Commentary Magazine


Topic: Gregory Hicks

The Benghazi Scandal Grows

National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, in writing about the House hearings on the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, said, “Benghazi was a tragedy. It will, almost certainly, remain a political issue. What it is not — by a long shot — is a scandal yet.”

To understand why this judgment is wrong, it’s helpful to keep in mind that weeks after the attack the Obama administration claimed the cause of the violence was a spontaneous demonstration, not pre-planned attacks; that the cause of the demonstrations was an anti-Muslim YouTube video; and that there was no terrorist involvement in the attacks.

Now compare that narrative with some of what we learned based on the testimonies of Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya before he became the top American diplomat in Libya after Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered, as well as Mark Thompson, the former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

1. Mr. Hicks confirmed that he received a call from Ambassador Stevens shortly before he died. Stevens said to Hicks, “Greg, we’re under attack.” (Not, “There’s a demonstration outside the diplomatic outpost.”) Mr. Hicks also confirmed that the night of the attacks the Libyan president, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, called him and said these attacks were led by Islamic extremists with possible terror links. Five days after the attack the Libyan president said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the attacks were “pre-planned” and “pre-determined.” And Mr. Hicks told the House committee, “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that this was an attack. No protest.” Mr. Hicks also emphasized there was “no report” from anyone on the ground that that there was a demonstration. 

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National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, in writing about the House hearings on the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, said, “Benghazi was a tragedy. It will, almost certainly, remain a political issue. What it is not — by a long shot — is a scandal yet.”

To understand why this judgment is wrong, it’s helpful to keep in mind that weeks after the attack the Obama administration claimed the cause of the violence was a spontaneous demonstration, not pre-planned attacks; that the cause of the demonstrations was an anti-Muslim YouTube video; and that there was no terrorist involvement in the attacks.

Now compare that narrative with some of what we learned based on the testimonies of Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya before he became the top American diplomat in Libya after Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered, as well as Mark Thompson, the former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

1. Mr. Hicks confirmed that he received a call from Ambassador Stevens shortly before he died. Stevens said to Hicks, “Greg, we’re under attack.” (Not, “There’s a demonstration outside the diplomatic outpost.”) Mr. Hicks also confirmed that the night of the attacks the Libyan president, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, called him and said these attacks were led by Islamic extremists with possible terror links. Five days after the attack the Libyan president said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the attacks were “pre-planned” and “pre-determined.” And Mr. Hicks told the House committee, “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that this was an attack. No protest.” Mr. Hicks also emphasized there was “no report” from anyone on the ground that that there was a demonstration. 

 2. We learned of a September 12 e-mail from Beth Jones, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who wrote to several key individuals in the State Department that she had a direct conversation with the Libyan ambassador. Ms. Jones wrote, “I told him [the Libyan ambassador] that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”

3. Asked about the role played by the YouTube video that the administration said had sparked the attack in Benghazi, Mr. Hicks told the House Oversight Committee, “The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya.” He added, “The video was not instigative of anything that was going on in Libya. We saw no demonstrations related to the video anywhere in Libya.”

4. When Mr. Hicks was asked his reaction to Ambassador Susan Rice’s televised account of the events in Benghazi–when she blamed the attacks on the YouTube video; repeatedly characterized it as a spontaneous demonstration; and insisted there was no involvement by terrorist elements–Hicks said he was “stunned,” that “my jaw dropped” and that he was “embarrassed.”

5. According to Hicks, Special Forces were “furious” when they were told to stand down during the Benghazi attack. “I will quote Lieutenant Colonel Gibson,” Hicks told the committee. “He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’” (Lt. Colonel Gibson, located in Tripoli, was ready to board a C-130 to go to help the Americans under attack.) The previous claim by others that “there was never a stand down order by anybody” was false, according to Hicks.

6. Mr. Hicks said that after a long and distinguished career, there was “a shift” in the way State Department officials treated him after he asked why Susan Rice had blamed the Benghazi attack on protests sparked by a YouTube video. 

“In hindsight, I think it began after I asked the question about Ambassador Rice’s statement on the TV shows,” Hicks said. He had asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones why Susan Rice had said the Benghazi attack stemmed from a demonstration. Jones said that she didn’t know, according to Hicks. “The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,” Hicks added.

Mr. Hicks went on to tell the committee that Ms. Jones gave a “blistering report” of his performance when he returned to the U.S. to attend the funeral of Ambassador Stevens, though he was given “no indication” there were issues with his work. “She even said she didn’t understand why anyone in Tripoli would want me to come back,” Hicks recalled. “I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer,” he said.

7. Mr. Hicks testified that he was instructed not to be personally interviewed by Representative Jason Chaffetz, who was visiting Libya to investigate what had happened. He also said he had “never,” in any other circumstance, been told not to talk with Members of Congress investigating an event. And when a lawyer was excluded from one meeting with intelligence officers because he lacked security clearances, Hicks received a furious call from then-chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Mills. According to Hicks, Ms. Mills called him directly. Mr. Hicks described her as being ”very upset.” Mills, Hicks said, demanded to know what was said in the meeting. 

8. Those testifying yesterday said they felt that the investigation of the Benghazi attack by the State Department, the Accountability Review Board, was inadequate because many people who were directly involved in the attacks–including those testifying as well as Secretary of State Clinton–were not interviewed. “They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,” said Eric Nordstrom.

