By Julian Pecquet - 05/07/13 12:30 AM EDT
U.S. special operations forces in Libya could have saved Americans killed in the attack last Sept. 11 on the consulate in Benghazi but were told to stand down, a State Department whistle-blower has told congressional investigators.
The testimony by Gregory Hicks, who will appear before a House panel on Wednesday, contradicts previous testimony by administration officials who have said all U.S. forces in Libya were deployed the night of the attack.
He said the special operations team was ready to fly after Stevens was killed but before a second attack killed two other Americans.
After Libya’s prime minister called to tell him Stevens had died, Hicks said: “The Libyan military agreed to fly their C-130 to Benghazi and carry additional personnel to Benghazi as reinforcements.”
But as the special operations team headed to the airport, Hicks said, they got a phone call from Special Operations Command Africa saying, “you can’t go now; you don’t have authority to go now.”
The C-130 ended up leaving after the attack was over and the four Americans were dead.Hicks’s statements clash with assertions from the intelligence community last November in response to reports that CIA officers in Benghazi were told not to rush to the aid of Stevens and the other Americans.
“At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could,” a senior intelligence official said at the time.
“There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.”
Hicks and two other career diplomats with direct knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2012, events are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight Committee in what’s shaping up to be the sharpest critique yet of how the Pentagon and Hillary Clinton’s State Department handled the attack.
Republicans on Monday released portions of an April 11 interview with Hicks ahead of the hearing.
Hicks said the administration could have saved lives that night and may have undermined the subsequent criminal investigation with talking points that contradicted accounts provided by the Libyan government.
Democrats sought to dampen the potential damage by accusing Republicans of seeking to score political points rather than working collaboratively to bring new evidence to light.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, said Monday that panel’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), had “leaked snippets of interview transcript ... in a selective and distorted manner.”
“This is investigation by press release and does a disservice to our common goal of ensuring that our diplomatic corps serving overseas has the best protection possible to do its critical work,” he said.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said Monday he was unaware of the Republicans asking for anyone to testify. He said no one had been prevented from telling their story on Capitol Hill.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday said an independent State Department commission conducted a thorough review of the events in Benghazi last year.
“There was an accountability review board led by two men of unimpeachable expertise and credibility that oversaw a process that was rigorous and unsparing,” Carney said.
The review board faulted the State Department for “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”
The board did not recommend anybody be fired, however, because it “did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty.”
Hicks said it “let people off the hook.”
In the April interview, Hicks said the administration could have saved its diplomats’ lives if it had dispatched just one aircraft. The naval base at Souda Bay in Crete is about an hour away.
“I believe that 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,” Hicks said.
During his interview with congressional investigators, Hicks also expressed outrage that Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said on Sunday news shows five days after the attack that it may have been linked to a peaceful protest.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack from the get-go,” he said.
He was particularly upset because Rice directly contradicted Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf, who told CBS that same day that the attack was “preplanned, predetermined” by militants with ties to al Qaeda.
Rice’s comments, Hicks said, may explain why it took the FBI more than three weeks to be able to set foot in Benghazi, possibly hampering the investigation.
Eight months after the attack, no one has been arrested.
“There’s a cardinal rule of diplomacy that we learn in our orientation class, and that rule is never inadvertently insult your interlocutor,” Hicks said.
“The net impact of what has transpired is the spokesperson of the most powerful country in the world has basically said that the President of Libya is either a liar or doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The impact of that is immeasurable.”
House Republicans have relaunched their investigation into the attack amid calls from more than half the GOP conference to create a select committee to investigate.
Hicks is scheduled to testify along with Mark Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations in the agency’s Counterterrorism Bureau; and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer who was the top security officer in the country in the months leading up to the attacks.
Nordstrom offered some of the most pointed criticism of the security deficiencies in Libya when he told Issa’s committee last year that State Department officials in Washington were denied repeated requests for more protection for the mission.
“The takeaway … for me and my staff, was abundantly clear — we were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident,” Nordstrom testified in October.
Unresolved questions about the attack could also surface in the Senate when the Foreign Relations Committee holds a hearing Tuesday on President Obama’s nominee to replace Stevens.
Some senators have threatened to hold up nominee Deborah Kay Jones over the Benghazi controversy.