The top deputy to the U.S. ambassador killed in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, is prepared to deliver testimony this week that could contradict the administration’s explanation of the deadly attack, renewing the controversy over whether all available resources were utilized while the attack unfolded.
Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission for the U.S. in Libya, is set to testify Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Hicks, a 22-year Foreign Service diplomat, became the highest-ranking civilian in Libya after U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed in the attack, which the administration initially characterized as a spontaneous demonstration protesting a controversial Internet clip that devolved into civil unrest.
During a transcribed interview April 11 with investigators from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Hicks said he had repeatedly asked whether any “big military” support was on the way as the attack continued. While support was deemed to be too far away to respond, Hicks said that a Special Forces unit in Tripoli was prepared to board a flight to Benghazi but was told by military headquarters in Germany not to board because it did not have the authorization to do so.
An Accountability Review Board report issued in December noted that the embassy in Tripoli had contacted the Libyan military to have one of its C-130s fly to Benghazi to take out the remaining Americans after the wounded were taken out on an earlier U.S.-chartered flight. That was the same aircraft that had transported seven more security personnel to Benghazi, mainly State Department security contractors, but also two Department of Defense military personnel.
The ARB made no mention of additional U.S. military personnel in Tripoli requesting to go to Benghazi. U.S. Africa Command is currently investigating this claim but has not turned up anything yet.
A Defense Department official, however, acknowledged a small number of U.S. military officers remained in Tripoli.
“We fully intended for those guys to go [to Benghazi] because we had already essentially stripped ourselves of our security presence, or our security capability to the bare minimum,” Hicks said. “They were on their way to the vehicles to go to the [Tripoli] airport to get on the C‑130 when he got a phone call from SOCAFRICA which said, ‘You can’t go now, you don’t have authority to go now.’”
Hicks, who said he immediately recognized the attack as the work of terrorists, also predicted that the mere presence of American air power could have scared off the attackers.
“A fast‑mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible, might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night,” Hicks told investigators. “If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.”
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a Feb. 7 hearing on the Benghazi attack that fighter aircraft over Libya could not happen on short notice because they’re not on strip-alert in Europe. A refueling tanker would have been needed, as well.
“Some have asked why other types of armed aircraft were not dispatched to Benghazi. The reason simply is because armed UAVs, AC-130 gunships or fixed-wing fighters, with the associated tanking, you’ve got to provide air refueling abilities; armaments – you’ve got to arm all the weapons before you put them on the planes. Targeting and support facilities were not in the vicinity of Libya,” Panetta testified. “Because of the distance, it would have taken at least nine to 12 hours, if not more, to deploy these forces to Benghazi.”
Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. would have needed to secure Libyan permission for any military activity inside Libya.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the same committee: “There’s been a whole bunch of speculation about we were risk averse, we needed the country’s, you know, permission to come in. If we had been able to get there with anything, we’d have gone in there under the command of the commander of U.S. of Africa Command.”
Hicks believed the Libyans would have been eager to grant that permission.
“It’s their country, and for an American military aircraft to fly over their country, we have to have permission from them to do so,” Hicks told investigators. “We would have certainly wanted to obtain that permission. I believe we would have gotten it if we had asked. I believe that the Libyans were hoping that we were going to come bail them out of this mess.”
At the time of the interview, Hicks requested that his identity not be revealed, according to a Democratic source. Today, Oversight Democrats criticized Republicans on the committee for releasing “snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing.”
“This is investigation by press release and does a disservice to our common goal of ensuring that our diplomatic corps serving overseas has the best protection possible to do its critical work,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the panel, wrote in a statement today.
A Republican aide refused to release the full transcript of the April 11 interview. Here are the selected excerpts of the Hicks interview released by a Republican committee aide:
On why there were no air assets, Special Forces told to stand down.
Q But do you think, you know, if an F‑15, if the military had allowed a jet to go fly over, that it might have prevented ‑‑
A Yeah, and if we had gotten clearance from the Libyan military for an American plane to fly over Libyan airspace. The Libyans that I talked to and the Libyans and other Americans who were involved in the war have told me also that Libyan revolutionaries were very cognizant of the impact that American and NATO airpower had with respect to their victory. They are under no illusions that American and NATO airpower won that war for them. And so, in my personal opinion, a fast‑mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night.
