As the weakly protected U.S. diplomatic compound in eastern Libya came under attack the night of Sept. 11, 2012, the deputy head of the embassy in Tripoli 600 miles away sought in vain to get the Pentagon to scramble fighter jets over Benghazi in a show of force that he said might have averted a second attack on a nearby CIA complex.
Hours later, according to excerpts of the account by the U.S. diplomat, Gregory Hicks, American officials in the Libyan capital sought permission to deploy four U.S. Special Operations troops to Benghazi aboard a Libyan military aircraft early the next morning. The troops were told to stand down.
Defense Department officials have said they had no units that could have responded in time to counter the attack in Benghazi, but Republicans on Capitol Hill have questioned whether the Obama administration could have saved lives with a nimbler, more assertive response. They say that the reluctance to send the Special Operations troops may have, at the very least, deprived wounded Americans in Benghazi of first aid.
Congressional investigators released a partial transcript of Hicks’s testimony Monday ahead of a hearing Wednesday at which he is scheduled to appear. His remarks are the first public account from a U.S. official who was in Libya at the time of the attacks about the options that were weighed as militants mobbed the American diplomatic outpost and CIA station in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other government employees.
The new details are certain to reignite a debate over whether the Obama administration has been sufficiently forthcoming in its public accounting of the events and missteps that resulted in the first death of a U.S. ambassador in the line of duty in a generation. If Republicans in Congress succeed in portraying the administration’s response as feckless, the episode could dog any future political aspirations of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state when the attacks happened.
After the attacks ended without planes being scrambled or special forces dispatched, the lieutenant colonel in Tripoli who commanded the Special Operations team told Hicks he was sorry that his men had been held back.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than someone in the military,” the officer told Hicks, according to the diplomat’s account. Hicks called that “a nice compliment.”
Hicks may have been the last American official to speak with Stevens. After an embassy security official ran into his residence to tell him about the initial attack, Hicks managed to get Stevens on the phone. “Greg, we’re under attack,” Stevens blurted out, according to Hicks. “My response is ‘Okay,’ and I’m about to say something else and the line clicks.”
The administration has said the independent review of the Benghazi assault was exhaustive, and State Department officials have vowed to implement reforms to make U.S. missions abroad safer. Republicans, however, say Hicks’s account suggests the administration has not been entirely truthful.
“The White House and the Pentagon have allowed us to believe that there were no military options on the table,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said in a phone interview. “The model of the military is to leave no person behind, and it’s stunning and unacceptable to think we had military willing and ready to go and the Pentagon told them to stand down. That’s just not the American way.”
Chaffetz said the troops who were not allowed to travel to Benghazi would have arrived after the attack on the CIA base but may have provided first aid to wounded personnel. He noted that the order to keep them from traveling was given before the second attack.
A Pentagon spokesman said he would review the Hicks testimony. “We have repeatedly stated that while Department officials started taking action immediately after learning that an attack was underway at the American facility there, our forces were unable to reach it in time to intervene to stop the attacks,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in an e-mail Monday night.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters that the Republican-led inquiry appears to be politicized, saying it was “not a collaborative process.”
He said, however, that the State Department is not seeking to suppress the accounts of whistleblowers. “We have always encouraged any State Department employee who wants to share their story and tell the truth,” he said.
Part of the Benghazi debate has focused on whether prompt action might have saved lives. In the initial attack, militants overran the compound where Stevens was staying and he and another State Department officer, Sean Smith, were killed. Others made their way to a nearby annex used by the CIA, where two Americans, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in an attack several hours later.
Hicks, a veteran Foreign Service officer who is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, told congressional staffers that he and others in Libya thought that flying U.S. military jets over Benghazi during the early hours of the attack could have had a deterrent effect.
“If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the [CIA] annex in the morning, because I believe the Libyans would have split,” Hicks said. “They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.”
Hicks said that late on the night of Sept. 11 he called the embassy’s defense attache, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and asked about the viability of sending jets.
“Is there anything coming?” Hicks said he asked Phillips.
Phillips told Hicks that the nearest planes were at Aviano Air Base in Italy and that it would take two to three hours to get them off the ground, the diplomat told congressional staffers. There also were no aircraft nearby that could have refueled airborne planes.
“The answer was, it’s too far away, there are no tankers, there is nothing, there is nothing that could respond,” he said.