By Jordy Yager - 05/09/13 12:14 AM EDT
Government whistle-blowers on Wednesday choked back tears as they offered stark criticism of the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
One witness faulted the State Department’s review of the attack — saying it appeared aimed at protecting higher-ranking officials.
A second witness said United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s remarks blaming the attack on an anti-Islam film were shocking and offended the Libyan government.
“I was stunned, my jaw dropped and I was embarrassed,” Hicks said of Rice’s remarks.
The most dramatic revelations from Hicks were leaked earlier this week and there were no new bombshells at the hearing, but Republicans signaled their scrutiny of the attack would continue in the weeks ahead.
“This hearing is closed,” Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said at the conclusion of the six-hour hearing. “But this investigation is not over.”
Democrats on the panel said Republicans were using the witnesses to continue a partisan witch hunt that they have suggested is aimed at hurting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is seen as a possible 2016 presidential contender.
None of the three witnesses testifying Wednesday offered evidence that suggested Clinton was complicit in the security failures.
Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer posted in Libya at the time of the attack — which left U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead — said State Department officials had asked for increased security in Benghazi in the months before the attacks.
But he said those requests never made it to Clinton’s desk, and he slammed State’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) for failing to address the breakdown in communication within the department’s upper levels.
Nordstrom suggested the board’s report attempted to protect higher-ranking officials, and specifically faulted it for not looking at the key role played by Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy in failing to deliver the request for more security to Clinton.
He said a similar failure occurred in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which killed 19 Americans.
“[The ARB] has decided to fix responsibility on the assistant secretary level and below,” said Nordstrom. “And the message to my colleagues is that if you’re above a certain level, no matter what your decision is no one’s going to question it.
“I look back and I see the last time we had a major attack was East Africa. Who was in that same position, when the unheeded messengers ... were raising those concerns? It just so happens it was the same person. The under secretary for management was in that same role before.
“There’s something apparently wrong with the process of how those security recommendations are raised to the secretary.”
The ARB report was ordered by Clinton and conducted by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.
A State Department official balked at the criticism of the ARB review process and allegations that the department had not reprimanded high-level officials.
Following the report, one official resigned — the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security — while at least two others were removed from their positions: the deputy assistant secretary in charge of embassy security and the deputy assistant secretary overseeing the North African region.
The official further stated that the report did not recommend disciplinary action against any particular department official because a conclusive “breach of duty” was not found.
“The ARB found that no one engaged in misconduct or willfully ignored his or her responsibilities,” said the official.The dramatic testimony from Hicks represented the first time lawmakers have publicly heard a detailed account of the Sept.11, 2012 attack.
Hicks said it began with two missed phone calls from Stevens, whom Hicks promptly called back.
“Greg, we’re under attack,” Hicks recalled Stevens telling him on the phone in the last moments before the connection was lost.
Hicks said he immediately called his senior contacts in the Libyan government and asked them for help in defending the compound.
“Over that night ... I was talking with the government of Libya, reporting to the State Department through the operation’s center and also staying in touch with the annex chief about what was going on,” he said.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) has taken much of the lead on the panel’s investigation, focusing on the military’s decision to only send two out of six total military personnel from Tripoli to Benghazi on a rescue mission. Hicks testified that, after securing the other U.S. diplomats in Tripoli, the remaining four military personnel “were furious” when they were told they could not go to Benghazi on a second rescue mission.
But the Pentagon defended the decision on Wednesday, with press secretary George Little saying that Special Operations Command Africa made the call.
“There is no evidence that this four-man team could possibly have arrived in Benghazi to assist during the attacks,” said Little. “There was nothing this group could have done by that time in Benghazi, and they performed superbly in Tripoli. In fact, when the first aircraft arrived back in Tripoli, these four played a key role in receiving, treating and moving the wounded.”
Hicks also said he is now a foreign affairs officer at State, which he described as a demotion since his return from Libya.
“Foreign affairs officer is a designation that is given to our civil service colleagues who are desk officers. So I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer,” he said.