Going rogue

Benghazi Attack | Top U.S. State Department officials today are set to testify against the White House’s version of the assault on Benghazi
by Mindy Belz
Posted 5/08/13, 08:41 am

“Greg, we are under attack.”

That’s the last word Gregory Hicks received from U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens before terrorists killed Stevens last September at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, 630 miles east Tripoli, where Hicks was the ambassador’s top deputy at the U.S. Embassy.

Hicks was the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat on hand in Libya to survive the attack, and today he will speak publicly for the first time about the assault in a sworn statement to Congress. He is expected to contradict earlier sworn testimony from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His version also goes against statements made by top officials—including President Barack Obama—in the days immediately following the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, where Stevens and three others attached to the U.S. mission were killed.

Hicks in his statement to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said, “Everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning.” Yet U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows four days later to give the administration’s version of events, stating the attack was “a spontaneous reaction” to the release of a U.S.-made video critical of Islam and Muhammad.

That contradicted what Hicks said the U.S. Embassy reported to Washington. It also ran directly counter to Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf’s finding a day earlier, that it was, in Magariaf’s words, “a pre-calculated, pre-planned attack.”

Hicks in his prepared testimony (see excerpts below) said Rice broke “a cardinal rule of diplomacy” in contradicting the Libyan head of state: The newly elected president (made possible by a U.S.-supported NATO military intervention) “at great personal risk,” according to Hicks, traveled to Benghazi to investigate the attack and to declare it the work of Islamic extremists.

“The net impact of what has transpired is the spokesperson of the most powerful country in the world has basically said that the president of Libya is either a liar or doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Hicks said in his statement. He called it “the most embarrassing moment” in his 22-year career as a U.S. diplomat. Hicks told investigators he personally knew members of Rice’s staff, and they never contacted him for an account of events from Libya.

Hicks is also expected to detail the military’s failure to launch support teams, despite his repeated requests, once the assault at the U.S. Consulate was underway—including being denied permission to send a U.S. Special Forces team from Tripoli.

Those statements will put Obama, Rice, and Clinton in the hot box again on an incident leading Democrats hoped they had put behind them. Last week White House spokesman Jay Carney dismissed questions about today’s hearings, saying, “Benghazi happened a long time ago.” He and Obama also have dismissed reporters’ questions over reports that the administration has intimidated U.S. survivors of the Benghazi attack from testifying to Congress.

In addition to Hicks, two other State Department officials who consider themselves whistleblowers will testify today: Mark I. Thompson, who served in the Marines and is current deputy coordinator for counterterrorism operations, and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer who was the regional security officer in Libya.

Excerpts from Gregory Hicks’ prepared testimony

“I thought it was a terrorist attack from the get‑go. I think everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning. …

“So [President] Magariaf, at great personal risk to himself, goes to Benghazi to initiate an investigation and lend his own personal gravitas. … So he goes to lend his own personal gravitas and reputation to an investigation of what happens. And he gets on—and he is on these programs speaking from Benghazi, and he says this was an attack by Islamic extremists, possibly with terrorist links. He describes what happens. He tells the truth of what happened. And so, you know, Ambassador Rice says what she says, contradicting what the President of Libya says from Benghazi.

“There’s a cardinal rule of diplomacy that we learn in our orientation class, and that rule is never inadvertently insult your interlocutor. The net impact of what has transpired is the spokesperson of the most powerful country in the world has basically said that the President of Libya is either a liar or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The impact of that is immeasurable. Magariaf has just lost face in front of not only his own people, but the world. And, you know, my jaw hit the floor as I watched this. I’ve never been—I have been a professional diplomat for 22 years. I have never been as embarrassed in my life, in my career as on that day. There have been other times when I’ve been embarrassed, but that’s the most embarrassing moment of my career. And again we come back, what’s the other impact? … I never reported a demonstration; I reported an attack on the consulate. Chris—Chris’ last report, if you want to say his final report, is, ‘Greg, we are under attack.’

“I was personally known to one of Ambassador Rice’s staff members. And, you know, we’re 6 hours ahead of Washington. Even on Sunday morning I could have been called, and, you know, the phone call could have been, hey, Greg, Ambassador Rice is going to say blah, blah, blah, blah, and I could have said, no, that’s not the right thing. That phone call was never made. … I firmly believe that the reason it took us so long to get the FBI to Benghazi is because of those Sunday talk shows.”

Excerpts from Gregory Hicks’ April interview with congressional investigators on the House Oversight Committee

Q: But do you think, you know, if an F-15, if the military had allowed a jet to go fly over, that it might have prevented [the second attack]?

