Diplomat Says Questions Over Benghazi Led to Demotion
Drew Angerer for The New York Times
By SCOTT SHANE, JEREMY W. PETERS and ERIC SCHMITT
Published: May 8, 2013
WASHINGTON — A veteran diplomat gave a riveting minute-by-minute account on Wednesday of the lethal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 and described its contentious aftermath at a charged Congressional hearing that reflected the weighty political stakes perceived by both parties.
During a chaotic night at the American Embassy in Tripoli, hundreds of miles away, the diplomat, Gregory Hicks, got what he called “the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life” informing him that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was dead and that he was now the highest-ranking American in Libya. For his leadership that night when four Americans were killed, Mr. Hicks said in nearly six hours of testimony, he subsequently received calls from both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama.
But within days, Mr. Hicks said, after raising questions about the account of what had happened in Benghazi offered in television interviews by Susan E. Rice, the United Nations ambassador, he felt a distinct chill from State Department superiors. “The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,” said Mr. Hicks, who has been a Foreign Service officer for 22 years.
He was soon given a scathing review of his management style, he said, and was later “effectively demoted” to desk officer at headquarters, in what he believes was retaliation for speaking up.
House Republican leaders made the hearing the day’s top priority, postponing floor votes so that the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform could continue without interruption. The Obama administration appeared focused on the testimony, with senior officials at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon responding through the day to Republican accusations of incompetence and cover-up in campaign war room style.
In the balance, in the view of both Democrats and Republicans, is not just the reputation of Mr. Obama but also potentially the prospects for the 2016 presidential election as well, since Mrs. Clinton, who stepped down in February, is the Democratic Party’s leading prospect. If the testimony did not fundamentally challenge the facts and timeline of the Benghazi attack and the administration’s response to it, it vividly illustrated the anxiety of top State Department officials about how the events would be publicly portrayed.
Mr. Hicks offered an unbecoming view of political supervision and intimidation inside the Obama administration. When Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, visited Libya after the attack, Mr. Hicks said his bosses told him not to talk to the congressman. When he did anyway, and a State Department lawyer was excluded from one meeting because he lacked the necessary security clearance, Mr. Hicks said he received an angry phone call from Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
“So this goes right to the person next to Secretary of State Clinton. Is that accurate?” asked Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. Mr. Hicks responded, “Yes, sir.”
A State Department official said Mr. Hicks had been free to talk to Mr. Chaffetz, but that department policy required a department lawyer to be present during interviews for any Congressional investigation.
In a statement late Wednesday, a State Department spokesman, Patrick H. Ventrell, said the department had not and would not retaliate against Mr. Hicks. Mr. Ventrell noted that Mr. Hicks “testified that he decided to shorten his assignment in Libya following the attacks, due to understandable family reasons.” He said that Mr. Hicks’s current job was “a suitable temporary assignment” at the same salary, and that he had submitted his preferences for his next job.
The accounts from Mr. Hicks and two other officials, Mark I. Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security who had testified previously, added some detail to accounts of the night of Sept. 11 in Benghazi. Armed Islamic militants penetrated the diplomatic compound, starting the fire that killed Mr. Stevens and an aide, and later killed two security officers in a mortar attack; in Tripoli, where frantic diplomats fearing a similar invasion used an ax to destroy classified hard drives; and in Washington, where officials struggled to keep up with events.
The hearing offered a compelling, often emotional view from the ground, where officials were desperate for a rescue mission. Mr. Hicks described his exchange with the furious leader of a four-member Special Operations team that wanted to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi to help but was told not to. Mr. Thompson wanted to see his Foreign Emergency Support Team sent to the scene and could not understand why his superiors did not agree.
But from the more detached standpoint of senior officials in Washington — offered in statements from the Defense Department and the State Department — neither unit could have reached Benghazi in time. The team in Tripoli worked much of the night on moving American Embassy personnel to a secure annex and was not ready to leave for Benghazi until the early morning. The emergency support team would have deployed from the United States and would have arrived many hours after the last Americans were evacuated from Benghazi.
“None of us should ever experience what we went through in Tripoli and Benghazi,” Mr. Hicks said.
The hearing became a political spectacle well before the committee’s chairman, Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California, gaveled it to order. Republicans had promised damning revelations that could ultimately undo the Obama presidency. “Every bit as damaging as Watergate,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said this week.
Congressional Republicans have threatened to hold additional hearings and subpoena witnesses, including Mrs. Clinton and Ms. Rice, and Democrats see a partisan fishing expedition.
“This is a subject that has, from its beginning, been subject to attempts to politicize it by Republicans,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Wednesday.
The three witnesses challenged both the Obama administration’s initial version of events — long ago withdrawn — and its claim to have exhaustively investigated the attacks.
When Ms. Rice suggested on Sunday talk shows days after the attack that it had begun with protests against a crude anti-Muslim video that had been posted on YouTube, Mr. Hicks said: “I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed.”
Her remarks angered the president of Libya’s National Assembly, Mohamed Magariaf, who had said on one of the Sunday shows that the attack was the “preplanned” act of militants, including some from Al Qaeda, Mr. Hicks said. He asserted that Mr. Magariaf’s fury at being undercut caused Libyan officials to drag their feet on cooperating with F.B.I. investigators. A State Department official said the delays were caused by security concerns in Benghazi.
The witnesses also said they felt that the administration’s official investigation, led by a retired diplomat, Thomas R. Pickering, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm.Mike Mullen, was inadequate.
“They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,” Mr. Nordstrom said.
Mr. Hicks also said the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, as the inquiry was called, failed to hold high-level political appointees at the department responsible for inadequate security in Benghazi.
Mr. Nordstrom said that when he pressed for additional security personnel, he was told, “Basically, stop complaining.”
Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s senior Democrat, accused the Republicans and Mr. Issa in particular of distorting the facts of the inquiry for partisan purposes.
But Mr. Cummings joined Republicans in promising that they would make sure the three witnesses did not suffer for their candid testimony. “I try to do everything in my power to protect witnesses,” he said. “I don’t care if they are brought by Republicans or Democrats.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 16, 2013
An article last Thursday about a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last year misstated the connection between one witness, Mark I. Thompson, and the State Department. He is the current — not former — deputy coordinator for operations in the department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism.