Official recounts ambassador’s death in attack on compound in Benghazi

A summary of the highlights from today’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on the Benghazi attacks. (Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

State Department officials testifying at a House hearing on Wednesday recounted the events that led to U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens’s death in an attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi last year. Foreign Service officer Gregory Hicks claimed that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her staff did not do enough to protect the compound:

A team of Special Operations troops that had been assigned to the embassy in [Tripoli] in 2011 to provide security was significantly downsized and its mission changed to training shortly before the attack, Hicks testified. The team of 14 to 16 elite troops was whittled down to four after two of them were carjacked, a decision Hicks said was made by the U.S. military’s Africa Command.

After the State Department’s lightly defended Benghazi compound came under siege by a mob of 60 or so assailants, Hicks said, he initially sought to get the Pentagon to scramble jets from a U.S. base in Italy to fly over Benghazi, in hopes it would intimidate militants. When he was told that no planes could arrive for several hours, Hicks said, he tried to get the remaining four Special Operations troops on a Libyan military aircraft heading to Benghazi early on the morning of Sept. 12. Senior military leaders rejected that request, Hicks said, even though “there was every reason to continue to believe that our personnel were in danger.”

Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters Wednesday that the stand-down order was given because the troops were needed to protect U.S. personnel in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and that they could not have reached Benghazi in time to have made a difference. (Read the full article here.)

Hicks also testified that the State Department had retaliated against him for criticizing the department’s leadership with a demotion, an assertion that Patrick Ventrell, a department spokesman, disputed:

Hicks said family concerns were the “overriding” reason for his decision not to return to Libya. But he said he also felt that “I would never be comfortable working there” after the criticism. When he voluntarily withdrew from his assignment in Tripoli, Hicks said, he was given a State Department job in Washington that he considered a demotion.

Hicks’s decision took him out of the annual assignment cycle, and difficulty in finding a suitable assignment was “not uncommon” in such situations, Ventrell said.

“However, the Department worked with him to find a suitable temporary assignment and succeeded,” he said. “Mr. Hicks still receives the same salary and has the same employment status and rank as before. Per standard procedure, Mr. Hicks recently submitted a preference list for his next assignment and is under consideration along with other Foreign Service employees.” (Continue reading here.)

While many of the issues discussed at the hearing have already been raised, Hicks’s description of his altercations with department leaders after the attack provided new information. Post opinion writer Dana Milbank suggests that the House committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), held the hearing mainly to discredit Clinton. If so, Milbank writes, Hicks’s testimony did not achieve that goal:

Hicks said he thought a flyover by U.S. jets could have deterred the second of the two attacks that night, but he declined to question the judgment of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said there was no way to get the fighters there in time.

Hicks was of little use to Republicans in their efforts to connect the lapses in the Benghazi response to Clinton or to the Obama White House. He said that he spoke to Clinton by phone at 2 a.m. that night and that she supported his actions. He undermined one of Issa’s claims — that Clinton had rejected an increase in security for the Libya facilities — when he agreed that the secretary of state’s name appears on all cables, even if she doesn’t write them.

Hicks did have some damning things to say about the State Department trying to block him from cooperating with Issa’s committee. But that wasn’t quite the evidence Issa had promised: that politics drove the administration’s response to Benghazi. (Read the rest of the column here.)

On the other hand, Erik Wemple writes that in testifying, Hicks performed a valuable public service:

Whatever the impact of Hicks’s words—whether they keep this story alive, whether they puncture the political standing of Clinton, whether they cause a Defense Department shakeup, whether they annoy the White House—they delivered the sort of personal, visceral account that the country deserves after its people are killed in a terrorist attack.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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