WASHINGTON, May 8 (RIA Novosti) – US military teams were twice ordered to “stand-down” during last year’s attacks on a US diplomatic facility and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) annex in Benghazi, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, lawmakers were told Wednesday by a senior US diplomat who was in Libya when the attacks took place.
In emotional testimony before a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government, former Deputy Chief of Mission in Tripoli Greg Hicks painted a picture of confusion, frustration and disbelief as staff at the US Embassy in Tripoli tried to deal with twin attacks on the night of Sept. 11, 2012 on US facilities in Benghazi, 600 miles (960 kilometers) away.
Hicks first learned of the attack when a security officer ran into his residence in the evening, “yelling, ‘Greg, Greg – the consulate is under attack,’” he told the hearing, where he testified with two other State Department officials, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Mark Thompson and former Regional Security Officer in Libya, Eric Nordstrom.
Hours later, Hicks said he received “the saddest phone call I ever had in my life,” telling him that Stevens had been killed in the attack. He paused briefly during the hearing as he choked up with emotion.
The US team in Tripoli continued to work to try to go to the aid of their colleagues in Benghazi, but met with little help from Washington, the witnesses said.
Washington failed to deploy a response team made up of security and intelligence personnel, the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), which has intervened in other crises involving US diplomats, said Thompson.
“The White House said FEST was taken out of the menu of options,” Thompson told the hearing.
“When I asked why, they told me it was not the right time and not the team that needed to go right then,” he said.
In the middle of the night-long siege in Benghazi, Hicks said he asked the defense attaché at the embassy in Tripoli if “anything was coming” from the US military’s Africa Command. He was told that the nearest planes were several hours away and there were no refueling planes available.
But the Americans continued to try to mobilize support for their colleagues in Benghazi, and were able to procure a C-130 transport plane from the Libyan authorities to carry a small team of US special forces, led by a Lt. Col. Gibson, to Benghazi to “bring our people home,” said Hicks.
“People in Benghazi had been fighting all night. They were tired. They were exhausted… As Gibson and his three personnel were getting in the cars (to head to the airport in Tripoli), he stopped. They called them off. He said he had not been authorized to go,” Hicks testified.
“Lt. Col. Gibson was furious. I told him to bring our people home. That is what he wanted to do,” Hicks said, adding he was unsure why the officer had not been authorized to go to Benghazi.
Hicks’s testimony was the first by a US diplomat who was in Libya when the attacks unfolded, said Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa at the start of the hearing. Another Congressman said at least 18 hearings have been held on the attacks in the eight months since they happened.
The hearing was called to try to “get closer to the truth” of what happened in Libya on the night of Sept. 11, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, said.
Republican lawmakers contend that the State Department and White House refused to send military back-up to the besieged diplomats in Libya because doing so would have been an admission that the attack was mounted by al-Qaida-backed terrorists, who the Obama administration said it had decimated with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on US television that the assault in Benghazi had grown spontaneously out of a demonstration against an anti-Muslim video that appeared on YouTube.
Hicks said he was “embarrassed” by Rice’s comments, adding that Stevens never once mentioned a protest outside the consulate.
“We saw no demonstrations against the video anywhere in Libya,” Hicks said.
Two weeks after the attacks, Libyan President Mohammed Magarief said in an interview with NBC Television that the video had nothing to do with the attacks.
Magarief was “steamed” about Rice’s assertions on US talk shows, Hicks said, adding that the handling of the crisis by the US government made for “a long slog” in the wake of the attacks to get US investigators on the ground in Benghazi to conduct an investigation.
Many Democrats say the multiple congressional hearings on the Benghazi attacks are aimed at discrediting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is seen as a strong Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2016, if she should decide to run.
Just before she left the State Department, Clinton took responsibility for mistakes made in the aftermath of the attacks, but rejected accusations that the administration had tried to mislead Americans about them.
Democratic lawmakers at the hearing said the administration had not tried to play down terrorist involvement in the attack to gain political capital ahead of the November 2012 presidential election.
“People who have actually seen the documents, who have conducted a real investigation completely reject the allegation,” Rep. John Tierney, said.