|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)|
• Hicks testified that Obama administration statements that a protest had taken place damaged the diplomatic mission in Libya and hurt the Libyan president. One result, Hicks said, was that the FBI was shut out of Benghazi for 17-18 days, their investigation hampered. Hicks described his personal reaction to hearing UN Ambassador Susan Rice talk about a "protest" in Benghazi: "I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed."
• Hicks testified that Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton, called him and expressed her anger that he had met with a congressional fact-finding mission to Tripoli without a state department lawyer present. Hicks said he had never been allowed to read the classified state department report on the Benghazi attack.
• Hicks testified that he had been demoted "after I asked the question about Ambassador Rice's statement on the TV shows." "I've been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer," he said.
• Hicks testified that a group of four special forces troops was ready to travel on a Libyan plane from Tripoli to Benghazi after midnight, on the belief that the attack in Benghazi was ongoing. Hicks said it was his understanding that the regional defense command told the four men not to go. Hicks said he didn't know why the command was given.
Hicks says he has been demoted. He's visibly upset about it.
Hicks says his state department superiors began to criticize him "after I asked the question about Ambassador Rice's statement on the TV shows."
Hicks describes a testy meeting with assistant secretary of state Elizabeth Jones at the state department after the Benghazi attack. Hicks wanted to return to Tripoli, he says. But Jones
delivered a blistering critique of my management style... She said, 'I don't know why [Libya charge d'affaires] Larry Pope would want you to come back,' and she didn't understand why anyone in Tripoli would want me to come back.
Hicks says he accepted a "no-fault curtailment," meaning there would be no criticism of his departure of post. Now he's a foreign affairs officer.
"It's a demotion," Hicks says. Foreign affairs officers... are desk officers. I've been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer."
Hicks takes on Clinton directly. Replying to her question of "what difference does it make" whether the attack was the result of a protest or was pre-planned, Hicks says, "I think the question is, 'what difference did it make.'"
He says it made a huge difference because by putting out the narrative of a protest gone wrong, the Obama administration undercut Libyan president Magarief, who was calling the attack a terror attack. That angered Magarief, who then put up bureaucratic blocks, Hicks says, to the FBI entering the country, securing the scene and investigating the attack.
Hicks: President Magarief was insulted in front of his own people, in front of the world. His credibility was reduced. His ability to govern was [damaged]. He was angry... He was still steamed about the talk shows two weeks later. I definitely believe it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi.
Hicks argues against a fortress diplomacy, in which diplomats operate in a defensive crouch inside high embassy walls. Stevens took the same view.
"We have to go outside... especially where hospitality is an important part of the culture... and the demonstration of personal courage is an important part of the culture," Hicks says.
"We have to be situationally aware... to recognize in advance that we may be getting into a difficult situation. We have to also have the ability to protect ourselves."
Hicks describes his excitement when Libyan president Mohammed Magarief went on NBC News on 25 September and said the Benghazi attack was pre-planned and carried out by terrorists.
"I was jumping up and down when he said that," Hicks says. "It was a gift for us from a policy perspective, sitting in Tripoli."
Earlier Hicks said that hearing ambassador Susan Rice describe a protest in Benghazi "made my jaw drop."
Speier asks Hicks where in the world he'd like to be posted next.
"The country that I would most like to go to and be assigned to..." Hicks says, then pauses. "I'd really want to talk to the chief decision-maker in my family, my wife, because her opinion is really more important than mine."
"He's really a diplomat," Issa quips.
"I think this committee will help you get a good onward assignment," Speier says.
Rep. Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, tells Hicks that his testimony reminded her of an experience she had in a foreign country, when she was ambushed and there was insufficient security present.
She means when she traveled to the Jonestown colony in Guyana as an aide to Rep. Leo Ryan on a 1978 fact-finding mission. Ryan and four others were shot dead on an airport tarmac as the entourage fled under fire from cult members. Speier was shot five times.
