The State Department’s deputy chief of mission for the U.S. in Libya at the time of the Benghazi terrorist attack said Wednesday that the Obama administration didn’t talk to him before dubbing it a spontaneous attack spurred by an anti-Islam video, a move he said embarrassed the Libyan president and hampered the FBI investigation.
Gregory N. Hicks also said the mortar rounds that rained down on the CIA annex in Benghazi during the second phase of the attack were “terribly precise,” an immediate indication from the ground that the military-style assault was a planned attack.
“I was stunned, my jaw dropped and I was embarrassed,” he recalled Wednesday about his reaction when he saw U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice appear on the Sunday TV political talk shows five days after the attack. She said the assault appeared to have grown out of spontaneous demonstrations against the video like those in other cities in the Middle East.
Mr. Hicks told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he was told that the secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was the only person empowered by law to authorize the use of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya last year. The buildings did not meet State Department security standards set in law after several previous terrorist attacks, culminating in the massive simultaneous suicide truck bombings of two embassies in East Africa by al Qaeda in 1998.
“It’s my understanding that since we were the sole occupants of both of those facilities, Benghazi and Tripoli, the only person who could grant waivers or exceptions to those was the secretary of state,” said Eric Nordstrom, who was regional security officer for the embassy in Libya until two months before the attack.
On Sept. 11, terrorists launched two nighttime attacks on the facility in eastern Libya, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans — State Department computer specialist Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Probe called flawed
Mr. Nordstrom, Mr. Hicks and Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, told an overflowing hearing room that the State Department probe, called an accountability review board, was incomplete and failed to interview key people on the ground.
The highly anticipated hearing showcased Republican lawmakers pushing facts that they say show the Obama administration engaged in a cover-up of major failures heading into the election. Democrats continued to dismiss questions about a topic they considered 8 months old and over.
“I don’t think there’s a smoking gun today. I don’t think there’s a lukewarm slingshot,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, Wisconsin Democrat.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, accused Republicans at the start of the hearing of orchestrating a campaign to smear the administration using leaks in the lead-up to the hearing.
“I am not questioning the motives of our witnesses. I am questioning the motives of those who want to use their statements for political purposes,” Mr. Cummings said.
But Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and the oversight panel chairman, said the hearing was needed because the Obama administration and other Democrats failed to produce basic information on the attacks and that the victims’ families deserve answers.
“These witnesses deserve to be heard on the Benghazi attacks, [and] the flaws in the accountability review board’s methodology, process and conclusion,” he said.
The accountability review board, led by former top diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Gen. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, slammed bureaucrats for “grossly inadequate” security but said poor leadership could not be punished under department regulations.