The State Department’s deputy chief of mission in Libya fought back tears on Wednesday as he delivered a lengthy account of the nighttime terrorist attacks last year that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The first-hand account is the first the Oversight Committee has heard publicly from a witness during its investigation of possible security and intelligence failures in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Testifying before a packed hearing room, Gregory Hicks gave an emotional account of his attempt to secure the State Department’s staff in Tripoli as he relayed messages to the Washington, D.C., operation center in real-time about reports of attackers storming the Benghazi facility.
It began with two missed phone calls from Stevens, said Hicks, who promptly called him back.
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.
Tensions were palpable in the hearing room on Wednesday as Hicks and two other witnesses — all of whom Republicans have described as whistle-blowers — answered questions about the attack.
Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) blasted the Obama administration and Democrats for not cooperating with the Oversight committee’s investigation.
House Republicans say they’ve unearthed new evidence that suggests the Obama administration could have done more to help the U.S. diplomats under attack last Sept. 11. But that allegation, which has been made by Hicks, was not immediately raised in the first half of questions to the panel’s witnesses.
Republicans have also criticized administration officials for initially blaming the assault on a protest that escalated out of control. Hicks told lawmakers his “jaw dropped” when he heard UN Ambassador Susan Rice give that explanation on television a few days after the attack.
“I was stunned, my jaw dropped and I was embarrassed,” said Hicks.
Hicks said U.S. officials did not consult with him before Rice was given her comments. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has testified that the talking points were based on the most accurate intelligence information they had available.
“I don’t know anything about the development of those talking points,” said Hicks, when asked whether he thought Clapper was lying.
The State Department’s Office of Inspector General is reviewing the process that was used to conduct an independent audit of Benghazi, and more than half of the Republican conference is clamoring for a select committee to probe the attack and the administration’s response.
Democrats say the Oversight committee’s investigation is politically motivated and an attempt to damage the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time of the attack and could be a presidential contender in 2016.
“The meta message that they’re trying to get out there is that this is a failure in judgment that goes to character,” Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly, a senior Democrat on the Oversight and Foreign Affairs panels, told The Hill. “It didn’t work with Obama, so [they’re hoping that] maybe it’ll stick to Clinton.
“They’re trying to bring her numbers down. That’s what this is all about.”
A Clinton aide did not respond to a request for comment.
Connolly also raised concerns with the whistle-blowers’ attorneys, Victoria Toensing and Joseph diGenova, a Republican couple who battled the Clinton Justice Department in the 1990s.
Democrats on Issa’s committee have complained that the two attorneys blocked them from speaking to the witnesses ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
“They both worked with and for, in some capacity, Mitt Romney. There’s no law against that, but don’t tell me that I’m supposed to accept with a straight face that they’re just professional lawyers representing their clients,” Connolly said, naming the 2012 GOP presidential nominee.
“They are active Republicans who have partisan agendas."
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday said the
administration has fully cooperated with the Oversight panel’s
investigation, along with probes by the House Foreign Affairs, Armed
Services, Intelligence and Judiciary Committees.
“This administration has made extraordinary efforts to work with five different committees,” Carney said.
“This is a subject that has from its beginning been subject to attempts to politicize it from Republicans.”
— This story was last updated at 2:02 p.m.