Hicks says he was interviewed for two hours by the accountability review board but was "never allowed to review the recording of my testimony to the board... and I have never been given the opportunity to read the classified report."
Hicks is testifying about the special forces team under Colonel Gibson that was prepared to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi, but then was told to stand down by regional defense command.
The team comprised four members, Hicks says, including Gibson.
Hicks says "given the fact that the personnel in Benghazi were exhausted," from fighting all night against capable attackers, reinforcements were needed. But Gibson was told "not to go."
"I don't know why," Hicks says. Hicks says all signs pointed to an ongoing dangerous situation in Benghazi.
This is eyebrow-raising. Hicks says he got an angry call from Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, because state department lawyers had been shut out of a congressional fact-finding mission to Tripoli.
Hicks says the state department told him not to meet with a fact-finding congressional delegation visiting Tripoli and then insisted that a state department lawyer be present.
When that lawyer was blocked from the meeting because he didn't have security clearance, Hicks says he got a "very angry" call from Clinton's chief of staff.
"A phone call from that senior a person is generally considered not to be good news," Hicks says. "She was upset. She was very upset."
Hicks says he was told he shouldn't pursue his questioning of why the talking points as pronounced by Ambassador Susan Rice had been wrong.
Hicks testifies that Stevens went to Benghazi because Hillary Clinton wanted to meet an accounting deadline.
James Lankford, R-Okla, asks why Stevens went to Benghazi.
Hicks says that secretary Clinton "wanted Benghazi converted into a permanent constituent post. The timing of this decision was important. Chris needed to report before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year... [and file] an action memo to convert the facility.
"In addition, Chris wanted to make a symbolic gesture to the people of Benghazi," Hicks says.
Lankford presses the point. Why didn't Stevens wait, he asks.
"He'd originally planned to go in October," Hicks says, but Stevens delayed the trip because of a personnel issue at the embassy.
"We had funds available that could be transferred from an account set aside from Iraq – they had to be obligated by September 30th," Hicks says. "This came from the executive office of the bureau of near eastern affairs."
Democratic Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington DC asks Thompson whether he believes that the counter-terrorism bureau was kept out of the loop during the Benghazi response for political reasons.
Thompson says no, he doesn't believe that. He says the bureau was brought in starting the day after the attack, on 12 September.
NOTE: This post has been corrected. Norton represents Washington DC, not North Carolina.
Chaffetz questions Thompson about his testimony that he had requested a Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) deployment but it was denied.
Q: Why was FEST not called into action?
Thompson: "I do not know."
"Mr. chairman, this is one of the great mysteries," Chaffetz says. "I yield back."
Now GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He coaxes Hicks into repeating what Colonel Gibson told Hicks about not being able to deploy from Tripoli to Benghazi. Hicks repeats the "balls" quote. Capitol Hill is shocked.
Maloney's long and discursive praise at this juncture for Hillary Clinton creates a good opportunity for us to note that Clinton is a likely strong Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 and one of the prickly subtexts of this hearing is that whatever we may find out about Benghazi, it's Clinton's performance that is up for trial and hurting her reputation as a leader could help the GOP regain the White House. Not that that's in the back of anyone's mind.
Issa gavels Maloney! "The gentlewoman's time has expired."
Now Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York, a Democrat, is up. She says that the US military is great and will defend American lives wherever possible. And that it's disturbing that after Benghazi, Americans attacked Americans.
She ignores the witnesses and goes after Issa, who went on TV last month she says to accuse fmr secretary of state Hillary Clinton of signing a cable refusing a request for additional security in Benghazi.
"The fact is the secretary did not sign this cable in 2012," Maloney says.
"Her name was typed at the bottom of the page." Gotcha!
Now up is Republican Rep. Trey Gawdy of South Carolina.
What did Stevens tell you in that last call?
Hicks answers: He said, "Greg, we're under attack."
Q: Did he mention one word about a protest?