A: Yeah, and if we had gotten clearance from the Libyan military for an American plane to fly over Libyan airspace. The Libyans that I talked to and the Libyans and other Americans who were involved in the war have told me also that Libyan revolutionaries were very cognizant of the impact that American and NATO airpower had with respect to their victory. They are under no illusions that American and NATO airpower won that war for them. And so, in my personal opinion, a fast-mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night.

Q: The theory being, the folks on the ground that are doing these—committing these terrorist attacks look up, see a heavy duty airplane above, and decide to hightail it?

A: I believe that if—I believe 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 annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.

Q: I just wanted to ask, you mentioned permission from the Libyans. Why is that important? What did you mean by that?

A: Well, it’s their country. And for an American military aircraft to fly over their country, we have to have permission from them to do so.

Q: So what would have been the risk of—do you think it would have been risky for us to send someone, do you think it would have been counterproductive for us to send a fighter pilot plane over Benghazi without that permission?

A: We would have certainly wanted to obtain that permission. I believe we would have gotten it if we had asked. I believe that the Libyans were hoping that we were going to come bail them out of this mess. And, you know, they were as surprised as we were that American—the military forces that did arrive only arrived on the evening of September 12. Yeah.

Q: So, at this point [at approximately 10:00 p.m. in Tripoli], you are talking to Washington, you are talking to your RSO Martinec, you are talking to RAO. Are you talking to the Defense Attaché?

A: The Defense Attaché is there, and he is immediately on the phone to Ministry of Defense and to chief of staff of the Libyan Armed Forces. He also notifies Joint Staff and AFRICOM. Our SOCAFRICA lead, Lt. Col. Gibson, connects with SOCAFRICA in Stuttgart, as well. And, obviously, RAO is also connected back home.

Q: Was there ever any thought at that time of the night to have an F-16, you know, fly over?

A: I called—when we knew that—I talked with the Defense Attaché, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and I asked him, “Is there anything coming?” And he said that the nearest fighter planes were Aviano, that he had been told that it would take two to three hours to get them airborne, but that there were no tanker assets near enough to support a flight from Aviano.

A: And for the second time that night [Before 5:15 a.m. attack], I asked the Defense Attaché, is there anything coming, is there anything out there to help our people from, you know, big military? And the answer, again, was the same as before.

Q: And what was that answer?

A: The answer was, it’s too far away, there are no tankers, there is nothing, there is nothing that could respond.

Q: So you had mentioned that the first team from Tripoli to Benghazi arrived at 1:15?

A: Right.

Q: And was there a second team that was organized? Could you tell us about the second team?

A: Right. The second team—the Defense Attaché worked assiduously all night long to try to get the Libyan military to respond in some way. Early in the morning—sorry, after we were formally notified by the Prime Minister, who called me, that Chris had passed, the Libyan military agreed to fly their C-130 to Benghazi and carry additional personnel to Benghazi as reinforcements. Because we at that time—at that time, the third attack, the mortar attack at 5:15, had not yet occurred, if I remember correctly.

Q: So what time did the second rescue team?

A: Well, again, they flew—I think that flight took off sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m.

Q: At that point, you are the Chief of Mission?

A: Yeah, I’m Chief of Mission effective 3:00 a.m.

Q: Now, did any of the Special Forces folks, were they planning at any time to travel on that second aircraft?

A: On the second, on the C-130? Yes. We fully intended for those guys to go, because we had already essentially stripped ourselves of our security presence, or our security capability to the bare minimum …

A: So Lt. Col. Gibson, who is the SOCAFRICA commander, his team, you know, they were on their way to the vehicles to go to the airport to get on the C-130 when he got a phone call from SOCAFRICA which said, you can’t go now, you don’t have authority to go now. And so they missed the flight. And, of course, this meant that one of the …

Q: They didn’t miss the flight. They were told not to board the flight.

A: They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it. So, anyway, and yeah. I still remember Col. Gibson, he said, “I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military.” A nice compliment.

Q: Now, at this point, are you having communications with Washington?

A: I was in communications with Washington all night long. I was reporting all night long what was happening to Washington by telephone.

Q: When these Special Forces folks were told essentially to stand down, what was your next move? Did you have a recourse? Were you able to call Washington? Were you able to call anyone at this point to get that decision reversed?

A: No, because the flight was—the flight was leaving. And, you know, if they missed—you know, if the vehicles didn’t leave when they leave, they would miss the flight time at the airport. And the airport—you know, we were going all the way to Mitiga. The C-130 is at Mitiga, which is all the way on the other side of Tripoli.

Q: What was the rationale that you were given that they couldn’t go, ultimately?

A: I guess they just didn’t have the right authority from the right …

Follow WORLD's coverage of Wednesday's congressional hearings, including live tweets from reporter J.C. Derrick in the hearing room.

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.

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