Q The theory being, the folks on the ground that are doing these ‑‑ committing these terrorist attacks look up, see a heavy‑duty airplane above, and decide to hightail it?
A I believe that if ‑‑ I believe if we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.
Q I just wanted to ask you mentioned permission from the Libyans. Why is that important? What did you mean by that?
A Well, it’s their country. And for an American military aircraft to fly over their country, we have to have permission from them to do so.
Q So what would have been the risk of – do you think it would have been risky for us to send someone — do you think it would have been counterproductive for us to send a fighter pilot plane over Benghazi without that permission?
A We would have certainly wanted to obtain that permission. I believe we would have gotten it if we had asked. I believe that the Libyans were hoping that we were going to come bail them out of this mess. And, you know, they were as surprised as we were that American ‑‑ the military forces that did arrive only arrived on the evening of September 12th. Yeah.
Q So, at this point [At approximately 10:00 pm in Tripoli], you are talking to Washington, you are talking to your RSO Martinec, you are talking to RAO. Are you talking to the Defense Attache?
A The Defense Attache is there, and he is immediately on the phone to Ministry of Defense and to chief of staff of the Libyan Armed Forces. He also notifies Joint Staff and AFRICOM. Our SOCAFRICA lead, Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, connects with SOCAFRICA in Stuttgart, as well. And, obviously, RAO is also connected back home.
Q Was there ever any thought at that time of the night to have an F‑16, you know, fly over?
A I called ‑‑ when we knew that ‑‑ I talked with the Defense Attache, Lieutenant Colonel Keith Phillips, and I asked him, “Is there anything coming?” And he said that the nearest fighter planes were Aviano, that he had been told that it would take 2 to 3 hours to get them airborne, but that there were no tanker assets near enough to support a flight from Aviano.
A And for the second time that night [Before 5:15 AM attack], I asked the Defense Attache, is there anything coming, is there anything out there to help our people from, you know, big military? And the answer, again, was the same as before.
Q And what was that answer?
A The answer was, it’s too far away, there are no tankers, there is nothing, there is nothing that could respond.
Q So you had mentioned that the first team from Tripoli to Benghazi arrived at 1:15?
Q And was there a second team that was organized? Could you tell us about the second team?
A Right. The second team ‑‑ the Defense Attache worked assiduously all night long to try to get the Libyan military to respond in some way. Early in the morning ‑‑ sorry, after we were formally notified by the Prime Minister, who called me, that Chris had passed, the Libyan military agreed to fly their C‑130 to Benghazi and carry additional personnel to Benghazi as reinforcements. Because we at that time — at that time, the third attack, the mortar attack at 5:15, had not yet occurred, if I remember correctly.
Q So what time did the second rescue team ‑‑
A Well, again, they flew ‑‑ I think that flight took off sometime between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m.
Q At that point, you are the Chief of Mission?
A Yeah, I’m Chief of Mission effective 3:00 a.m.
Q Now, did any of the Special Forces folks, were they planning at any time to travel on that second aircraft?
A On the second, on the C‑130? Yes. We fully intended for those guys to go, because we had already essentially stripped ourselves of our security presence, or our security capability to the bare minimum ….
A So Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, who is the SOCAFRICA commander, his team, you know, they were on their way to the vehicles to go to the airport to get on the C‑130 when he got a phone call from SOCAFRICA which said, you can’t go now, you don’t have authority to go now. And so they missed the flight. And, of course, this meant that one of the ‑‑
Q They didn’t miss the flight. They were told not to board the flight.
A They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it. So, anyway, and yeah. I still remember Colonel Gibson, he said, “I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military.” A nice compliment.
Q Now, at this point, are you having communications with Washington?
A I was in communications with Washington all night long. I was reporting all night long what was happening to Washington by telephone.
Q When these Special Forces folks were told essentially to stand down, what was your next move? Did you have a recourse? Were you able to call Washington? Were you able to call anyone at this point to get that decision reversed?
A No, because the flight was ‑‑ the flight was leaving. And, you know, if they missed ‑‑ you know, if the vehicles didn’t leave when they leave, they would miss the flight time at the airport. And the airport ‑‑ you know, we were going all the way to Mitiga. The C‑130 is at Mitiga, which is all the way on the other side of Tripoli.
Q What was the rationale that you were given that they couldn’t go, ultimately?
A I guess they just didn’t have the right authority from the right level.