Gregory Hicks’s personal account of the tragic night of September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya, offered some of the most compelling public testimony to date regarding the deadly terrorist attacks that left four Americans dead, including U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, who appeared before the House Oversight Committee on Tuesday, is the first person who was actually in Libya the night of the attacks to testify publicly. Hicks’s comments, which raised serious questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the attacks and their aftermath, are sure to fuel Republican efforts to expose a potential cover-up.
A decorated and widely praised 22-year veteran of the State Department, Hicks recalled being “stunned” and “embarrassed” watching U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s now-infamous appearances on the Sunday-talk-show circuit, where she claimed that the Benghazi attacks were the result of spontaneous “demonstrations” inspired by an anti-Islamic YouTube video — a claim that President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other administration officials maintained for eleven days following the attack. “The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya,” Hicks said. “The only event that transpired was the attack on our consulate.”
Hicks said there was no doubt among U.S. personnel on the ground that the Benghazi attacks were carried out by terrorists — they were well aware that the terror group Ansar al-Sharia had quickly claimed credit on Twitter. In gripping testimony, he recalled how his team in Tripoli loaded ammunition into armored vehicles, smashed hard drives, and fled to a safe house in anticipation of an attack on the embassy in the capital city. He also described “the saddest phone call” he had ever received, when the Libyan prime minister told him that Ambassador Stevens was dead. An audience of more than a hundred staffers, reporters, and lawmakers hung on his every word.
Hicks was so shaken by Rice’s remarks on the Sunday shows that he contacted Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, to ask why the U.N. ambassador had incorrectly blamed the attacks on a video. “Her reaction was ‘I don’t know,’ and it was very clear from the tone that I should not proceed any further,” Hicks told members of the committee. He cited this exchange as the beginning of a problematic relationship with the administration, which ultimately led to his demotion from deputy mission chief to mere “desk officer.”
This testimony comes amid concerns that the State Department has been intimidating potential witnesses who have knowledge of the attacks and are seeking to testify. The three witnesses present at Wednesday’s hearing were repeatedly referred to as “whistleblowers.” Hicks made clear that the administration has sought to keep him on a tight leash, and his recounting of one particular interaction with Cheryl Mills, State Department general counsel and former chief of staff to Secretary Clinton, is sure to stoke the passions of Republicans eager to pin blame on the prospective 2016 nominee.
Hicks said that administration lawyers had instructed him not to meet in Libya with a congressional delegation led by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) in the wake of the attack — the first time in his career he had ever received such a request. Hicks took the meeting, but a State Department lawyer who tried to sit in was barred because he lacked a security clearance. Hicks later received an angry phone call from Mills demanding a report from the meeting. “A phone call from that near a person [to the secretary of state] is generally not considered to be good news,” Hicks said.
Democrats, on the other hand, spent much of the hearing attempting to absolve Clinton of any blame, as well as (tactfully) cast doubt on many of Hicks’s claims. They pointed to a recent report released by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB), which found that Clinton was not responsible for the “inadequate” security at the Benghazi consulate prior to the attack. Republicans noted, with some skepticism toward the findings, that Clinton herself was never interviewed by the board. The ARB did interview Hicks, but he expressed frustration that he was never able to review its classified report.
The White House would clearly prefer to put an end to questions about its role during the Benghazi attacks and in the immediate aftermath, but Republicans aren’t going to let them off so easily. Wednesday’s hearing may not have changed many minds, but it showed that further questions are justified, and ought to be answered.
White House press secretary Jay Carney may think that September 11, 2012, was “a long time ago,” but as Representative Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.) said at one point during the hearing, “there is no statute of limitations to finding out the truth.”
—Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.