U.S. air power could have headed off at least part of last year's terrorist attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, but American officials didn't have the capability to refuel warplanes in time, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in the country has told House investigators.
Gregory N. Hicks, who became the chief of the U.S. mission after Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed in the attack, also told investigators from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that U.S. special operations forces in Tripoli were told not to fly to Benghazi the following morning.
"I guess they just didn't have the right authority from the right level," he said, according to select excerpts of his April interview with committee investigators.
Mr. Hicks, who will appear with two other State Department officials at a highly anticipated hearing Wednesday convened by committee Chairman Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, also questioned the State Department-chartered investigation into the attacks — known as an accountability review board — saying it "let people off the hook."
The administration hit back Monday, with White House spokesman Jay Carney calling the accountability review board on Benghazi, led by veteran former diplomat Thomas R. Pickering and retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, "unimpeachable" and "rigorous and unsparing."
In a statement Monday, the two men defended their work, saying, "We had unfettered access to everyone and everything including all the documentation we needed. Our marching orders were to get to the bottom of what happened, and that's what we did."
The ranking Democrat on Mr. Issa's committee, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, accused the chairman of "investigation by press release" and of "reckless and false accusations" that he had not even bothered to check with agency staff before releasing.
"They have leaked snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing," Mr. Cummings said in a statement.
Nonetheless, the charges from Mr. Hicks and others from fellow State Department official Mark I. Thompson have reignited the Benghazi controversy, which subsided during the past few weeks as Congress turned its attention to immigration reform and gun control.
Mr. Hicks' comments in particular are likely to revive questions about why the U.S. military was not better prepared to rescue U.S. personnel in Benghazi, and could call into question the content of the "talking points" approved by the administration to describe what happened that September night.
The ambassador and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith were killed shortly after the attack began, when dozens of heavily armed extremists overran and set ablaze the diplomatic post. Former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods died almost seven hours later in a mortar barrage that was part of a second wave of the attack, targeting a CIA building called the annex where survivors from the nearby post had taken refuge.
Preventing more attacks
In his interviews with investigators last month, Mr. Hicks said that an overflight by a U.S. F-15 or F-16 might have prevented the second wave of the attack.
"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," Mr. Hicks said.
He said U.S. military officials in Tripoli were told that there were no assets that could respond because there were no airborne tankers to refuel fighters, which would have had to deploy from the U.S. airbase in Aviano, Italy.
A former U.S. military officer who was a special adviser on counterterrorism to Adm. Mullen told The Washington Times that the fighters would have needed refueling to make it back from Benghazi and that they would not have taken off if a tanker was not available.
"Without tankers in the air or on the tarmac ready to go, you can't do it," said retired Col. Thomas F. Lynch, now a research fellow at the National Defense University. "Standard operating procedure is not to send pilots out on one-way missions."
Mr. Hicks also said that four U.S. special operations forces in Tripoli were told that they could not fly to Benghazi the following morning aboard a C-130 that the Libyan military had provided.
He said their commanding officer, a lieutenant colonel, "got a phone call from [Special Operations Command, Africa] which said, you can't go now, you don't have authority to go now. And so they missed the flight."
Mr. Hicks recalled that the lieutenant colonel said he had "never been so embarrassed in my life" that a State Department officer showed more grit than somebody in the military — "a nice compliment."
Mr. Hicks said there was no doubt the Libyan authorities would have approved an overflight by fighters or indeed the insertion of special operations forces.
"I believe that the Libyans were hoping that we were going to come bail them out of this mess," he said. "And, you know, they were as surprised as we were that the American military forces that did arrive only arrived on the evening of Sept. 12th" -— the day after the attack.
Mr. Issa has said Mr. Thompson, the deputy for operations at the State Department's counterterrorism bureau, told investigators that his bureau was "cut out of the loop" on decision-making that night. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin, who was head of the bureau at the time, rejected that charge Monday.
"This charge is simply untrue," Mr. Benjamin said in a statement. "Though I was out of the country on official travel at the time of the attack, I was in frequent contact with the department. At no time did I feel that the bureau was in any way being left out of deliberations that it should have been part of."
Mr. Hicks also is expected to testify that he knew immediately that the assault was a terrorist attack rather than the result of a spontaneous demonstration, as Obama administration officials initially and inaccurately claimed it had.
• Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.
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