A: "No sir, he did not."
Q: What did you think when UN ambassador Susan Rice went on five Sunday shows and described a protest?
A: "I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed."
Cummings winds down, somewhat defensively. He quotes a Defense Department report that "no evidence has been provided that officials refused to deploy resources."
"I'll end there."
Cummings quotes former testimony from former SecDef Leon Panetta saying that the necessary aircraft "would have taken 9-12 hours if not more to deploy."
Cummings question: "Do you [Hicks] question his [Panetta's] testimony?"
Hicks says he was going on what the defense attache said.
Cummings is questioning Hicks about his testimony that fighter jets from Italy could have been scrambled.
Cummings quotes Gen Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs, saying "in order to deploy them... these are not aircraft on strip alert. They're there as part of our commitment to NATO and Europe. It was pretty clear that it would take them 20 hours to get there."
Hicks replies: the defense attache said the planes could've been there in 2-3 hours, but there were no tankers. Hicks says that Libyan revolutionaries had also told him that "The Libyan people were very well aware that American and NATO airpower had been decisive in their victory. I was also speaking to their view that LIbyans would not stand if they were aware that American aircraft were in the vicinity."
Issa has Hicks pause "to digest that."
Issa tells Cummings, the ranking Democrat, that he can ask a question. Very difficult position for Cummings after that wrenching testimony.
"We all feel your pain," Cummings tells Hicks, somewhat lamely.
"We have some balancing to do here today. We have to listen to you all, and this is really difficult.. while we have to protect you, we also have to protect your fellow employees... to make sure they're being treated fairly."
After the US group in Benghazi got to the CIA annex after fleeing the consulate, the mortar attack on the annex began. Hicks says the first mortar was long, the next was short and "the next three landed on the roof," killing Woods and Doherty.
"The accuracy was terribly precise and they didn't know if more were coming in," Hicks said. But the security staff climbed up and brought down the bodies anyway.
In Tripoli, the DoD had persuaded the Libyans to fly their C-130 to Benghazi. By then the Libyans had provided external security and "we wanted to provide additional reinforcements to Benghazi," Hicks says.
"The people in Benghazi had been fighting all night. They were tired."
So Colonel Gibson of SOCAFRICA was ready to depart with special forces – four agents, it's been reported – when he told Hicks "he had not been authorized to go."
"Gibson was furious," Hicks says. "I had told him to go bring our people home. That's what he wanted to do."
Hicks says Gibson "paid me a compliment I won't repeat here." He has told the committee Gibson said,
'I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military.'
The plane went without Gibson and his men, Hicks says.
Hicks; "[Washington] asked me in one of the phone calls, when are you going to move [from the embassy] to the annex?" I said dawn, because none of our people had experience driving the armored vehicles.
We would have to go through militia checkpoints... and I didn't know what to expect from the militias.
And so we moved at dawn. And we arrived at the annex at 4.45, perhaps 5am. And the first word came of the mortar attack.
If I could return to Benghazi.
Hicks describes the efforts of Libyan employees to help find Stevens.
"Before I got the call from the prime minister we'd received several calls... saying we know where the ambassador is, you can come and get him.
"Our local staff engaged, admirably, asking very very good questions.
"We expected we were being baited into a trap."
3h 34m ago
Hicks is describing the action of the consulate staff. He singles out an office manager who was "smashing hard drives with an axe."
3h 36m ago
"Around 2 am secretary Clinton called me, Hicks said. "Most of the conversation was about the search for amb. Stevens. It was also about what we were going to do. I told her that we needed to evacuate, and she said that that was the right thing to do."
"At around 3am I received a call from the prime minister of Libya. I think it's the saddest phone call that I've ever had in my life. And he said that ambassador Stevens had passed away. I immediately telephoned Washington."
Hicks is choking up.
Hicks says at this stage it looked like a possible hostage rescue situation, of the ambassador from a hostile hospital.
