Benghazi whistleblower: Has diplomat Gregory Hicks suffered for speaking out?

Gregory Hicks told a House panel that superiors opposed his meeting with House investigators and his questioning of claims that the Benghazi attacks were 'spontaneous.' He was reassigned to a desk job.

Cliff Owen/AP
Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya, testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's hearing on the deadly assault of the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi in Washington on Wednesday.

Has US diplomat Gregory Hicks suffered political retaliation for revealing details of the lethal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11? That’s a big question raised by Wednesday’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Mr. Hicks was the deputy chief of mission in the US Embassy in Libya at the time. Yesterday, he gave a gripping account of the day’s events, from the moment he was alerted that the Benghazi consulate was in danger (he was in Tripoli, watching TV at the time) to the “saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life," which informed him that US Ambassador Chris Stevens had died.

But the part of his testimony that has Washington buzzing Thursday deals with allegations that he’s been punished for speaking out, both publicly and within the State Department bureaucracy.

Hicks described at length a phone call from Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ms. Mills was “upset” that he’d met with House investigators looking into Benghazi after being told he should not, he said. She questioned why a State Department lawyer wasn’t in that meeting. Hicks said the lawyer didn’t have the proper security clearance.

Hicks also asked other superiors why Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, had said the attack might have been a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video. That video was a “non-event” in Libya, Hicks said, adding that it seemed clear from the first that the assault was a terrorist attack.

“The sense I got was I needed to stop the line of questioning,” Hicks told the House panel.

Since then, he’s been demoted, Hicks said. He’d been told he could expect a “good level of assignment” in the wake of his performance in the Libya tragedy. Instead, he’s been returned to Foggy Bottom and given a desk job as a foreign affairs officer.

“ 'Foreign affairs officer’ is a designation that is given to our civil service colleagues who – frankly who are desk officers.... So I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer,” said Hicks.

This charge jolted the hearing. As Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler writes in his roundup of what came out yesterday, Hicks's "description of the internal dynamics – and reported retaliation for questioning the administration’s public posture – is certainly new."

Republicans say that the charge proves Obama officials attempted to downplay the attacks in the immediate aftermath and are now trying to cover up that fact. Hicks has worked for the State Department 22 years, served in Afghanistan and Syria, among other places, and won numerous internal awards, points out conservative commentator Allahpundit on Hot Air!.

“Suddenly, after he started asking questions about Susan Rice, his ‘management style’ was unacceptable,” he writes. “How does a guy with management deficiencies rise to number two in Libya, one of the most perilous diplomatic posts in the world? Should we start asking State instead to explain why they’re promoting alleged incompetents?”

The State Department rejects this characterization of events.

“The Department has not and will not retaliate against Mr. Hicks,” said Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy spokesman for the State Department.

Hicks asked to be reassigned from Libya in the wake of the attack due to understandable family issues, said Mr. Ventrell. But that meant he was out of step with the annual assignment cycle. Finding a suitable post isn’t always easy under such circumstances, he added.

An anonymous source was harsher. A US diplomat told Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold that Hicks is a “classic case of underachiever who whines when big breaks don’t come his way."

The fact that after 22 years of service Hicks remains an FS-1 grade, the equivalent of a colonel in the military, shows that he has not exactly been a fast tracker, the source told Mr. Lubold.

More facts about Hicks’s fate will undoubtedly emerge in the days ahead. But if nothing else, he provided a service with his vivid testimony of what it was like on the ground on a confusing, terrible, and deadly night for US diplomacy, adds Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple.

“Whatever the impact of Hicks’s words – whether they keep this story alive, whether they puncture the political standing of Clinton, whether they cause a Defense Department shakeup, whether they annoy the White House – they delivered the sort of person, visceral account that the country deserves after its people are killed in a terrorist attack,” Mr. Wemple writes.

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