WASHINGTON — A veteran diplomat gave a riveting minute-by-minute account on Wednesday of the lethal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 and described its contentious aftermath in nearly five hours of testimony at a charged congressional hearing that reflected the weighty political stakes perceived by both parties.
During a chaotic night at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, hundreds of miles away, the diplomat, Gregory Hicks, got what he called “the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life” informing him that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was dead and that he was now the highest-ranking American in Libya. For his leadership that night when four Americans were killed, Hicks said, he subsequently received calls from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama.
But within days, Hicks said, after raising questions about the account of what had happened in Benghazi offered in television interviews by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, he felt a distinct chill from State Department superiors.
“The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,” said Hicks, a Foreign Service officer for 22 years.
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He was soon given a scathing review of his management style, he said, and was later “effectively demoted” to desk officer at headquarters, in what he believes was retaliation for speaking up.
House Republican leaders made the hearing the day’s top priority, postponing floor votes so that the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform could continue without interruption. The Obama administration appeared focused on the testimony, with senior officials at the White House, the State Department and Pentagon responding throughout the day to GOP accusations of incompetence and cover-up.
In the balance, in the view of both parties, is not just Obama’s reputation but also the prospects for the 2016 presidential election, since Clinton, who stepped down in February, is the Democratic Party’s leading prospect. If the testimony did not fundamentally challenge the existing facts and timeline of the Benghazi attack and the administration’s response, it vividly illustrated top State Department officials’ anxiety about how events would be publicly portrayed.
Hicks offered an unbecoming view of political supervision and intimidation inside the Obama administration. When Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, visited Libya after the attack, Hicks said his bosses told him not to talk to the congressman. When he did anyway, and a State Department lawyer was excluded from one meeting because he lacked necessary security clearance, Hicks said he received an angry phone call from Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
“So this goes right to the person next to Secretary of State Clinton. Is that accurate?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Hicks responded, “Yes, sir.”
Late Wednesday, a State Department spokesman, Patrick H. Ventrell, said the department had not and would not retaliate against Hicks. Ventrell noted that Hicks “testified that he decided to shorten his assignment in Libya following the attacks, due to understandable family reasons.” The spokesman said Hicks is in “a suitable temporary assignment” at the same salary, and that he had submitted preferences for his next job.
The accounts from Hicks and two other officials, Mark I. Thompson, former deputy coordinator for operations in State’s Counterterrorism Bureau, and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security who had testified previously, added some detail to accounts of the night of Sept. 11 in Benghazi, where armed Islamic militants penetrated the diplomatic compound, starting the fire that killed Stevens and an aide, and later killed two security officers in a mortar attack; in Tripoli, where frantic diplomats fearing a similar invasion used an ax to destroy classified hard drives; and in Washington, where officials struggled to track events.
The hearing offered a compelling, often emotional view from the ground, where officials were desperate for a rescue mission. Hicks, for instance, described his exchange with the furious leader of a four-member Special Operations team that wanted to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi to help but was ordered not to. Thompson wanted to see his Foreign Emergency Support Team dispatched to the scene and could not understand why his superiors did not agree.
But from the more detached standpoint of senior officials in Washington — offered in statements from the Defense and State departments — neither unit could have reached Benghazi before the attacks were over. The team in Tripoli worked much of the night on moving U.S. Embassy personnel to a secure annex and were not ready to leave for Benghazi until the early morning. An emergency support team would have deployed from the United States and would have arrived many hours after the last Americans were evacuated from Benghazi.
“None of us should ever experience what we went through in Tripoli and Benghazi,” Hicks said.
The hearing became a political spectacle well before the committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, gaveled it to order. Republicans had promised damning revelations that could ultimately undo the Obama presidency.
“Every bit as damaging as Watergate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said this week.
Congressional Republicans have threatened additional hearings. Democrats see a partisan fishing expedition.
“This is a subject that has, from its beginning, been subject to attempts to politicize it by Republicans,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday.
The three witnesses challenged both the administration’s initial version of events — long ago withdrawn — and its claim to have exhaustively investigated the attacks.
When Rice suggested on Sunday talk shows days after the attack that it had begun with protests against a crude anti-Muslim video, Hicks said, “I was stunned. My jaw dropped, and I was embarrassed.”
Her remarks angered the president of Libya’s National Assembly, Mohamed Magariaf, who had said on TV that the attack was the “preplanned” act of militants, including some from al-Qaida, Hicks said. He said Magariaf’s fury at being undercut caused Libyan officials to drag their feet on cooperating with the FBI.
The witnesses also said they felt that the administration’s own official investigation, led by a veteran retired diplomat, Thomas R. Pickering, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was inadequate.
“They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,” Nordstrom said.
Hicks also said the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, as the inquiry was called, failed to hold high-level political appointees at the department responsible for inadequate security in Benghazi.
Nordstrom said that when he sought additional security personnel, he was told, “Basically, stop complaining.”
Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s senior Democrat, accused Republicans and Issa in particular of distorting facts.
But Cummings joined Republicans in promising the three witnesses would not suffer for their testimony.
“I try to do everything in my power to protect witnesses,” he said. “I don’t care if they are brought by Republicans or Democrats.”