A U.S. official on Wednesday dramatically described the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in the first public testimony of the now politically charged event.
Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Tripoli, Libya, criticized the administration’s handling of the attacks in a hearing set up to investigate the 2012 event that resulted in the death of a senior U.S. diplomat.
A video of the hearing, posted on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s website, shows Hicks at times emotional and tearful as he gave a minute-by-minute description of events.
His testimony, in which he alleged he had effectively been demoted for challenging the official account of events, will do little to allay Republican criticisms of the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. Consulate which killed Envoy Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
However, the administration is adamant that Hick’s assertions have already been addressed in detail by previous reports and some quarters have challenged the objectivity and motives of the hearing.
“September 11 was a routine day until we heard the news that our embassy in Cairo had been stormed and they were trying to tear down the flag,” Hicks told the committee.
“I had bad cellphone reception, but walked to the tactical operations center and heard that our consulate in Benghazi had been breached and at least 20 armed individuals were in the compound.”
Hicks described coming under mortar fire as they tried to escape.
“The first mortar was long and landed among the Libyans who were escorting us – they took casualties. The next was short and landed on the annex roof, killing one of our people and seriously wounding another, David. Mark charged onto the roof and strapped David, who was a large man, to his back and carried him down the ladder.”
He described being led to a safe area inside a villa next to the consulate by security agent Scott Strickland, with his assistant Sean Smith. It was set on fire shortly after 9 p.m.
“Scott attempted to lead them out but they didn’t follow. He tried to get back in, but was beaten back by the smoke,” said Hicks. “Petroleum-based fires emit cyanide gas and one full breath can kill you. They managed to pull Sean out, but he was dead. They couldn’t find Chris.”
Hicks says he learned of Envoy Stevens’ death at 3 a.m. from the Libyan prime minister. “I think it is the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life,” he said.
Hick’s account of events of the day were dramatic, but it was his assertions about what happened after the events which may be more politically significant.
Demoted for Challenging the Official Account
Hicks claims he was demoted for challenging the official account of events, namely the description of United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who said the attacks had been spawned by a U.S.-made, anti-Islamic video.
In Washington for the funeral of one of the men killed, Hicks said he was summoned to the office of an undersecretary. “She delivered a blistering critique of my management style,” he said.
Partly as a result of this, he said he agreed to cut short his post in Libya, becoming instead a foreign affairs officer.
“I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer,” Mr. Hicks said.
Hicks also rebuffed Hillary Clinton’s rationale for her much-criticized decision to delay identifying the attacks as a terrorist action. She had argued the United States would have undermined its Libyan allies by doing so. Hicks said it was quite the opposite, and that they had, in fact, been humiliated.
“[Libyan President Mohammed al-Magariaf] was insulted in front of his own people, in front of the world. His credibility was reduced. His ability to govern was [damaged]. He was angry … He was still steamed about the talk shows two weeks later. I definitely believe it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi.”
Democrats Criticize Hearing
Democrats say the hearing is being used for political purposes and that Hick’s testimony did not shed new light on the handling of events.
“What we have seen over the past two weeks is a full-scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible and bipartisan way, but rather to launch … unfounded accusations to smear public officials,” U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, the deputy-chair Democrat on the committee, told the committee hearing.
“I have seen nothing to make me question the truthfulness of our nation’s military commanders,” Cummings said.
Republicans however, saw the testimonies as justification for the ongoing investigation. House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa said in a statement: “Perhaps most troubling is the revelation of retaliation and intimidation tactics against life-long public servants who dared to question top officials on their inaccurate and highly public assertions about the attack.”
Two other officials testified alongside Hicks on Wednesday. All three were critical of an earlier official review, saying that it failed to scrutinise high-ranking officials and that many of those with first-hand knowledge of events were not interviewed.