Hearing bombshells

Benghazi Attack House committee listens to six hours of dramatic and emotional testimony on the Benghazi attacks | J.C. Derrick

Hearing bombshells

From right to left: Eric Nordstrom, Gregory Hicks, and Mark Thompson testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Wednesday.
Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON—Three U.S. State Department whistleblowers provided congressional investigators with a series of dramatic revelations Wednesday during an emotional hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

The House Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) Committee heard six hours of tense testimony from witnesses Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Libya; Mark Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau; and Eric Nordstrom, a regional security officer in Libya in the months leading up to the attacks.

Several big moments marked the hearing, including an email Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said proved that senior State Department officials knew on Sept. 12 the Benghazi attacks were a terrorist event—despite repeated Obama administration attempts to blame an anti-Islamic YouTube video. Gowdy waived a copy of the email from Elizabeth Jones, acting secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, which he said discussed the terrorist group responsible for the attacks. Why then, Gowdy asked, did Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, go on five Sunday talk shows with a “monstrously false narrative” five days after the attacks?

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“I cannot answer that question,” Hicks said.

Hicks said he spoke with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 2 a.m. local time (8 p.m. EDT) on the night of the attacks, and she never asked how they occurred—he assumed she knew it was terrorism. But Clinton issued a statement blaming the YouTube video, and she repeated the same story in subsequent interviews and public appearances.

Hicks, who was often slow and deliberate in his response to questions, said he was “jumping up and down” when Libyan President Mohammad al-Magarief—during a national U.S. television appearance on Sept. 16—laid blame for the attacks at the feet of the Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia. But Rice immediately contradicted al-Magarief’s comments on the same Sunday show, claiming the YouTube video had sparked a phantom mob that attacked the Benghazi consulate.

“I was stunned,” Hicks said. “My jaw dropped. I was embarrassed.”

He wasn’t the only one: Two weeks later, when Hicks met with al-Magarief, the Libyan president was still angry and embarrassed. Hicks said Rice’s comments not only insulted al-Magarief, but they also undermined his standing in the eyes of his countrymen, hampered U.S. relations in Libya, and slowed the FBI investigation.

Hicks said both Clinton and President Barack Obama called him in the aftermath of the attacks to commend him for his conduct, but the tone from Washington took a sudden turn the following week. Hicks asked Elizabeth Jones why the administration had allowed Rice to make blatantly wrong statements on national television. She said she didn’t know and “the sense I got was that I needed to stop my line of questioning,” Hicks said.

The State Department then ordered Hicks not to allow himself and other top officials in Libya to be interviewed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican member of the OGR committee from Utah who conducted a fact-finding mission to investigate the attacks. Hicks said it was the first time he’d been forbidden from talking with a member of Congress.

After Hicks talked with Chaffetz anyway, he received a call from a “very upset” Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s counsel and chief of staff, who in the 1990s was in the middle of the Clinton White House scandals. (Mills also prepped State Department officials in October 2012 for the only preelection Benghazi hearing.) Hicks said he has since been “effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer.”

“[Hicks] won’t help them cover this up, so he’s given this kind of treatment from the people who praised him before,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, during yesterday’s hearing.

All three witnesses said they did not know who issued orders to “stand down” during the attacks, which came in three phases over eight hours, but they rejected the notion that military assistance was too far away to help.

“We live by a code, and that … says you go after people who are in peril. Those people in peril in the future need to know that we will go get them,” Thompson said. “It is my strong belief that we should have demonstrated that resolve, even if it resulted in the same outcome.”

After opening statements, Hicks commenced with a 30-minute play-by-play account of the events of Sept. 11 from his perspective in Tripoli. Despite his vast knowledge of the events—and his position as the deputy chief of mission in Libya—Hicks said the FBI never interviewed him, and the Accountability Review Board (ARB), which issued a report in December, conducted only one two-hour interview he felt was insufficient. Furthermore, Hicks was never allowed to review his testimony, read the classified ARB report, or read the unclassified ARB report before it was released.

“If you haven’t been allowed to read the classified ARB report, how do you know your testimony was used properly?” asked Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich.

“I don’t,” Hicks responded.

OGR ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md.—while saying he is “glad these whistle blowers are here”—questioned the motives of Republicans on the committee, especially Chairman Darrell Issa of California. At least three Democrats blamed the Benghazi attacks on GOP budget cuts, although Issa emphatically refuted the accusation.

Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, officials in both Benghazi and Tripoli requested additional security for the embassy and consulates, but the State Department denied those requests. Some of the diplomatic officials, including Hicks, were so concerned for their safety that they requested permission to receive training on how to handle guns.

In sworn testimony at a hearing in January, Hillary Clinton said the requests for more security never reached her desk. But a line of questioning on Wednesday by Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., cast serious doubts on that claim:

Lankford: “Mr. Hicks, when you arrived in July, did the facilities in Benghazi meet the minimum OSPB [Overseas Security Policy Board] security standards set by the State Department?”

Hicks: “According to the regional security office—at the time in Tripoli, John Martinek—they did not.”

Lankford: “What about the facilities in Tripoli?”

Hicks: “Again, according to the regional office, John Martinek, they were very weak.”

Lankford: “Were they close to meeting the standards?”

Hicks: “No, sir.”

Lankford: “Mr. Nordstrom, before you left as RSO [Regional Security Officer], did the facilities have the number of security personnel that you had requested?”

Nordstrom: “No, they did not.”

Lankford: “There are a very, very small number of facilities worldwide that are considered by GAO [Government Accountability Office] critical or high threat level for personnel in our different embassies and consulates. Tripoli and Benghazi—were they listed as high-threat level?”

Nordstrom: “They were.”

Lankford: “By statute, who has the authority to place personnel in facilities that do not meet minimum OSPB standards?”

Nordstrom: “… Since we were the sole occupants of both of those facilities, Benghazi and Tripoli, the only person who could grant waivers or exceptions to those is the secretary of state [Hillary Clinton].”

Lankford told me after the hearing he was pleased with the information the committee gathered. He said many more questions remain, such as who ordered Special Operations troops to stand down, and why security was so poor that diplomats had to request weapons training.

A Rasmussen poll released last week found 78 percent of Americans think it’s important to find out the truth about what happened at Benghazi. Only 32 percent gave the Obama administration credit for sufficiently explaining the attacks.

Republicans on Wednesday vowed to continue the investigation, specifically calling for testimony from the men who produced the ARB report in December: Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering. Issa said both man have so far refused to appear before the committee.

“This hearing is closed,” Issa said as he banged the chairman’s gavel, “but this investigation is not over.”

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