U.S. special forces in Tripoli were prepared to fly to Benghazi on the night the U.S. mission was attacked but were told to stand down, a State Department whistle-blower told congressional investigators.
The testimony by Gregory Hicks, who became the top U.S. diplomat in Libya when Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed, contradicts previous testimony by Obama administration officials who said all the security assets inside the country were tapped that night. Hicks said the special forces team was ready to fly after Stevens was killed but before a second attack killed two other Americans.
Republicans on the House oversight panel released portions of an April 11 interview with Hicks ahead of Wednesday's hearing on Benghazi. Hicks is scheduled to testify along with two other State Department officials with direct knowledge of the events of the attack on Sept. 11, 2012 and the Obama administration's response.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Monday defended the administration's own investigation into the attack, saying an independent State Department commission conducted a "critical" and thorough account 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.
In the interview, Hicks said the administration could have saved the lives of its diplomats if it had dispatched just one aircraft from nearby Souda Bay, 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. “They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.”
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. “I think everybody in the mission thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning.”
He was particularly upset because she 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 in the deaths of four Americans that night.
“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 testified before Issa's committee last year that State Department officials in Washington were denied repeated requests for more protection for the mission. The other two officials have not been heard from publicly before.
“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. “And the question that we would ask is: How thin does the ice have to get before someone falls through?”
"For me,” he said, “the Taliban is on the inside of the [State Department].”
Unresolved questions about the attack could also surface in the Senate when the Foreign Relations panel holds a hearing Tuesday on President Obama's nominee to replace Stevens. Some senators have threatened to hold up nominee Deborah Kay Jones over Benghazi.
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This story was updated at 2:48 p.m.