The No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Libya was watching television at home in Tripoli the night of Sept. 11 when he missed a call from his boss, Ambassador Chris Stevens.
“Greg, we’re under attack!” Stevens said from the U.S. mission in Benghazi, when his deputy, Gregory Hicks, called back. Then their connection was cut off.
Soon after, Stevens was trapped in smoke from a fire set by militants inside the mission and went missing. Hicks began a frantic, all-night effort to mobilize a rescue, speaking by phone with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before learning from Libya’s prime minister that Stevens was dead.
That account of the Benghazi attack emerged from a House hearing yesterday on the Obama administration’s handling of an incident that remains a political flash point in Washington eight months after the killings of Stevens and three other Americans.
While the hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yielded little new information on the attack, the almost six-hour session underscored how the Benghazi affair has opened a partisan divide.
Republicans, claiming a cover-up, said they’re determined to continue their probe into whether President Barack Obama’s administration failed to provide adequate security in Benghazi and misled the public about the nature of the attack.
The committee chairman, Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, said yesterday’s testimony “undermines the Obama administration’s assertion that there are no more questions left to answer about Benghazi.”
House Speaker John Boehner today vowed that “more hearings and more information” are to come. The Ohio Republican asked Obama to release e-mails between the White House and State Department that Boehner said showed officials knew the attack was initiated by terrorists before the administration erroneously portrayed it as growing out of a spontaneous demonstration.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who succeeded Clinton this year, told reporters today in Rome that questions about Benghazi “will be answered, will be put to bed” and that appropriate steps will be taken “if there’s any culpability in any area.” He said he was awaiting a report on the issue.
The House committee’s top Democrat, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said yesterday’s hearing “was another sorry example of Republicans promising explosive new facts but delivering only a press spectacle.”
For all the partisan sniping, the hearing -- with Hicks as its star witness -- provided some new details on how officials responded on the night of the attack and in its immediate aftermath.
Clinton called Hicks at 2 a.m. Tripoli time, or about four hours after the attack began, to discuss evacuation plans and the search for Stevens, who couldn’t be located, Hicks said.
An hour later, Hicks said, the Libyan prime minister called him to say Stevens was dead.
“I think it is the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life,” Hicks told the committee.
Fearing an attack on the Tripoli embassy would follow, Hicks said he began planning for its evacuation after helping to assemble a response team to go to Benghazi. His staff began destroying equipment for classified communications, even smashing hard drives with an ax, he said.
Several phone calls made by unknown people on a phone used by Stevens offered Hicks and his staff the chance to come retrieve the ambassador at a hospital controlled by militants, Hicks said.
“We suspected that we were being baited into a trap, and so we did not want to go send our people into an ambush,” Hicks said. The staff were sent instead to a Central Intelligence Agency annex in Benghazi that later came under mortar attack.
Besides Stevens, the Americans killed in the attack were Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information officer, and Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty, two former Navy SEALs working as security personnel.
Hicks told the committee that his plea for troops to help defend the besieged Benghazi mission was rejected and that he knew all along that terrorists were behind the attacks.
Hicks said he tried in vain to get fighter jets to fly over Benghazi in an effort to scare off the attackers. He also said four U.S. special-forces personnel were ordered not to board a Libyan military transport plane that flew to Benghazi from Tripoli in the hours after the attack.
“We wanted to send further reinforcements to Benghazi,” Hicks said. “People in Benghazi had been fighting all night. They were tired. They were exhausted. We wanted to make sure the airport was secure for their withdrawal.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said yesterday the four-man unit was ordered to remain in Tripoli because the mission in Benghazi had already shifted to evacuation.
“We continue to believe that there was nothing this team could have done to assist during the second attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11,” Little told reporters at the Pentagon. “The team remained in Tripoli and performed admirably.”
The hearing shed little light on two questions that continue to shadow the Obama administration: why more military assets weren’t stationed close to Libya before the attack, given all the intelligence about terrorist threats in the area, and why the administration was slow to correct its initial explanation of the attack.
Hicks and two other State Department witnesses were unable to offer answers to those questions.
Hicks said in his testimony that he was stunned when Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described the attack on national television days afterward as growing out of a spontaneous protest over an anti-Islamic video that sparked demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere.
“My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed,” Hicks said, adding later, “The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya.”
The administration later corrected the “talking points” that Rice had used, acknowledging that there was no demonstration and that militant groups staged the assault.
Hicks told the committee that after he raised questions about Rice’s televised statements about the attack, he got the sense from his superiors at the State Department that he “needed to stop the line of questioning.”
Boehner told reporters at the Capitol today that administration e-mails showed the White House expunged references to Islamic terrorism from the talking points even though it “continues to claim it only made stylistic changes.”
Eric Nordstrom, who served as the regional security officer at the Tripoli embassy last year, said in written testimony that an Accountability Review Board appointed by Clinton to review the Benghazi attack chose to “ignore the role senior department leadership played before, during and after” the attack.
The review board never formally interviewed Clinton, although State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said yesterday that the panel did speak with Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy.
The panel found that the State Department showed “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability,” although no government employees were found to have violated their duties. One resigned and three were relieved of certain duties. None was fired.
Nordstrom told a congressional committee in October that he was turned down by the department when he requested extension of a 16-member security support team that was scheduled to leave Tripoli in August. Clinton has testified she never was informed of the request.
Republican committee members mostly stopped short of attacking Clinton directly yesterday, though Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah accused her of trying to shift the blame for lax diplomatic security.
Still, the continuing Republican-led investigation into Benghazi has political overtones for Clinton, a leading prospect for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.
Some Republicans say that Obama’s administration willfully misrepresented the events in Benghazi in order to preserve his national security credentials, burnished by the 2011 capture and killing of Osama bin Laden, in the closing months of last year’s presidential campaign.
“I’ve known it was a cover-up for a long time,” Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, his party’s 2008 presidential nominee, said in an interview yesterday. “The narrative of the presidential campaign was that Osama bin Laden was dead, al-Qaeda was ‘on the run,’ decimated, and this act obviously was only from a spontaneous demonstration.”
Even before Republicans mentioned her name, Democrats rushed to Clinton’s defense during yesterday’s hearing, suggesting she was being unfairly targeted.
“I find it truly disturbing and very unfortunate that when Americans come under attack, the first thing some did in this country was attack Americans, attack the military, attack the president, attack the State Department, attack the former senator from the great state of New York, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton,” said Representative Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat.
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