The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, led by Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., holds a hearing Wednesday on Capitol Hill about last year's deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. From left are witnesses Mark Thompson, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, the State Department's former regional security officer in Libya. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
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WASHINGTON — A former top diplomat in Libya on Wednesday delivered a riveting minute-by-minute account of the chaotic events during the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last September, with a 2 a.m. call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and confusion about the fate of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
In a slow, halting and sometimes emotional voice, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission who was in Tripoli, described for a House committee how a routine day on Sept. 11, 2012, quickly devolved as insurgents launched two nighttime attacks on the facility in eastern Libya, killing Stevens and three other Americans.
The hours-long hearing produced no major revelation while reviving disputes over the widely debunked comments made by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attacks and the inability of the U.S. military to respond quickly.
The session exposed bitter partisan divisions as Republicans who are pressing ahead with the investigation eight months after the attacks insist the Obama administration is covering up information and Democrats decry politicization of a national security issue.
The target of much of the Republican wrath is Clinton, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, who stepped down after four grueling years with high approval ratings. In her last appearance before Congress in January, a defiant Clinton took responsibility for the department’s missteps leading up to the assault while rejecting suggestions the administration tried to mislead the country about the attack.
A scathing independent review in December faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the mission, but it has not been the final word. Nor has congressional testimony from former Obama Cabinet officials and military leaders.
In a jam-packed hearing room where Republicans and Democrats furiously traded charges, the soft-spoken Hicks presented a lengthy recollection of the events and expressed frustration with a military that he argued could have prevented the second attack.
Hicks and two other State Department witnesses criticized the review conducted by former top diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their complaints centered on a report they consider incomplete, with individuals who weren’t interviewed and a focus on the assistant secretary level and lower.
Hicks also told the committee that he was, in effect, demoted when he was moved from the position of deputy chief of mission to desk officer. Asked when he began to sense he was being viewed differently by his superiors, Hicks said he thought the criticism began after he had asked why Rice had referred to demonstrations in her televised remarks when he and others had reported that there had been an attack.
Hicks said he was watching television at his villa in Tripoli when he first got word of the initial attack. He listened to two messages on his cell phone and Stevens’ chilling words.
“Greg, we’re under attack,” the ambassador said.
Hicks described a series of phone calls to the State Department and Libyan officials, frustrating efforts to find out what was happening in Benghazi, and a call from Clinton.
“Secretary of State Clinton called me along with her senior staff … and she asked me what was going on. And, I briefed her on developments,” he said. “Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens. It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi, and I told her that we would need to evacuate, and that was — she said that was the right thing to do.”
He recalled another phone call from the Libyan prime minister with word that Stevens was dead.
“I think it is the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life,” Hicks said.
Hicks said that shortly after he was told Stevens was dead, unidentified Libyans called Hicks’ staff from the phone that had been with the ambassador that night. These Libyans said Stevens was with them, and U.S. officials should come fetch him, Hicks said. Hicks said he believed Stevens’ body was at a hospital at that point, but he could not be certain.
“We suspected we were being baited into a trap,” Hicks told the committee, so the U.S. personnel did not follow the callers’ instructions. “We did not want to send our people into an ambush,” he testified.
Hicks insisted that the second attack in Benghazi could have been prevented if the U.S. military had scrambled jet fighters or sent in a C-130 cargo plane to scare off the insurgents with a show of force. He said he learned in conversations with veteran Libyan revolutionaries that they understood decisive air power after the U.S.-led NATO operation that helped oust Moammar Gadhafi.
“The defense attache said to me that fighter aircraft in Aviano might be able to” get to Benghazi in two to three hours, Hicks said.
Democrats pointed out that this contradicted the testimony of former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified before a Senate panel on Feb. 7.
“The bottom line is this: That we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response,” Panetta testified. “Very simply, although we had forces deployed to the region, time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response.”