At Benghazi hearing, State Dept. officials challenge administration review of attacks

Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer posted in Libya when the U.S. Embassy was reopened after the country’s 2011 civil war, choked up while giving his opening statement at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi attacks. (The Washington Post)

Three State Department officials on Wednesday provided a riveting, emotional account of last year’s fatal attack on U.S. installations in eastern Libya as they accused senior government officials of withholding embarrassing facts and failing to take enough responsibility for security lapses.

The testimony provided new details on the Sept. 11, 2012, assaults on U.S. installations in Benghazi and their aftermath. But the new information failed to break the political logjam the attacks spawned, with Republicans and Democrats offering starkly different interpretations of what happened and who within the U.S. government is to blame.

Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) opened the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing by saying that panel Democrats had “mostly sat silent” while Republicans tried to wrest the truth from an uncooperative Obama administration.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat on the committee, countered that Issa’s GOP majority had launched a “full-scale media campaign . . . of unfounded accusations to smear public officials.”

But in expanding the narrative of the intensely politicized episode, the witnesses raised fresh questions about whether then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her deputies were sufficiently engaged in assessing the security posture of diplomatic posts last year.

Speaking before the panel, they also reiterated criticism of the administration’s initial reluctance to describe the attacks as premeditated terrorist acts. The Libyan government had labeled the attacks a terrorist assault, and the absence of similar descriptions from the United States made it more difficult for Libyan officials to assist the FBI’s investigation of the incident, according to the former deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Libya.

“It negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi,” Foreign Service officer Gregory Hicks said. President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf was “insulted in front of his own people. His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his country was damaged,” Hicks said.

Clinton and her senior aides should have paid more attention to deteriorating security in Libya over the months preceding the attacks, along with requests from the post for additional resources, said Eric Nordstrom, who served as the embassy’s security chief until July.

If for no other reason, Nordstrom said, Clinton was planning to travel to Libya later in the year and had signaled that she wanted the United States to turn its temporary mission in Benghazi into a formal diplomatic post.

“Certainly, there’s a reasonable expectation that her staff would have briefed her” on a March 28 cable from the embassy in Tripoli asking for additional security personnel and resources, Nordstrom said.

The State Department has defended the review carried out after the Benghazi assault, calling it exhaustive. The former top diplomat who led the probe, Thomas Pickering, told MSNBC that “the notion of a coverup,” as some Republicans allege, “has the elements of Pulitzer Prize fiction.”

A team of Special Operations troops that had been assigned to the embassy in Libya 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.

“We continue to believe there was nothing this team could have done to assist during the second attack in Benghazi,” Little said.

The three witnesses — also including Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism — were critical of the inquiry into Benghazi headed by Pickering, saying that it did not assign enough blame to senior officials.

Nordstrom and Hicks singled out Patrick Kennedy, the longtime undersecretary for management, who had ultimate responsibility for weighing security requests made by diplomatic posts.

Hicks, a 22-year veteran of the department, said senior U.S. leaders, including President Obama and Clinton, lauded his performance during the crisis. After he questioned why Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had delivered talking points that linked the attack to a demonstration, his superiors turned on him, Hicks testified. He specifically alleged that Clinton counselor Cheryl Mills and Assistant Secretary of State Elizabeth Jones criticized him harshly.

Early in the hearing, Hicks delivered a detailed account of the events of that night, keeping spectators in the crowded hearing room riveted.

After being alerted that the mission’s villa in Benghazi was being assaulted, Hicks said, he managed to get Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on the phone for a few seconds — just long enough to hear him say, “Greg, we’re under attack.”

Hicks said he and his colleagues worked the phones madly that night, asking Libyan government officials for reinforcement while they waited for Washington to spring into action.

Scott Wickland, the ambassador’s main bodyguard, sought to rescue Stevens from the burning building, Hicks said.

“He tried repeatedly to go back in to try to rescue Sean [Smith] and the ambassador but had to stop due to exposure to smoke,” the diplomat testified.

A team from a house nearby that was used as a base by the CIA responded to the attack on the main compound and managed to repel it initially, Hicks said, but it later had to retreat under fire, leaving Stevens behind.

Hicks learned that Stevens had been taken to a hospital controlled by a militia, and he began hearing reports that the ambassador had died. A call from the Libyan prime minister confirming the news, Hicks said, was “the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life.”

When they realized the U.S. military would not be bailing them out anytime soon, Hicks said, his team sprang into action.

“Okay, we’re on our own,” he said, describing his reaction. “We’re going to have to try to pull this off with the resources that we have available.”

Alarmed by the possibility that the residential area where U.S. diplomats were housed in Tripoli could come under attack, Hicks began planning to move to an annex as soon as dawn broke. A female diplomat packed ammunition into their armored vehicles and then used an ax to destroy hard drives and other sensitive items that would be left unguarded.

The Tripoli team was able to move safely and coordinated medical care for the Benghazi attack survivors, who were flown to the capital on the morning of Sept. 12.

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for the Washington Post.
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