By Julian Pecquet - 05/21/13 09:00 AM EDT
The star witness in the Benghazi investigation said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally ordered Ambassador Chris Stevens to set up a permanent post in the restive city and should have known about deteriorating security.
The revelations from the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Libya at the time come as the audit that cleared the former secretary of State of any wrongdoing has come under fire for not interviewing Clinton or her top lieutenants.
“There’s no answers we’ve gotten [from the ARB] about the role of senior officials [regarding security in Benghazi],” a Republican staffer told The Hill. “What controversies were brought to their attention?”
Gregory Hicks, who briefly took over as head of mission when Stevens and three other Americans were killed, testified on May 8 that Clinton personally ordered the ambassador to turn Benghazi into a full consular post, and that she planned to announce the upgrade during a visit in December.
Hicks’s attorney has been drawing attention to that section of his testimony, which was overshadowed by revelations that no one at the U.S. embassy in Libya believed the terrorist attack was preceded by a peaceful protest, and that the Pentagon told a special operations team to stand down.
“According to Stevens, Secretary Clinton wanted Benghazi converted into a permanent constituent post,” Hicks testified.
“Timing for this decision [to visit the region on Sept. 11] was important. Chris needed to report before Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, on the … political and security environment in Benghazi.”
He said Pickering appeared “surprised.”
“I did tell the Accountability Review Board that Secretary Clinton wanted the post made permanent,” Hicks testified.
“Ambassador Pickering looked surprised. He looked both ways … to the members of the board, saying, ‘Does the seventh floor [the secretary of State’s office] know about this?’ ”
The ARB appears to have ignored Hicks’s statement in its public report. Instead, the board appeared to place responsibility on Stevens.
“The Ambassador chose to travel to Benghazi that week, independent of Washington, as per standard practice,” the ARB concluded in its three pages of findings.
“His status as the leading U.S. government advocate on Libya policy, and his expertise on Benghazi in particular, caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments.”
The State Department and an aide for Clinton did not respond to requests for comment.
The Obama administration has consistently described the ARB as an independent body led by two distinguished public servants — the other co-chairman is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen — to make the case that it has had the final word on Benghazi.
The ARB faulted “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” in two State Department bureaus but did not recommend that anyone be fired.
Pickering has explained the ARB’s decision to fix responsibility at the assistant secretary level as “the appropriate place to look for where the decision-making in fact takes place, where — if you like — the rubber hits the road.”
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has made it clear he wants more information about how that decision was made.
Last week he asked Pickering to provide transcripts and notes as well as the list of witnesses interviewed by the ARB, after making the same request twice before to Secretary of State John Kerry. His next step may be to issue a subpoena for those records.
Hicks testified that he’s been demoted to a desk job in Washington after a 22-year career in the Foreign Service since raising questions about the administration’s decision to publicly link the attack to a peaceful protest.
He retained a high-profile Republican lawyer who has tangled with President Clinton’s Justice Department.
Victoria Toensing has been reaching out to media outlets prior to this week’s deposition.
Her husband, Republican lawyer Joseph diGenova, is representing Mark Thompson, another whistle-blower who serves as the deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau.
“They don’t do anything [at the State Department] without having the proper instructions to do it,” Toensing told The Hill. “They want to make it look like [Stevens] was just prancing off there on his own.”
She also pointed out an apparent contradiction within the ARB report.
Among its findings, the report concluded, “Embassy Tripoli did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security for Special Mission Benghazi.”
Later on, however, the ARB found that “the number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing.
“Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing.”
The focus on Clinton, the presumed Democratic front-runner for the 2016 presidential election should she choose to run, largely died down after her January appearance before the House and Senate, when she parried Republican accusations that she was involved in a cover-up of Benghazi.
Her role has come under renewed scrutiny following the release of an interim report by five House committees and by this month’s testimony.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), another potential 2016 candidate, has not shied from pointing the finger at Clinton.
“It really goes to the heart of who you are as secretary of State if you do not provide security for an embassy that is begging for it,” Paul told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.