At the same time, "we also see a call for an attack on the embassy in Tripoli."
"We begin planning to evacuate our facility -the state dept residential compound in Tripoli - and to consolidate all of our personnel at the annex in Tripoli." That's about 55 people, he says.
"I would just like to point out that with Ambassador Stevens and Smith in Benghazi there are five security agents; in Tripoli there are three, plus "four special forces personnel" protecting everyone else.
"The heroism of these individuals in repeatedly going into a petroleum-based fire cannot be overstated," Hicks says. They emit enormous amounts of cyanide gas and one full breath can kill a person, he says he was advised.
The second phase of the night began as the attackers returned. The second wave of attackers managed to take the consulate back from the US forces.
The US returned to the [CIA] annex and "suffer about a half-hour of probing attacks from the terrorists."
The Tripoli response team departs at midnight and arrives at 1.15am in Benghazi.
"Back in Tripoli: at 10.45 or 11pm, we confer," Hicks says. The nearest help were fighter planes 2-3 hours away in Aviano, Italy, but there were no tankers to refuel.
"Phase 3 begins with news that the ambassador's body has been recovered.... And we begin to hear also that the ambassador's body has been taken to a hospital."
They get reports that the hospital was controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, "the group that Twitter feeds had identified as leading the attack on the consulate."
The night unfolded in four phases, Hicks says. First the attack on the consulate. "This story is well known, I think," he says.
The consulate was invaded. A villa was set on fire. The ambassador and Sean Smith died there. Steven's personal bodyguard tried to get the two out but failed.
The response team from the annex in Benghazi then drove the attackers out of the compound and secured it. Hicks says as many as 60 attackers were inside. The response team tried to enter the building but they could not. "They found Sean's body and pulled it out but he was no longer responsive. They did not find the ambassador."
Hicks describes a frantic round of phone calls to the Libyan government and military for intervention.
Then Hicks called Washington again, he says. And it went on like that through the night.
Hicks says he discussed "mobilizing a Tripoli response team." They were going to charter a plane in Tripoli to provide reinforcements.
Hicks said the first news was that the consulate had been breached and there were at least 20 hostile individuals in the compound.
He says he reached out to the annex chief to figure out a plan, who told him that he'd been in touch with Benghazi "and they were mobilizing a response team there to provide reinforcements and repel the attack."
Issa asks Hicks to explain what an annex chief is, but Hicks is choked up as Nordstrom was, and needs to stick with the story he's telling.
"The next thing I did was to begin calling the senior officials in the government of Libya that I knew."
Hicks says an attache ran into his villa "yelling Greg, Greg, the consulate's under attack."
Hicks looked at his phone and had two missed calls. He called back and got ambassador Stevens.
"He said, 'Greg, we're under attack!'"
"I said 'OK' and the line cut.
"As I remember September 11, 2012, it was a routine day at our embassy," Hicks begins.
Issa begins his questions. He says "we've never heard a single account from a person who was in Libya that night."
He asks Hicks to describe the attack.
Hicks begins narrating the events of 11 September 2012.
Eric Nordstrom, diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya, gets choked up during his opening statement.
He says getting to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi matters to the families of Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods, the four US agents killed in the attack.
Hicks says "I quickly became known as the ambassador's bulldog because of my aggressive management style."
He says that President Obama, General Ham and senior state department officials had praised his performance in the Benghazi attack, many of them in writing.
Hicks is not talking about the particulars of the attack yet; he's using his opening statement to establish his credibility and establish that he has had the faith of his superiors.
Hicks finishes by saying he took an oath to uphold the constitution and he's here today to uphold that oath.
Gregory Hicks, foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission in Libya, begins his testimony. He was in Tripoli at the time of the Benghazi attack and was the No.2 state department figure in Libya after ambassador Stevens.
"I am a career public servant," Hicks begin. "Until ... Benghazi, I loved every day on my job."
