not positioned to do it?"
Democrats "did ... a real disservice when they selectively leaked part of" the questions asked by the committee's former top lawyer, retired Army Lt. Gen. Dana Chipman, Gowdy said.
Chipman told former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at a closed-door hearing Jan. 8 that the military acted properly that night, adding: "Nothing could have affected what occurred in Benghazi."
Even so, Gowdy and other Republicans have been seeking to interview service members who have made public allegations that military planes could have been sent to Benghazi but were not deployed.
A senior Pentagon official has 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.
Citing Gowdy's comment that planes could not have responded in time, Cummings called on the Benghazi panel "to stop harassing the Pentagon with baseless demands, release the transcripts of our witness interviews and stop wasting millions of taxpayer dollars dragging out the investigation closer and closer to the election."
Gowdy has promised a report before summer, but said in the meantime the investigation continues.
"Democrats may be content to stick to their preordained conclusions, but the committee has an obligation to determine what can and cannot be substantiated when it comes to the new witnesses we have interviewed and the new evidence we have gathered," he said.