House panel hears account of Benghazi attack
WASHINGTON - The veteran diplomat who oversaw the response to the deadly attacks on U.S. installations in eastern Libya last year offered a riveting account on Wednesday of that frantic night, as House Republicans sought to use his testimony to bolster their view that the Obama administration tried to shield embarrassing facts about the ordeal.
Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya during the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks, testified before a House committee that he was frustrated when the U.S. military turned down a request to dispatch four Special Operations troops from Tripoli to Benghazi the next morning, saying he felt they were urgently needed to help evacuate Americans.
"People in Benghazi had been fighting all night," he said. "They were tired, exhausted. We wanted to make sure the airport was secure for their withdrawal."
The Pentagon, which has not previously acknowledged the debate over where the four-man team would be most valuable, defended on Wednesday the decision to keep them in the capital.
"We continue to believe there was nothing this team could have done to assist during the second attack in Benghazi," Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters. Little noted there were also concerns about the security of American officials in the Libyan capital. Republicans honed in on the controversial remarks by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack. She said in television interviews that the U.S. government believed the attacks had been preceded by a demonstration over a video that disparaged Islam. Hicks said U.S. officials knew better by then and that the remarks angered the Libyan president, who had gone on record calling it a terrorist attack. That discord prevented the FBI from reaching Benghazi for several days, Hicks said, because the Libyan government was not able to guarantee their safety.
Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf was "insulted in front of his own people," Hicks said. "His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his country was damaged."
Hicks said that after a long, distinguished career, senior officials at the State Department turned on him for asking pointed questions about Rice's remarks. His bosses suggested he should curtail his assignment, citing management failures.
"I was angry with the way I was criticized," he said. "I felt I had been tried and convicted in absentia."
His current assignment as a desk officer represents a demotion, Hicks said.
The hearing also included testimony from a State Department security expert who was assigned to the embassy in Libya months before the deadly attacks on the U.S. compounds in Benghazi. Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer posted in Libya when the U.S. Embassy was reopened after the country's 2011 civil war, said Wednesday that the government's probe into the incident failed to adequately take senior leaders to task for security lapses and management failures.
He said it was "inexplicable" that the department's investigation into the matter failed to "review the decisions of the (undersecretary) for management and other senior leaders," according to remarks prepared for delivery before the congressional panel.