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WASHINGTON (Gannett Washington Bureau/Mary Troyan) – The special House committee investigating the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi will hold its first public hearing in September about changes the State Department has made to better protect diplomats, Rep. Trey Gowdy said Wednesday.

Gowdy, the committee's Republican chairman, also said the panel is gaining access to witnesses that didn't participate in previous congressional investigations into the attacks.

"I know I'm biased, but one of the good parts about running an investigation in a way that appears to be serious-minded is that witnesses who were previously unavailable or not interested in cooperating are now interested in cooperating," Gowdy said. "The universe of witnesses is expanding."

U.S. House lawmakers created the committee in May to review the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed four Americans in eastern Libya, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Several previous congressional investigations have looked at security lapses and intelligence failures related to the attacks, along with the military's response and whether President Barack Obama's administration initially downplayed the incident for political reasons.

Gowdy, in an interview Tuesday, said the panel is not scheduled to meet during the August congressional recess, but committee lawyers and investigators will be working.

On Tuesday, the 12 committee members — seven Republicans and five Democrats — met behind closed doors with family members of the four men killed in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Gowdy said the families were invited by him and the committee's Democratic vice-chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.

"One of the issues in homicide cases is that the jury knows more about the defendant and virtually nothing about the victim," said Gowdy, a former prosecutor. "We wanted to give the family members a chance to tell us whatever was on their heart and mind."

Gowdy said the GOP side of the committee has finished hiring staff. He said the staffers' professional backgrounds made them helpful in identifying new witnesses. The committee is expected to release information about the staffers soon.

"Once you convince people this is serious and fact-centric, and not an exercise in whatever pejorative you want to fill in, they are infinitely more likely to want to participate," he said.

Democrats are also in the process of hiring committee staff. Although Democrats initially resisted the idea of another Benghazi investigation — 13 congressional hearings and 50 briefings have been held — they agreed to participate.

House GOP leadership gave the panel a budget of $3.3 million.

Cummings on Tuesday referred questions about the panel's upcoming schedule to Gowdy.

The Spartanburg Republican, running for a third term, has said since May that the committee's investigation would be an objective search for facts, not a partisan attempt to smear Democrats ahead of the 2014 mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential race.

So far, Democrats have complimented Gowdy for pledging not to use the panel to raise money and for disavowing the National Republican Congressional Committee's Benghazi-related fundraising.

In a notable departure from other House committees that battled with the administration over Benghazi investigations, Gowdy said he is "encouraged" by responses to his panel's requests for additional documents.

"There is no substitute for sitting down and me sharing my expectations and them telling me their concerns or what their frustrations in the past have been," Gowdy said. "I'm not looking for the fight or the story. I just want the documents. It's been easy so far."

The September hearing will focus on about 24 recommendations issued in December 2012 by the independent Accountability Review Board, which investigated the State Department's actions before, during and after the attacks. The board was led by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Their report blamed "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department" for "grossly inadequate" security.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton accepted the findings and agreed to implement all of the board's recommendations, which included changes related to security, staffing in high-risk posts, training, safety equipment, intelligence and threat analysis, and holding personnel accountable.

The series of attacks over Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, killed Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Two U.S. facilities were destroyed and abandoned.

Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Libyan suspected of playing a key role in the attacks, has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges related to the case and is awaiting trial in the U.S.

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