The Benghazi terrorist attack returned to Congress Wednesday in hours of testimony – and sharply partisan questioning – that included the first public retelling from a US diplomat in Libya at the time of what happened the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The testimony was not kind to the Obama administration.
The hearing, called by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was framed around the appearance and questioning of three State Department officials who were closely involved with the US response to the Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, 2012, but had not yet testified on it.
All three officials, called “whistleblowers” by several committee members, were critical of the Obama administration’s actions before, during, and after the assault on the temporary US mission in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi and on an annex operated by the CIA.
But any light the hours of questioning cast on the events in Benghazi – and on the committee’s stated broader goal of making sure steps are taken so they never happen again – was dimmed by the intensely partisan atmosphere of the hearing.
Republicans, led by committee chairman and top Obama critic Darrell Issa, repeatedly referred to the Benghazi “cover-up” they said was engineered by the administration, while Democrats said time and again that Republican cuts to diplomatic security budgets were to blame for exposing Benghazi to the deadliest assault on a US diplomatic mission in more than a decade.
The officials, including the second-in-command to Ambassador Stevens at the time of the attack, were critical of a wide range of administration decisions: from the level and type of security for the Benghazi mission, to rejecting a number of military options for addressing the attack.
Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli the night of the attack, criticized “stand down” orders out of the Pentagon: one not to send jets to overfly the attack site, another not to dispatch special forces from the embassy in Tripoli in the early morning hours the day after the attack.
It was Mr. Hicks who gave the committee and its audience – which included relatives of the four Americans killed in Benghazi – a riveting “tick tock” of events the night of the attack that included phone calls with Stevens. He said the last words he heard from his boss before the last call went dead were, “Greg, we’re under attack.”
Hicks said he sought to have jets overfly the Benghazi mission in a bid to frighten away the attackers and end the assault, but was told the nearest jets were at Aviano Air Base in Italy and would take hours to get in the air.
Hicks did not appear to suggest that any US action could have saved Stevens, who died as a result of the firebombing of the mission and the “safe house” to which the ambassador had retreated. He described the attack as a “petroleum fire” that would have released extremely toxic cyanide gas that one expert told him would incapacitate anyone inhaling it “in one breath.”
But he left open the possibility that some quick action to quell the initial attack might have saved other lives.
Also testifying were Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer who was assigned to Libya up until the summer of 2012, and Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism.
The highly partisan atmosphere of the Oversight hearing was augmented by the laments of several Democratic members of the committee that Mr. Thompson had refused to speak with any of the committee’s Democrats, an accusation Thompson made no effort to deny.
Thompson described how his request for a specialized emergency response team was rebuffed by officials at the White House. He said he got the idea the officials weren’t sure what was happening in Benghazi and therefore weren’t sure if the “FEST” team of special operations forces and intelligence personnel was a suitable option. He also said he considered the response inadequate because “one definition of a crisis is you do not know what’s going to happen in two hours.”
In many respects the hearing covered old ground. Republicans repeatedly cited the claims of the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, on Sunday talk shows five days after Benghazi that the attack was the result of a “spontaneous demonstration” of individuals enraged by a US-made video denigrating the prophet Mohammed.
Asked for his response when he heard the ambassador’s words, Hicks said, “I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed.”
The administration position has been that Rice was speaking off of talking points provided by US intelligence agencies. Some intelligence officials have said that a desire not to tip off parties responsible for the attack or to compromise intelligence sources was behind the talking points issued to Rice.
At the hearing, the committee’s Democrats played a video clip of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stating that Rice was speaking based on information provided her at the time.
But Hicks told the committee that Rice’s talk of a demonstration- turned-deadly-mob infuriated Libyan officials to such an extent that the go-ahead for a team of FBI investigators to head to Benghazi was delayed by more than two weeks.
He also said that his expressions of dismay over Rice’s testimony was the beginning of a tailspin for his State Department career that left him demoted to his current “desk officer” ranking.
Comments from both Republicans and Democrats suggested more hearings on Benghazi are to come, but it is unclear that the hours of testimony changed anyone’s thinking or how Congress will address Benghazi.
One thing the administration should learn, some experts say, is to be more open more quickly, while others say nearly the opposite: that one lesson of Benghazi should be not to speak before knowing more about what’s going on.
“One lesson should be a cautionary one to people who make statements before they really know what’s going on,” says Joseph Wippl, a longtime CIA operations officer now in charge of graduate studies at Boston University’s Department of International Relations.
The administration is at fault for making statements “before all the facts were examined,” something he says opened the door to Benghazi’s politicization.
As for the theory that the reason the administration’s public comments were tailored was to protect what the CIA had going on in Benghazi, Mr. Wippl says, “It could have been, and if it was it was a mistake.”