State Department deputy recalls Benghazi attack for House committee

May 8, 2013 at 5:19 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 8 (UPI) -- The U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya fought for composure as he recalled the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi to a House panel Wednesday.

State Department diplomat Gregory Hicks, who was stationed in Tripoli, delivered his account of the events of last Sept. 11 before a hushed House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during the panel's investigation of possible security and intelligence failures in the attack on the consulate in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic staffers were killed.

"Greg, we're under attack," Hicks recalled Stevens telling him by phone before a connection was lost.

"Over that night ... I was talking with the government of Libya, reporting to the State Department through the operations center and also staying in touch with the annex chief about what was going on," he said.

Eventually, he said, he received the "saddest news in my life" that Stevens died.

The hearing room crackled with tension as Hicks and the two other witnesses answered questions about the attack.

Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and others ripped the Obama administration and Democrats for not cooperating with the committee's investigation and for the actions taken by the administration in the attack's aftermath.

"The subject matter of today's hearing is to get at the root cause and the root facts of an awful tragedy that occurred, the mismanagement, then the political cover-up that resulted from that mismanagement, and a rush to judgment by some very ambitious political operatives within Washington," Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.

"I don't think there's a smoking gun today," Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said.

But, he said, everyone wants to "make sure this doesn't happen again."

Republicans also criticized administration officials for saying it was a demonstration over an offensive YouTube video that escalated out of control, a narrative U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice gave on five television talk shows the Sunday after the attack.

"I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed," Hicks said.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified during another hearing the information Rice relayed was the most accurate information available at the time. Hicks said he wasn't involved in developing the talks.

Asked whether he thought Clapper was lying, Hicks said, "I don't know anything about the development of those talking points."

During questioning, Hicks said after Rice's comments, "we encountered bureaucratic resistance for a long period of time from Libyan government. It took us an additional 18 days to get FBI team to Benghazi" during which the crime scene was unsecured.

Hicks also testified he and others were frustrated when the U.S. military turned down a request to send four Special Operations forces from Tripoli to Benghazi Sept. 12. He said the Special Ops members were ordered to stand down.

He also said he was told by his defense attache fighter planes based in Italy would take 2-3 hours and there was no refueling tanker available.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the committee, said Pentagon officials testified it would take at least nine hours to prep and get the planes to Benghazi.

"I'm speaking from my perspective on the ground in Tripoli," Hicks said. "I was told it would take 2-3 hours."

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., asked whether the diplomatic facilities in either Tripoli or Benghazi met State Department security standards, to which Hicks and Eric Nordstrom, diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya, both responded no.

Asked why Stevens was in Benghazi, Hick said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wanted to convert the consulate to a permanent constituency post and he had to report to her before the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) because funds from another account had to be obligated by then.

The witnesses also testified about the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report overseen by Adm. Mike Mullen, a former joint chiefs of staff chairman, and Tom Pickering, a long-time former diplomat.

Hicks and Nordstrom said they spoke to the review board, while Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counter-terrorism, said he had not, even though he had made himself available.

"I can tell you that it is surprising that anyone with firsthand knowledge [about the Benghazi attacks] wasn't interviewed unless someone didn't want to have a full report," Rep. Duncan, R-Tenn., said.

All three said they had issues with the process, with Hicks and Nordstrom saying they hadn't seen either the classified or unclassified versions.

Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., said one of the overall conclusions of the report was that Congress must do its part to address security risks and meet them.

"I just would hope after this hearing," Horsford said, "that we will begin to work on specific recommendations forwarded."

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