Witnesses Relate Frustration Over Response To Benghazi Attack

NPR icon by Scott Neuman
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Brendan Smialowski

Three witnesses billed as whistle-blowers appeared before a House committee Wednesday to challenge the Obama administration's explanation of what transpired on Sept. 11, 2012, as the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked and the ambassador and three others killed.

In testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the attack, said he was frustrated when the military turned down his request for a Special Operations team to be deployed from Tripoli to the Benghazi consulate, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and the others were holed up and under assault.

Hicks said he spoke by telephone with Stevens shortly after armed men stormed the compound. "Greg, we're under attack," Stevens said, according to Hicks.

He described a 2 a.m. call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during the assault and amid confusion about the fate of Stevens: "She asked me what was going on and I briefed her on developments. Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens," Hicks said. "It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi and I told her we would need to evacuate, and she said that was the right thing to do."

An hour later, Hicks said, Libya's prime minister called. "I think it's the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life. He told me that Ambassador Stevens had passed away. I immediately telephoned Washington that news afterward."

Asked about remarks by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice days after the attack that attributed the violence to Muslim anger over a Youtube video denigrating Islam, Hicks said: "I was stunned. My jaw dropped. I was embarrassed."

Mark Thompson, the State Department's acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, said he had urged deployment of an elite response team —known as FEST — but was rebuffed by the White House.

Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer in Libya, choked up as he insisted that all the details of the events surrounding the attack needed to be aired.

"It matters," he told the panel.

A report by an independent panel led by former top diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Gen. Mike Mullen has already concluded that there was "grossly" inadequate security at the mission as a result of managerial and leadership failures at the State Department, but Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators remain unsatisfied with those findings.

Update at 5:50 p.m. ET:

NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman says that some of Hicks testimony included new information — that four American Special Operations officers in Tripoli embassy wanted to head to Benghazi that night to help other responders.

"They were told no," Bowman says, according to Hicks. "He says they were furious."

Hicks said he was told it would take two to three hours to get U.S. jets to Benghazi from Italy, Bowman says.

"But [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. Martin Dempsey has already testified that it would have taken 20 hours for them to reach Benghazi," he says. "And military officials have already said the planes would have no good targets once they arrived."

Bowman says of Hicks' testimony: "It's his own view of what could have been done that night. But he's not a military official."

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