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The Difference It Made

From left: Mark Thompson, Gregory Hicks, and Eric Nordstrom at Congressional hearing, May 8, 2013.

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On Wednesday, Representative Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee convened the ninth round of hearings on the lethal September 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a number of iterations made necessary by the administration’s manifold efforts to stall, stymie, and deflect the investigation. Testifying were Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for operations, counterterrorism bureau; Eric Nordstrom, former State Department regional security officer for Libya; and Gregory Hicks, a foreign-service officer and former deputy chief of mission in Libya, who, after Ambassador Chris Stevens’s death that night, became America’s senior diplomat in the country. Rightly identified as “whistleblowers,” the three men came forward at considerable professional risk because, as a choked-up Nordstrom testified in his opening remarks, “it matters” that we find out what happened before, during, and after the attacks that left four Americans dead.

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Mr. Hicks began the hearing with a harrowing and moving account of the attacks as they unfolded, from his vantage point at the embassy in Tripoli. He spoke of a first wave of some 60 attackers inside American walls in Benghazi — driven out by a mere six Americans, but not before they could set the fire that likely killed Ambassador Stevens. Unidentified people soon called American personnel using Stevens’s cell phone, saying they had the ambassador. “We suspected we were being baited into a trap,” Hicks testified, “and we did not want to send our people into an ambush.” 

The jihadists launched another assault on the U.S. compound, this time killing two Americans with mortar fire. Hicks spoke with emotion of the heroism of the few left standing to fight, including a Special Forces operative climbing down a ladder with a badly injured man strapped to his back.

Later, Hicks testified, he asked military commanders to send a Special Forces attachment led by one Lieutenant Colonel Gibson back to Benghazi, but was denied by the brass at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM):

People in Benghazi had been fighting all night. They were tired. They were exhausted. We wanted to make sure the airport was secure for their withdrawal. As he and his three personnel were getting in the cars, he stopped, they called them off. He said that he had not been authorized to go.

Lieutenant Colonel Gibson was furious. I had told him to bring our people home. That is what he wanted to do.

Hicks quoted Gibson as saying then that it was the only time in his career he saw a diplomat have “more balls” than the United States military.

Calling off the reinforcements was just one of many questionable tactical and strategic decisions made both before and during the attack. Nordstrom testified, for instance, that although the government recognized Benghazi as an acutely dangerous post, the consulate’s security apparatus did not meet the minimum standards for such installations, and that by statute, the only person who can waive security protocols in such situations is the secretary of state. As we already knew, not only did the security situation fail to improve in the months leading up to the attack, it actually deteriorated, and security personnel were reassigned even as the number of violent incidents against the Western presence increased. (In its after-action reports, Hillary Clinton’s State Department either dismissed these security failings or laid them at the feet of middle managers below the level of Senate confirmation.)



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