A U.S. diplomat in Libya told congressional investigators he sought in vain for fighter jets to fly over Benghazi to scare off terrorist attackers who killed the ambassador and three other Americans last year.
Gregory Hicks, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in the country, also told House investigators that four U.S. special forces troops were ordered not to board a Libyan military transport plane that flew to Benghazi in the hours after the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, according to an excerpt of Hicks comments and a congressional committee aide who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a hearing on the issue.
Hicks said he repeatedly asked about a flyover of U.S. fighter jets and was told Benghazi is “too far away” and “there are no tankers” to provide refueling. That’s in keeping with congressional testimony in February by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who said the inability to send aid “was, pure and simple, a problem of distance and time.”
Excerpts from the staff interview with Hicks were released yesterday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Hicks is among witnesses scheduled to testify before the panel tomorrow.
The panel’s chairman, Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, has said President Barack Obama’s administration “has offered the American people only a carefully selected and sanitized version of events from before, during and after the Benghazi terrorist attacks.”
The release of the excerpts drew an objection from the panel’s top Democrat, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who said in a statement that House Republicans “have leaked snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing.”
Virginia Democratic Representative Gerald Connolly, another committee member, said Hicks was being called to testify as part of “another Republican witch-hunt.”
“Is it going to prove that there were failures that a tragedy occurred? Yes,” Connolly said in an interview. “If he wants to assert it could have been prevented, it’s going to be a very uphill climb to prove that.”
Hicks said in an excerpt that he thought “a fast mover flying over Benghazi at some point” as “soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night.”
The panel is investigating whether the Obama administration adequately protected the mission. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and the three other Americans died in the attack blamed on militants, including some with links to al-Qaeda.
Hours after the initial assault that killed Stevens and one of the other Americans, Hicks said, the Libyan military offered to transport the special forces unit from an air base near Tripoli to Benghazi aboard a C-130 transport. They were ordered not to board the plane by U.S. commanders, he said.
“We fully intended for those guys to go, because we had already essentially stripped ourselves of our security presence, or our security capability to the bare minimum,” Hicks said.
Hicks told committee investigators he was informed by the unit’s commander that “they were on their way to the vehicles to go to the airport to get on the C-130 when he got a phone call from” commanders and was told “‘you can’t go now, you don’t have authority to go now.’ And so they missed the flight.”
As events unfolded, the C-130 didn’t arrive until after a second attack on a CIA annex in Benghazi that killed the other two Americans.
‘Spared No Expense’
According to a Pentagon timeline released in November, less than three hours after the initial attack on the mission Panetta authorized the deployment of Marine Corps anti-terrorism teams to Benghazi and Tripoli from Rota, Spain, as well preparation of a Europe-based special operations team. He also ordered a U.S.- based special operations force to prepare to deploy to a staging base in southern Europe.
Armed drones, “AC-130 gunships, or fixed-wing fighters with the associated tanking, armaments, targeting and support capabilities were not in the vicinity of Libya and, because of the distance, would have taken at least 9 to 12 hours if not more to deploy,” Panetta said in Feb. 7 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“The Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no expense to save American lives,” he said.