Add to all this the reporting of Steve Hayes of the Weekly Standard. Thanks to his story, we know that the early talking points produced to explain the Benghazi attacks were accurate–but after the State Department and the White House altered them, the American people were presented with an utterly false account of events.

As I wrote earlier this week, early (accurate) references to “Islamic extremists” were removed. Early (accurate) references to “attacks” were changed to “demonstrations.” And there was no mention of any YouTube video in any of the many drafts of the talking points — even though everyone from the president of the United States to the secretary of state to the U.N. ambassador blamed the attacks on the “awful, “heinous,” “offensive,” “reprehensible,” “disgusting” and “widely disseminated” video. Except that we now know the video was irrelevant to what happened.

It sounds like a scandal to me. 

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Hillary Hasn’t Heard the End of Benghazi

Democrats arrived at the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi terror attack determined to defend the reputation of the person that most believe will be their presidential candidate in 2016. Ranking member Elijah Cummings and his colleagues thundered at chair Darrel Issa and any other Republican who dared to raise questions about the way the State Department responded not only to the attack but also to questions about the aftermath, determined to cast the entire event as a partisan ambush. But the testimony of the three whistleblowers overshadowed their complaints about the necessity for the hearing or the spin being put on it by Republicans. While nothing said at the hearing was the “smoking gun” that some in the GOP suspect will eventually bring senior administration officials down because of the Libyan tragedy, enough questions were raised to keep the fires stoked on the issue for the foreseeable future.

Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans are going to be wondering about what senior diplomat Gregory Hicks told the committee about requests for military assistance on the night of the attack, the disconnect between the false story about the murders being a response to an anti-Islamic film and what he and others on the scene told Washington, and why he was told not to cooperate with the House committee. If Clinton thought she had put these issues to rest in January when she railed at senators inquiring about Benghazi asking, “What difference does it make?” who killed the Americans and why, the whistleblowers have ensured that Congress will keep pushing until they get the answers to these questions.

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Democrats arrived at the House Oversight Committee’s hearing on the Benghazi terror attack determined to defend the reputation of the person that most believe will be their presidential candidate in 2016. Ranking member Elijah Cummings and his colleagues thundered at chair Darrel Issa and any other Republican who dared to raise questions about the way the State Department responded not only to the attack but also to questions about the aftermath, determined to cast the entire event as a partisan ambush. But the testimony of the three whistleblowers overshadowed their complaints about the necessity for the hearing or the spin being put on it by Republicans. While nothing said at the hearing was the “smoking gun” that some in the GOP suspect will eventually bring senior administration officials down because of the Libyan tragedy, enough questions were raised to keep the fires stoked on the issue for the foreseeable future.

Whether Democrats like it or not, Americans are going to be wondering about what senior diplomat Gregory Hicks told the committee about requests for military assistance on the night of the attack, the disconnect between the false story about the murders being a response to an anti-Islamic film and what he and others on the scene told Washington, and why he was told not to cooperate with the House committee. If Clinton thought she had put these issues to rest in January when she railed at senators inquiring about Benghazi asking, “What difference does it make?” who killed the Americans and why, the whistleblowers have ensured that Congress will keep pushing until they get the answers to these questions.

The dramatic nature of Hicks’ testimony about the night of the attack changed what started out as a stormy proceeding as Cummings attacked Issa’s statements and motives. Hicks’s recollection of the phone going dead as Ambassador Chris Stevens told him the attack was under way made it clear that what he would say would rise above the political maelstrom. And when he spoke of his conversations with U.S. military personnel who were outraged that they weren’t being ordered to go to the rescue of the beleaguered Americans, that opened a can of worms that the administration had hoped it had definitively closed.

Just as problematic was Hicks’s telling of his shock when he heard U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice tell the country that U.S. intelligence had decided the attack was the result of film criticism run amuck. Given that he had already communicated to Washington the fact that the film wasn’t a factor in Libya and that U.S. personnel in Libya knew the assault was the work of an Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda, this makes the growing controversy about the truth behind the official administration talking points that the White House altered to downplay any connection to terror even more worrisome. As Pete Wehner noted on Monday, the emails prove that the administration knowingly misled the country about the attack in a manner that makes it impossible to believe they weren’t motivated by their desire to help President Obama win re-election.

Just as damning was Hicks’s testimony about being told by the State Department not to cooperate with the House committee and Representative Jason Chaffetz as well as how his career seems to have come to a standstill as a result of his unwillingness to toe the party line about Benghazi. When combined with other testimony raising questions about what was not done to protect or help the Americans, it’s clear that further grillings of senior officials will ensue and keep the issue alive. More than that, what we heard today will deepen the suspicion that Clinton or others very close to the top in the capital had a clear desire to lie about the attack and to make sure that no one in the know about what actually happened would speak out.

None of this may change the opinions of Democrats who have been determined to move on from Benghazi since the fateful night of 9/11/12. Nor will it deaden the enthusiasm they are feeling about the prospect of Hicks’s former boss running for president in 2016. But today’s testimony shows that the attack will be a wound that will continue to bleed in the weeks and months ahead. It may not sink Clinton, but anyone who thinks she’s heard the last of this wasn’t paying attention today.

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