Republican members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi are making efforts to contact an Air Force whistleblower who was quoted anonymously in a report Thursday that claimed pilots who could have reached Benghazi on the night of the attack were never given permission to launch.
"I definitely believe that our aircraft could have taken off and gotten there in a timely manner, maybe three hours at the most, in order to at least stop that second mortar attack ... and basically save lives that day," the unidentified source told Fox News.
Democrats on the committee pointed to the March 2014 testimony of Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist to argue there was no longer any question over whether U.S. forces could have reached Benghazi in time to spare the four Americans who died that night.
Zobrist told congressional investigators from the House Armed Services Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during a joint session "the probability of success would be so low and the risk would be so high" that he did not believe sending jets to Benghazi from the Aviano Air Base in Italy would have made a difference in the outcome of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
Zobrist served as the wing commander at the Aviano base when the raid occurred. The anonymous source who spoke out Thursday claimed he was stationed at Aviano and said his squadron was prepared to deploy to Benghazi but was never given orders to do so.
The whistleblower said he is among several Air Force squadron members who have thus far avoided speaking out for fear of retribution from above.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, chairman of the Benghazi committee, said Thursday he "find[s] it deeply troubling there are individuals who would like to share their stories, but have not because they are afraid of retaliation from their superiors."
"The committee has not interviewed these individuals and therefore cannot vouch for the credibility of their allegations," Gowdy added. "I can promise these witnesses and others, if they talk to our committee they will be treated fairly, and both Republican and Democrat members will have questions for them."
Committee Republicans have criticized their Democratic counterparts for largely refusing to participate in the two-year investigation, while the minority has accused Republican members of dragging the probe into election season in order to damage Hillary Clinton's campaign.
Matt Wolking, a spokesman for the panel's Republicans, noted that "unlike the Democrats," the majority has no "predetermined conclusions" about the Air Force whistleblower.
"Democrats may wish to dismiss or ignore some witnesses without talking to them, but that's not how thorough, fact-centered investigations are done," Wolking told the Washington Examiner.
It is unclear whether the Air Force whistleblower who spoke out this week is the same individual who claimed on his Facebook page that he had been deployed to Europe as a mechanic at the time of the attack and argued that aircraft at his base could have reached Benghazi in time to spare one or more of the Americans who died that night. In April, a Pentagon official slammed the committee for requesting an interview with the Facebook poster.
"The department maintains that locating these type of individuals are not necessary since such claims are easily dismissed by one of the multiple high-level military officials already interviewed," a Defense Department official wrote to the committee.
But Gowdy countered that asking questions of such potential witnesses is indeed valuable for the panel's probe.
"It is exactly this type of interview that has, to date, yielded results and uncovered new facts unavailable to more senior military commanders," the South Carolina Republican wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter on May 6.
The Pentagon has stonewalled requests to interview lower-ranking military members like the Facebook poster or has informed the committee of its inability to locate such witnesses, committee Republicans said.