Meet the combatants in today's big Benghazi hearing

Today, the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform is convening its long-awaited hearing on the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- one that will feature a group of self-described "whistleblowers" from inside the State Department.

According to leaked copies of their testimonies, the witnesses -- Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission/chargé d'affairs in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya -- will testify that the State Department rebuffed requests for additional security at the consulate and that the Obama administration denied a request to send a team of special forces to Benghazi. According to the witnesses, U.S. soldiers could have made it to the consulate in time to save lives, though that is a highly contentious allegation.

The controversial testimony is sure to generate heated debate among the lawmakers assembled. Here's a guide to what you can expect from the most high-profile antagonists in today's hearing:

Darrell Issa

Best known for lobbing endless accusations at the Obama administration for the botched "Fast and Furious" operation at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Issa, the committee's chairman, is now staking a claim as a major player in Republican efforts to keep the White House's feet to the fire on Benghazi. On Monday, Issa, a California Republican, told CBS News that there is "no question" that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inner circle and possibly the secretary herself were involved in covering up the State Department's handling of the Benghazi attack.

"If Hillary Clinton is not responsible for the before, during and after mistakes ... it's somebody close. There certainly are plenty of people close to the former secretary who knew, and apparently were part of the problem," Issa told CBS.

Jason Chaffetz

A darling of the Tea Party, Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, has accused the Obama administration of seeking to suppress the testimony of the witnesses slated to appear. "There are people who want to testify that have been suppressed," he told Fox News Sunday. "They're scared to death of what the State Department is doing with them."

Expect Chaffetz to advance the ball on allegations that the U.S. military could have responded to distress calls at the Benghazi consulate. On Monday, he told Fox News that the military was told to "stand down" and that after the attacks the Obama administration worked to cover up orders for the military to not respond to the attack.

Trey Gowdy

A South Carolina Republican, Gowdy is the man behind much of the hype leading up to today's hearing. "There are more Benghazi hearings coming; I think they're going to be explosive," he told Fox News in late April. But don't just expect grandstanding from Gowdy. A former prosecutor, Gowdy told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that he is concerned his Republican colleagues won't sufficiently focus on fact-finding during the hearing, and that he has been working behind the scenes to educate his colleagues about the art of interrogation. "So I have worked with, now, four of my colleagues whose backgrounds are not in litigation, how to ask these questions in a precise, pithy way that makes the witness the star and not some arm-flailing congressman who wants to be on YouTube," Gowdy told Hewitt.

Expect Gowdy to pursue some interesting lines of questioning. Here's what he promised Hewitt:

My fear over the weekend was that a lot of the information that I thought would be most interesting tomorrow has already been released. So I went to staff, and I went to others, and said with any jury trial, you have to save something back. You have to be interesting on the day of the trial. And I have been assured, in fact, I know, because I've seen it myself, there's going to be new, provocative, instructive, dare not use the word explosive, but there's going to be information that comes out tomorrow that whether people have been so desensitized to government lying to them that they don't care anymore, I cannot speak to that. But if you're interested in Benghazi, there is going to be enough new material tomorrow to make you absolutely livid that it's taken eight months for us to get to this point.

Elijah Cummings

The ranking Democrat on the committee, Cummings has been lambasting Republicans for politicizing the attacks. Expect him to describe the hearing as an exercise in partisan politics. "[Republicans] have leaked snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing," Cummings said in a press release. "This is investigation by press release and does a disservice to our common goal of ensuring that our diplomatic corps serving overseas has the best protection possible to do its critical work."

Stephen Lynch

Fresh off losing the Democratic primary in Massachusetts' special election to replace former Senator John Kerry, Stephen Lynch has been doing battle with Jason Chaffetz in recent days. During Wednesday's hearing, he'll likely be one of the louder Democratic voices pushing back on Republican claims. "This has been a one- sided investigation, if you want to call it that," Lynch told Fox on Sunday. "There's been no sharing of information in a significant way with the Democrats staff members who usually conduct this type of investigation. And I think it's disgraceful, to be honest with you."

Grab some popcorn. It should be a good show.

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Kerry retreats from U.S. stance that Assad must go

Even as Washington debates whether suspected chemical weapons use in Syria should provoke direct intervention, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped back from the Obama administration's longstanding position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad needs to leave power.

"[I]t's impossible for me as an individual to understand how Syria could possibly be governed in the future by the man who has committed the things that we know have taken place," Kerry said at a press conference yesterday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, where the two officials laid out a plan for an international conference to reach a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict. "But ... I'm not going to decide that tonight, and I'm not going to decide that in the end."

Kerry's remarks came on the same day that President Barack Obama repeated his administration's stance that Assad must leave power. In a White House statement, Obama called on the Assad regime to end its "violent war" and "step aside to allow a political transition in Syria." Obama first called on Assad to resign in August 2011, saying that it should be done "[f]or the sake of the Syrian people."

The U.S. insistence on Assad's exit has long been a sticking point in its attempts to find common ground with Russia on the Syrian issue. The two sides now seem to be trying to bridge this gap: Lavrov said that he was "not interested in the fate of certain persons" when it comes time to determine who sits in a transitional government.

Kerry framed his refusal to say that Assad should step down as in line with the June 2011 Geneva communiqué, which was supposed to provide a roadmap for a negotiated settlement in Syria. The communiqué, which was agreed to by both Russia and the United States, ducked the issue of Assad's future by saying that each side -- the Syrian opposition and the regime -- would be able to veto candidates for an interim government who they found unacceptable. Presumably, the opposition would veto Assad while the regime would veto radical Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

Washington and Moscow seem prepared to move quickly to get both sides to the negotiating table. Kerry said that Russia would try to arrange a conference as early as this month.

A failure to reach a compromise, Kerry argued, would mean that the bloodshed in Syria would only worsen. "The alternative is that Syria heads closer to the abyss, if not over the abyss, and into chaos," he said. "The alternative is that the humanitarian crisis will grow. The alternative is that there may be the break-up of Syria or ethnic attacks, ethnic cleansing."

Update: A State Department official, speaking on background to FP, clarified the U.S. position on Syria after this post was published. The official said that the U.S. position that Assad "has lost all legitimacy and must step aside" was unchanged, and that the United States also believes that Syrians must negotiate the makeup of a transitional government themselves.