WASHINGTON — The former deputy chief in charge of the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya said Wednesday the top aide to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discouraged him from talking alone to a high-ranking member of Congress about the deadly attack last September 11.
Gregory Hicks said that Cheryl Mills called him in early October after al-Qaeda assaulted the compound and annex, which resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. officials.
The Obama administration had blamed the attack on an obscure anti-Islam video that had gone viral for inciting citizens to storm the facility. Two GOP House members, who were skeptical of the narrative, had arrived in Libya to get eyewitness testimony from Hicks and two other U.S. officials who were present that night.
“I recall saying I was instructed not to have a personal meeting with Congressman (Jason) Chaffetz,” Hicks told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Hicks clarified that Mills, the then-counselor and chief of staff to Secretary of State Clinton, did not tell him directly to avoid speaking alone with Chaffetz. Yet the career foreign service officer said “the tone of her voice was unhappy if I recall it and at the State Department you learn to interpret signals.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) read from a letter sent the day after the attack on the consulate that showed high-ranking State Department officials told Libyan officials that an al-Qaeda affiliated group and not demonstrators angered by the video assaulted the compound.
“I spoke to the Libyan ambassador and emphasized the importance of Libyan leaders continuing to make strong statements,” the email read. “When he said his government expected that former Ghadafi regime elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists,” Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary for Middle Eastern affairs at the State Department, wrote.
Four days later, on Sept. 16, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on five Sunday talk shows to blame the attack on the anti-Islam video rather than al-Qaeda affiliates. The 2012 presidential election was seven weeks away.
“I was stunned. My jaw dropped. I was embarrassed,” Hicks said of his reaction to Rice’s interviews.
Hicks called the YouTube video a “non event in Libya.” The real perpetrators were members of ansar al Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliated group, he said. As many 60 of the armed invaders stormed the compound gates after 9:40 p.m. local time and poured petroleum inside the main building, setting it ablaze. Stevens and a State Department spokesman, Sean Sullivan, died in the fire.
A House Democrat on the committee sought to weaken Hicks’ implied criticism of Clinton. “I don’t know if there was an attempt by administration officials to discourage him from talking. It was more of, ‘These people will be here … and be careful what you tell them,’” Rep. Danny Davis of Illinois said.
The five-and-a-half-hour hearing represented the first time that State Department whistleblowers at the Benghazi compound spoke publicly about the events the night of the attack there as well as at a CIA annex. Mark I. Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations in the bureau of counterterrorism, and Eric Nordstrom, the regional officer for security in Libya, also testified.
The hearings will likely have far-reaching political implications. Clinton is expected to run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 2016, and she enjoys a lead over rivals in early polling.
House Democrats managed to defend Clinton from some Republican criticisms. After House Republicans accused Clinton of knowing all the details of the attack, noting that her signature was at the bottom of thousands of State Department cables, Democrats noted that agency protocol requires the Secretary’s signature at the bottom of each page. Republicans did not rebut the charge at the hearing.
Yet Hicks was the star witness at the hearings Wednesday. Several House Democrats praised his bravery and competence the night of the attacks. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), joked that Hicks, who has been demoted to a desk job with the State Department, should be able to “get any job he wants” in the agency’s far flung locales.
House Republicans parlayed Hicks’ testimony to raise major questions about Clinton’s veracity. They noted that neither Hicks nor Thompson spoke with members of a blue-chip State Department task force that found no fault with Clinton’s handling of the attack. Released less than a week before last Christmas, the 39-page report from the Accountability Review Board concluded that Clinton did not mishandle the attack.
They also showed that Clinton’s testimony at a Senate panel in January about the nature of the attack was less than forthright. Clinton, waving her arms, asked committee members “what does it matter” why the four embassy officials died.
Hicks testified that the president of Libya, Mohamed Yousef El-Magariaf, said Libyan officials struggled to help the FBI’s investigation of the incident. “He was angry. I definitely believe it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benhgazi,” he said.
More hearings on the Benghazi attack are expected. Democrats are not looking forward to them or the news that emerged from Wednesday’s hearing. As one House Democratic aide complained, “This is going to dog her for the next three and a half years.”