State Department officials Mark Thompson, Gregory Hicks and Eric Nordstrom are sworn in before testifying before a House committee on the Benghazi attacks.(Photo: H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY)
WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - The No. 2 diplomat in Libya during the Benghazi attack
testified Wednesday that he and many others knew the Sept. 11 assault
was terrorism from the moment it happened, and he was shocked when the
Obama administration said otherwise.
"I was stunned," said Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya. "My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed."
was referring to statements by his own State Department and the White
House, which insisted for days afterward that the attack emerged from a
spontaneous mob angry over an anti-Islam video.
Hicks was the
first person who was in Libya during the attack to testify publicly
before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is
investigating the Obama's administration's handling of security in Libya
and response to the attack.
Hicks said he felt he was subject to
retaliation for criticizing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan
Rice's appearances on talk shows five days later in which she insisted
the attack emerged from a protest against an anti-Islam video gone awry.
Several days later, the State Department acknowledged there was no
protest and it was a terrorist attack.
Under Secretary of State
Elizabeth Jones "told me I had to improve my management style and that
some people were upset," Hicks testified
When Hicks returned to
Washington for the funeral of ambassador Chris Stevens, who died along
with three other Americans in the attack, Jones "gave me a blistering
critique of my management style," he said.
Hicks, who now works as
a State foreign affairs officer for government affairs, says has been
"effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer."
"I am a career public servant," Hicks said. "Until the aftermath of Benghazi, I loved every day of my job."
Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government
Reform Committee, said the families of the victims "deserve answers."
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., top Democrat on the oversight
committee, accused Republicans of using the witnesses for "political
He challenged some of their claims, such as that the U.S. military could have responded sooner to the attack.
top military commanders have already testified they did everything in
their power, they did the best in their capacity," Cummings said.
testimony included an emotional retelling by Hicks of the night of the
attack. Hicks had to halt his testimony mid-sentence when discussing the
death of Stevens. As soon as he heard of trouble in Benghazi he called
back a previous incoming call on his phone he did not recognize. Stevens
answered and told him, "We are under attack."
Hicks never heard from the ambassador again.
Another witness, Eric Nordstrom, the former regional security officer in Libya, said he came forward to get the truth out.
matters to me personally and it matters to my colleagues at the
Department of State," he said. "It matters to the American public for
whom we serve, and most importantly it matters to the friends, the
family" of those killed.
Hicks said he called the State Department
in Washington at 10 p.m. to tell them what was happening and that
diplomatic security agents were trying to mount a rescue.
who was Stevens' second in-command in Libya and was left in charge after
Stevens' death, testified about a night of chaos while he and other
embassy staff tried to rescue, locate and extract the missing ambassador
and to defend and evacuate all U.S. personnel from Benghazi.
WHITE HOUSE: Benghazi hearing covers old ground
quickly learned that the consulate had been breached and there were at
least 20 armed men in the compound. The person in charge of a second
U.S. compound in Benghazi, known as the annex, said he was putting
together a response team to go to the compound and repel the attack.
series of phone calls followed to seek help from Libyan politicians and
military officials, and to the State Department in Washington to inform
officials there of what was going on.
"I also spoke to the annex
chief about organizing a Tripoli response team and we agreed to charter a
flight to send a response team from Tripoli to bring reinforcements,"
Before long, embassy workers learned that "the
ambassador was in a hospital controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, the group
whose twitter feed said it was leading the attack on the consulate,"
Hicks said he received several phone calls about the
ambassador saying "you can come get the ambassador, we know where he
is," but Hicks was worried about "wading into a trap." Then he said they
saw on the same twitter feed as before that Ansar al-Sharia, an
al-Qaeda-linked terror group, "was calling on an attack on our embassy
Embassy personnel in Tripoli started making preparations to protect themselves, he said.
told committee staffers prior to Wednesday's hearing that he pushed for
a stronger military response to an attack. He said he was rebuffed by
Washington, according to excerpts of interview transcripts provided by
the House oversight committee.
Hicks said he asked twice whether
an F-16 or some other "fast-mover" aircraft could fly over the
battlefield with hopes it would scatter the attackers.
"I talked with the defense attache, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and I asked him, 'Is there anything coming?'
to Hicks' account, Phillips said the nearest fighter planes were in
Aviano, Italy, and it would take two to three hours to get them
airborne, and there were no tanker assets close enough to support them.
Hicks said when he asked again, before the 5:15 a.m. mortar attack that
killed State Department former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
But the answer was no again. Also killed was State Department employee
A four-man team of military Special Forces was in
Tripoli was organized, geared up and about to drive to a C-130 aircraft,
to help those in Benghazi when its commander was ordered to stop by his
superiors, Hicks said.
"He got a phone call from SOCAFRICA
(Special Operations Command Africa) which said, you can't go now, you
don't have authority to go now," Hicks said. "They were told not to
board the flight, so they missed it."
Hicks said the commander
told him: "I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State
Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military."
Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday there was never any
kind of stand-down order. Firman later said the military is trying to
assess the incident Hicks is referring to, but the aircraft in question
wound up evacuating a second wave of Americans from Benghazi to Tripoli,
not transporting rescuers to a firefight.
The Department of
Defense "responded in every way it could as quickly as it could and we
were coordinating with the Department of State every step of the way,"
Department said allegations that it did not respond well to the attack
are refuted by the report of an Administrative Review Board appointed by
then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to investigate the
attack and its aftermath.
"The interagency response was timely and
appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of
the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference,"
according to a statement released by State, citing the report.
"Senior-level interagency discussions were underway soon after
Washington received initial word of the attacks and continued through
Issa said parts of the ARB investigation "was
incomplete or just wrong," and faulted it for not laying blame above the
mid-level management at the State Department. Issa said he wants the
ARB's primary authors, Amb. Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, to
appear before the committee and said to whistleblowers and witnesses who
want to come forward: "Now is the time to do so."
"This hearing is closed; the investigation is not over," Issa said.