The top deputy to the U.S. ambassador killed during the attacks last September in Benghazi, Libya, said Wednesday he was “stunned” when U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on talk shows days later that the incident stemmed from “demonstrations” sparked by protests over an anti-Islamic video.
“My jaw dropped, and I was embarrassed,” said Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission/chargé d’affairs in Libya, of those depictions by Rice. He said his team was aware that night the attack was terrorism and that he had personally told former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at 2 a.m. that same night it was a terrorist attack. He also said that officials had received “no report from the U.S. mission in Libya of a demonstration.”
Hicks became the acting head of the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi when Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed in the attack along with three other Americans. Hicks was among three witnesses appearing Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee, and his testimony at times turned emotional.
He testified of the confusion in the first hours of the attack, and of not even knowing what had happened to the ambassador. He said of the telephone call he eventually received from the Libyan prime minister to say that Stevens was dead, “I think it’s the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life.”
The hearing was focused on the handling by the Obama administration—and Clinton, a potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate—of the aftermath of the terrorist attack. As many as four other House committees are pursuing such inquiries into whether the administration initially misled the public.
Republicans described the three witnesses on Wednesday as whistle-blowers, with committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., calling them “actual experts” on what happened who would expose new facts.
But in fact, much of the testimony at the hearing, titled “Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage,” had already been publicized with the release of portions of their previous interviews with committee staffers, or it had been addressed by other panels. The other witnesses were Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, and Eric Nordstrom, the diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya.
Some of the questioning by lawmakers also touched on military assets that were not deployed more swiftly, or were even told to initially stand down. Thompson, in his testimony, reiterated his claim that he tried to get a state-led Foreign Emergency Support Team deployed—made up of special operations and intelligence personnel—but was turned down.
Hicks also said that he believes Libyan officials would have given the go-ahead for U.S. air power to be used to break up the attack.
Yet others, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have previously testified that another option—F-16s stationed at the Aviano Air Force Base in Italy—could not have gotten there in time.
But it’s the testimony of Hicks that Republicans appeared eager to use to suggest the administration and Clinton sought to deceive the public, including with the early Rice depictions regarding the YouTube video inciting demonstrations, despite previous testimony that Rice was using talking points given her by the intelligence community. Hicks at one point said he received calls from top Clinton adviser Cheryl Mills not to talk to congressmen coming in to interview him about what happened.
“There is no statute of limitations to finding out the truth,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., at one point during the hearing.
But the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said, “What we have seen over the past two weeks is a full-scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible and bipartisan manner, but rather to launch unfounded accusations and to smear public officials.”