WASHINGTON — Former CIA Director David Petraeus faced questions on Wednesday from a House committee investigating the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, as the inquiry entered its third calendar year — and a presidential election year.
Petraeus was the first of four former Obama administration officials scheduled to appear before the Republican-led committee in the next week. The committee will question former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday.
All four interviews were set to be conducted behind closed doors.
The panel's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., told reporters that about a dozen interviews remain, including sessions with national security adviser Susan Rice and Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes. The Benghazi committee hopes to release a report "within the next few months," said spokesman Matt Wolking.
Democrats argue that the inquiry is moving slowly to undermine the candidacy of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who served as secretary of state at the time of the attacks. Clinton testified for some 11 hours last year before the panel and no revelations emerged during her day-night session.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's senior Democrat, called the Benghazi investigation "hyperpartisan and ineffective."
Democrats note that the probe, begun in May 2014, has gone on longer than the 9/11 Commission took to investigate the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001.
Instead of following the bipartisan model set by the 9/11 Commission, Cummings said, Gowdy and other Republicans "continue to drag out this political charade closer to the 2016 presidential election, and the American taxpayers continue to pay the price."
Republican insistence that the investigation is not politically motivated was undermined last year when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested that the House committee could take credit for Clinton's slumping poll numbers.
The committee said it interviewed 64 witnesses last year, including 53 people who had never been interviewed by any congressional committee looking into the September 2012 attacks, which killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The panel also has reviewed about 100,000 pages of documents.
The attacks have been the subject of seven previous congressional investigations and an independent panel led by former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
The 12-member committee has spent more than $5 million since its creation.
Republicans say the committee has been hindered by stonewalling by the State Department and other executive branch agencies.
"While we are still waiting to receive crucial documents from the State Department and the CIA, and still waiting for important witnesses to be made available, the committee is diligently working to complete its thorough, fact-centered investigation," Wolking said.