We’ve heard the official line of Obama administration officials. Benghazi happened “a long time ago.” Benghazi has been thoroughly investigated—all the questions have been asked and answered, all the key officials have given their on-the-record testimony. The media have had their chances to ask their questions.
If all that is true, then why did the testimony of Gregory Hicks before a House committee today provide such a riveting and enlightening picture of the events of Sept. 11, 2012? Hicks was the State Department’s deputy chief of mission in Libya that night. He would become the chief before the night was over, as U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, as well as three other U.S. personnel, perished in the attacks.
As House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) noted in the hearing, the public hadn’t heard direct testimony from “a single person who was in Libya that night.” He instructed Hicks to give a rundown of what happened the night of Benghazi, and to take his time.
Hicks complied, to towering effect.
His narrative toggled between events in Benghazi, where the attacks began around 9:30 p.m. local time, and events in Tripoli, where Hicks was based: “As I remember September 11, 2012—it was a routine day at our embassy.” Routine, that is, until word came of the upheaval at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, at which point Hicks notified Stevens, in Benghazi, about the disturbing news.
The deputy chief of mission thereupon retired to his villa and watched a TV show “that I particularly like.” His quiet time got interrupted by a colleague who stormed in and said, “Greg, Greg, the consulate’s under attack.” So Hicks checked his phone and found he’d missed two calls. He got the ambassador on the line for a brief call that got cut off on account of poor cellphone service. “Greg, we’re under attack,” said Stevens in the brief exchange.
The rest of the night, as conveyed by Hicks, was a blur of frantic phone calls and attempts to 1) figure out what was happening in Benghazi; and 2) try to help, somehow. Libyan government officials, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, colleagues in Tripoli and others—Hicks was in touch with all of them. Scrambling.
As he told us what happened that night, Hicks brought insight: The people who kept running into the Benghazi compound to attempt to rescue the fallen displayed great heroism. The fuel that the invaders had used to torch the facility, said Hicks, emits cyanide gas when ablaze, delivering fatal doses to anyone who fully breathes it in. Other heroes, said Hicks, were the embassy staffers who organized a retreat from the embassy in Tripoli, axing hard drives and protecting sensitive data, among many other pressing national-security housekeeping tasks.
The deputy chief of mission also delivered on a component that had been previewed in the media. A C-130 plane was to leave Tripoli for Benghazi around 6 a.m. the morning after the attack. Hicks wanted to send four Special Forces personnel on the plane, to help the folks in Benghazi, perhaps in securing the airport and such. Those four people were told to stand down, to Hicks’s great dismay.
Pentagon press secretary George Little pushes back on the notion that this was a bad call:
The team leader called Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) to update them that the movement of US personnel to the Tripoli Annex was complete. He then reported his intention to move his team to Benghazi aboard the Libyan C-130. As the mission in Benghazi at that point had shifted to evacuation, the SOCAF Operations Center directed him to continue providing support to the Embassy in Tripoli. There is no evidence that this four-man team could possibly have arrived in Benghazi to assist during the attacks. There was nothing this group could have done by that time in Benghazi, and they performed superbly in Tripoli. In fact, when the first aircraft arrived back in Tripoli, these four played a key role in receiving, treating and moving the wounded.
So there you have a debate. Was the C-130 stand-down order a smart call or evidence of a pusillanimous defense establishment?
The Erik Wemple Blog won’t attempt to play jury on that one. One judgment, however, that we’re happy to make is that the testimony of Hicks and two others at the House hearing is overdue. We’ve read this report on Benghazi, this report on Benghazi, this report on Benghazi, every timeline on Benghazi offered by U.S. government agencies, reams and reams of stories and investigative reports on Benghazi, television specials on Benghazi. Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi.
None of it equipped the Erik Wemple Blog with a feel for that miserable night. Hicks did. So 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.