Politics & Policy

The Difference It Made

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.

#ad#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 Stevenss 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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But perhaps more disturbing than the bad calls leading up to the attack were the cynical and negligent calls made after it, none more notorious than the administration’s ponderous and preposterous decision to blame the American deaths on a “spontaneous” demonstration against a fourth-rate YouTube video, seen by few and regarded by fewer.

Hicks testified, starkly and matter-of-factly, that “the YouTube video was a non-event in Libya.” So naturally, he was “stunned” by Ambassador Susan Rice’s Sunday-show appearances blaming the attack on it. “My jaw dropped,” said Hicks. “I was embarrassed.” On follow-up questions from Democrats desperate to find some fleeting suggestion of a nexus, Hicks was adamant: No American serving in Libya mentioned the video as a concern, either to one another or to their bosses in Washington.

#ad#By contrast, Hicks said, he was jumping up and down when Libyan president Mohammed Magarief promptly and forcefully called the Benghazi assault an act of terror, within hours of the attack and well ahead of the Obama administration. When confronted by committeemen with Secretary Clinton’s now infamous “what difference does it make” ejaculation in earlier congressional testimony, Hicks responded calmly but forcefully that the administration’s continued insistence that the attack was related to the video caused an “immeasurable” amount of damage. It angered an ally in President Magarief and hurt his credibility in Libya, and, far more critically, it delayed an FBI team from arriving in Libya for 18 days, during which time the crime scene in Benghazi was completely unsecure and precious evidence may have been lost forever.

Not only was the video not the proximate cause of the attack, but we have every indication that the administration knew that it was not and yet perpetuated the lie, either in the hopes that it would stick with an uncurious media, or merely to buy itself time. When the truth started to emerge from the spin, the administration resorted to more, shall we say, active measures.

In his 22 years of diplomatic service, Hicks testified, every congressional delegation he has ever received has been afforded one-on-one meetings with chargés d’affaires. But in the aftermath of Benghazi, State Department lawyers explicitly instructed Hicks not to speak to Representative Jason Chaffetz, nor to allow Chaffetz to speak with security personnel, without their presence as babysitters — a massive breach in protocol. When lawyers were nevertheless excluded from one meeting because they lacked appropriate security clearance, Hicks received an angry phone call from Cheryl Mills, Secretary Clinton’s chief of staff and chief fixer (whom you may remember as Bill Clinton’s attorney before the United States Senate). Said Hicks of the call: “She demanded a report on the visit and she was upset.”

The whistleblowers’ testimony is recounted here with little adornment, because to read it is to understand its import. It shows an administration characterized ex ante by incompetence and ex post facto by panic and cold calculation, willing to subvert national security for campaign-season politics. And it paints Hillary Clinton’s inner circle as eager to shift blame from political appointees to mid-level career employees, to intimidate foreign and civil servants into toeing the company line, and to punish those who refused (Hicks was demoted).

Throughout the proceedings a mostly tone-deaf and bewildered Democratic minority attempted limply to impeach the witnesses — failing to land a single blow — and to cling to obsolete talking points about budget cuts and military logistics’ being solely to blame for this tragedy. They provided no substantive rebuttal to the most disturbing and damaging testimony of Messrs. Thompson, Nordstrom, and Hicks. Perhaps because there is none.

After nine hearings, we are only now starting to get a true picture of September 11, 2012, and the days that followed in Benghazi. But the breakthrough is no reason to stop. On the contrary, Wednesday’s testimony provided new leads and suggested new witnesses — the military leadership on the ground, the interpolative State Department lawyers, Cheryl Mills, Assistant Secretary Beth Jones, Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy, Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, and Susan Rice, to name but a few — and we encourage Representative Issa to redouble his efforts. The seriousness of the claims leveled against administration figures should compel President Obama to cooperate fully in these efforts, but since it almost certainly won’t, we urge the committee to use its prerogatives and all legal means to fill out the record. We’re closer than we’ve ever been, but we’re still not at the bottom of Benghazi.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece has been amended since its original posting.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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