Thompson says that on the night of the Benghazi attack, he contacted the White House about the deployment of a Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), including leaders from state department, special operations command, diplomatic security, intelligence and FBI.
The team "is designed... to get all the options on the table for the decision-makers."
The White House told Thompson that the option 'had been taken off the table," he testifies.
Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism at the state department, begins his testimony.
He said he was at his desk at night when the first reports of the attack came in. Later he said when he knew they couldn't find the ambassador "I alerted my leadership."
He's walking through the state department's minute-by-minute response as the Benghazi attack unfolded.
Guardian Washington bureau chief Dan Roberts is scanning advance copies of today's testimony and sends these observations:
Eric Nordstrom, the former Regional Security Officer in Libya, testifies that the state department has not "made the appropriate organizational and cultural changes to keep pace with the work expected of its employees (in high threat locations)."
The testimony challenges the quality of the state department's accountability review board report on Benghazi:
"The ARB's failure to review the decisions of the undersecretary for management and other senior leaders who made critical decisions regarding all aspects of operations in Tripoli to include occupancy of facilities... is inexplicable. ...
"I'm concerned with the ARB's decision to focus its attention at the Assistant Secretary level and below, where the ARB felt that 'decision-making in fact takes place'. Based on my personal knowledge of the situation in Libya prior to the attack, I received and reviewed several documents, which included planning documents for operations in both Tripoli and Benghazi, drafted and approved at the Under Secretary of Management level or above. These decisions included the type and quantity of physical security upgrades to be implemented."
Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland makes his opening statement. He agrees it's very important for whistleblowers to come forward.
Committee chair Darrell Issa begins his opening statement. He accuses the Obama administration of not cooperating and ignoring requests for information. He says requests for additional security for the Benghazi mission were "made and denied."
He introduces the witnesses as "brave whistleblowers."
Mr. Mark Thompson
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism
US Department of State
Mr. Gregory Hicks
Foreign Service Officer and former Deputy Chief of Mission/Chargé d’Affairs in Libya
US Department of State
Mr. Eric Nordstrom
Diplomatic Security Officer and former Regional Security Officer in Libya
US Department of State
In a time of rigid partisanship, no issue is so purely polar as "Benghazi," with one side framing it as an historically significant crisis and the other side calling it hogwash. The two sides cannot agree. But what is the nature of their disagreement?
Today the House committee on oversight and government reform, chaired by California Republican Darrell Issa, convenes a hearing titled Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage. Republicans are billing the witnesses, who include two state department employees serving in Libya on 11 September 2012 when the mission in Benghazi was attacked, as "whistleblowers".
Among the witnesses is Gregory Hicks, top deputy at the time to ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in the attacks. Hicks will testify, according to leaks that trickled out Sunday and Monday, that US military personnel were prepared to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi during the attack but were stopped by the Defense Department's special operations command in Africa, overseen by General Carter Ham.
Republicans on the House committee are expected to present that testimony as contradicting previous statements by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton that all requests for backup support in Benghazi had been met and every available force had been deployed. The larger purpose for the hearing, as captured in its title, is to "expose [the] failure" of the Obama administration to respond to the crisis and to establish an attempt on the part of the administration to cover up its imputed failures.
The Obama administration has admitted misstatements on the part of UN ambassador Susan Rice and others in the immediate wake of the attacks, which were initially portrayed as a spontaneous raid when in fact they were multi-pronged and organized. But the administration has denied fault in the defense of the mission, saying that Benghazi was within a conflict zone, and denied any cover-up, saying Benghazi was a scene of distant chaos and it's natural that all the facts did not come out instantly. The state department has published an accountability review board report on the attacks that supports this view. Republicans call the report nonsense.
It's significant that today's hearing is before the oversight committee, whose role is to police government corruption, and not the foreign affairs committee.
Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, is not on the oversight committee, but he does have a strong opinion about Benghazi. "If you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is,” he has said.