"Whether you're at a mission, preparing for a hearing or
you're standing on top of a building "surrounded by a mob," he says,
"The message is the same: You're on your own." Eric
Nordstrom, a security officer
Here's a good summation of yesterday's bombshells:
US officials blocked rescue effort while Benghazi burned, Congress told
While US diplomats were pulling bodies from a burning Libyan
consulate and frantically smashing up hard drives last 11 September,
their superiors blocked rescue efforts and later attempted to cover up
security failings, according to damaging new evidence that may yet hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential hopes.
vivid testimony to Congress on Wednesday, Gregory Hicks, deputy to
murdered US ambassador Christopher Stevens, revealed for the first time
in public a detailed account of the desperate few hours after the
terrorist attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi.
He also said
that Stevens went to Benghazi to beat a 30 September deadline to convert
the mission to a permanent posting. There was additional time pressure
because Clinton planned to visit Libya later in the year and to announce the opening of the post, Hicks said.
Hicks and two other state department witnesses also singled out the
government response for criticism. Until now that criticism had been
largely dismissed as a partisan effort by Republican congressman to
smear former Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time.
claimed Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, telephoned him to
complain that he had given critical evidence to congressional
investigators without the presence of a "minder" from the state
department. "A phone call from that senior a person is generally
considered not to be good news," said Hicks, who said he had since been
demoted. "She was upset. She was very upset."
The career diplomat
also alleged he was actively discouraged by officials from asking
awkward questions about why other top Clinton aides, including the UN
ambassador Susan Rice, initially blamed the attack on a spontaneous
protest that got out of control. He described that briefing he described
as "jaw-dropping, embarrassing and stunning". It is now thought the
attacks, involving up to 60 heavily armed militia, were co-ordinated by
Ansar al-Sharia, a group affiliated to al-Qaida, and timed to coincide
with the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in
New York and the Pentagon in Washington.
The allegations of a
state department cover-up follow equally embarrassing claims that
military leaders blocked efforts to dispatch special forces troops to
the Benghazi consulate.
In testimony that first emerged on Monday,
Hicks claims that four special forces soldiers with him in Tripoli were
"furious" when they were told by superiors in Washington that they
could not join a relief flight to Benghazi organised by the Libyan
government in the hours after the initial attack.
Mark Thompson, a
former marine who heads the foreign emergency support team, also
alleged that the White House blocked his efforts to dispatch a
specialist group from the US that is designed to respond to incidents
such as the Benghazi attaack.
Hicks said he was told that US air
force jets based in Italy could have reached the consulate in "two to
three hours" but were blocked, out of fear of offending the Libyan
government, and because a refuelling tanker could not be found.
officials have repeatedly argued that none of the available military
assets could have reached Benghazi in time to prevent the death of
ambassador Stevens and three other consular staff. But Hicks insisted
even if they had been too late, better attempts should have been made.
"People in peril in future need to know that we will go to get them," he
said. "That night we needed to demonstrate that resolve even if we
still had the same outcome."
Hicks also rejected the defence given
by Hillary Clinton when pressed on the initial delay in attributing the
attack to terrorists, arguing the US undermined its Libyan allies who
were rightly pointing to Ansar al-Sharia.
"President Magarief was
insulted in front of his own people, in front of the world. His
credibility was reduced. His ability to govern was [damaged]. He was
angry … He was still steamed about the talk shows two weeks later. I
definitely believe it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI
team quickly to Benghazi."
Hicks also testified that part of the
reason that Stevens was in Benghazi was to make preparations to convert
the mission to a permanent post, and to lay the groundwork for a visit
by Clinton. "At least one of the reasons the ambassador was in Benghazi
was to further the secretary's wish that that post become a permanent
constituent post" and because Clinton "intended to visit later that
year" to announce the conversion.
Democrats on the committee
attempted to play down the significance of the new evidence. "There is
no smoking gun today," said Mark Pocan of Wisconsin. "There is not even a
lukewarm slingshot." Deputy chair Elijah Cummings said the hearing
would not be able to get to a full picture without recalling other
But the powerful and at times emotional
testimony of the state department witnesses is likely to rekindle
questions over the government's handling of the incident. The Obama
administration had hoped that an earlier independent review panel had
drawn a line under the issue.
Republicans characterise their
refusal to let the Benghazi issue go as a determination to find out what
went wrong. But some Democrats have suggested that the real intention
is to taint both the White House and Clinton in a bid to dent her
chances in 2016 should she decide to run.
receiving the final telephone call from ambassador Stephens revealing he
was under attack. He said an attaché ran into his villa "yelling Greg,
Greg, the consulate's under attack". Hicks looked at his phone and had
two missed calls. He called back and got ambassador Stevens. "He said,
'Greg, we're under attack.'"
"I said 'OK' and the line cut."
then described how he had taken refuge in a secure villa that was set
alight with petrol by the attackers. He also told how the embassy
building in Benghazi was hit by mortar fire and how a tiny group of
soldiers at both sites fought through the night to prevent both
facilities from being overrun.
"September 11 was a routine day
until we heard the news that our embassy in Cairo had been stormed and
they were trying to tear down the flag," recalled Hicks.
bad cellphone reception but walked to the tactical operations centre and
heard that our consulate in Benghazi had been breached and at least 20
armed individuals were in the compound."
After twice not
recognising the number, he said he received a short call from ambassador
Stevens, thought to be his last, who said they "were under attack". He
and an assistant, Sean Smith, were led to a safe area inside a villa
next to the consulate by security agent Scott Strickland. It was set on
fire with jerry cans of fuel shortly after 9pm.
to lead them out but they didn't follow. He tried to get back in but was
beaten back by the smoke," said Hicks. "Petroleum-based fires emit
cyanide gas and one full breath can kill you. They managed to pull Sean
out, but he was dead. They couldn't find Chris."
A second wave was
coming to attack and the remaining consulate staff fell back to a
nearby CIA annex. "After about an hour and a half of probing attacks
from terrorists that they were able to repulse they decided to
evacuate," said Hicks. They met with a response team flown from Tripoli
on a Libyan C130 transporter and retreated back to the capital.
says at this point he still thought that ambassador Stevens might be
alive and he received word from the Libyan government that he was being
held in a hospital run by the same group responsible for the attack. "I
thought we might need a hostage response team to get the ambassador out
of a hospital under enemy control," explained Hicks.
At the same
time the group was claiming responsibility for the Benghazi attack on
Twitter, embassy staff began noticing threats against their facility in
"We began planning to evacuate, and took 55 people to
the annexe," said Hicks. "At 2am Hillary Clinton calls and she asks me
what is going on. I brief her mostly about ambassador Stevens and told
her we would need to evacuate. At 3am I received a call from from the
prime minister of Libya who told me that ambassador Stevens had passed
away. It was the hardest call I have ever had to take."
he has vivid memories of communications staff in Tripoli destroying
classified equipment including a female officer manager "smashing hard
drives with an axe". The contingent in Benghazi then tried to drive to
the airport around dawn but were hit by two mortar rounds.
first mortar was long and landed among the Libyans who were escorting us
– they took casualties. The next was short and landed on the annex
roof, killing one of our people and seriously wounding another, David.
Mark charged onto the roof and strapped David, who was a large man, to
his back and carried him down the ladder."
Hicks says he wanted to send further reinforcements to Benghazi where they had been fighting through the night but was unable.
Nordstrom, a security officer who also gave evidence to Congress said
the lessons state department employees have taken from Benghazi were
scathing: "Whether you're at a mission, preparing for a hearing or
you're standing on top of a building "surrounded by a mob," he says,
"The message is the same: You're on your own."
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