WASHINGTON D.C. – The second-ranking U.S. official in Libya during last year’s deadly attack on the mission in Benghazi immediately considered it a terrorist attack rather than a spontaneous event, according to a transcript of his interview with congressional investigators.
“I thought it was a terrorist attack from the get-go,” Gregory Hicks, a foreign service officer and former deputy chief of Libyan operations, told investigators, according to excerpts of the interview displayed today on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program. “I never reported a demonstration, I reported an attack on the consulate.”
His account contrasted with comments made by Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, after the attack on Sept. 11, 2012. She said it grew out of a “spontaneous” demonstration against an anti-Islamic video that was “hijacked” by militants.
Hicks said he wasn’t contacted by State Department officials before Rice spoke on five Sunday talk shows Sept. 16, according to the interview with congressional investigators.
The Benghazi attack killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens and became a flashpoint in last year’s presidential campaign. Republicans criticized officials including Rice for their early accounts of the circumstances.
Hicks is scheduled to testify at a May 8 hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, in a May 1 statement announcing the hearing, accused President Barack Obama’s administration of offering “a carefully selected and sanitized version” of the Benghazi attack.
The Accountability Review Board “report itself doesn’t really ascribe blame to any individual at all. The public report anyway,” Hicks told investigators, according to transcript excerpts obtained by CNN. “It does let people off the hook.
“In our system, people who make decisions have been confirmed by the Senate to make decisions,” Hicks told investigators.”The three people in the State Department who are on administrative leave pending disciplinary action are below Senate confirmation level. Now, the DS (Diplomatic Security) assistant secretary resigned, and he is at Senate confirmation level. Yet the paper trail is pretty clear that decisions were being made above his level.”
Hicks specifically mentions Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy.
“Certainly the fact that Under Secretary Kennedy required a daily report of the personnel in country and who personally approved every official American who went to Tripoli or Benghazi, either on assignment or TDY (temporary duty), would suggest some responsibility about security levels within the country lies on his desk,” Hicks said,according to CNN.
Hicks also told his interrogators that he never had any indication that there had been a popular protest outside the mission in Benghazi.
“I never reported a demonstration; I reported an attack on the consulate,” Hicks said. Stevens’ “last report, if you want to say his final report, is, ‘Greg, we are under attack.'”
Hicks doesn’t hold back from slamming the Obama administration.
“You know, it’s jaw‑dropping that ‑‑ to me that ‑‑ how that came to be,” Hicks recalled, referring to the Obama administration’s line that it was a spontaneous protest. “And, you know, I knew ‑‑ I was personally known to one of (U.S.) Ambassador (to the United Nations Susan) Rice’s staff members. And, you know, we’re six hours ahead of Washington. Even on Sunday morning, I could have been called, and, you know, the phone call could have been, ‘hey, Greg, Ambassador Rice is going to say blah, blah, blah, blah,’ and I could have said, ‘no, that’s not the right thing.’ That phone call was never made.”
CNN reported that Hicks then added that “for there to have been a demonstration on Chris Stevens’ front door and him not to have reported it is unbelievable. And secondly, if he had reported it, he would have been out the back door within minutes of any demonstration appearing anywhere near that facility. And there was a back gate to the facility, and, you know, it worked.”
Hicks stresses that despite being the senior diplomat in Libya after Stevens was killed, he wasn’t consulted at all before Rice went on Sunday talk shows to discuss the attacks.
“Clearly there was a political decision to say something different than what was reasonable to say,” Issa said today on CBS.
Other potential witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the Benghazi attack have been “suppressed” by the administration, Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, said on “Fox News Sunday.”
“There are people, more than one, that have felt intimidation from the State Department,” Chaffetz said.
An April 23 report by Republicans in the U.S. House said the Obama administration presented “misleading” talking points after the attack and removed references to the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in eastern Libya, including information about at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi.
Shawn Turner, a spokesman for Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, issued a Sept. 28 statement, 12 days after Rice’s appearances, saying the intelligence community had revised its initial assessment and concluded the assault was “a deliberate and organized terrorist attack.”
Speaking today on “Fox News Sunday,” Representative Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat and member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said there was ’’no excuse’’’ for the administration’s talking points about the attacks.
“It was scrubbed. It was totally inaccurate,” he said. “It was false information.”
Asked whether Rice’s talking points were revised because an al-Qaeda attack didn’t fit with the 2012 Obama presidential campaign’s narrative that the terrorist group was on the run, Lynch said: “I think it was a victory of hope over reality, to be honest with you. They were hoping that this wasn’t the case.”
Still, Lynch said allegations of administration intimidation of potential witnesses were “completely false.”
In addition to Hicks, the witnesses scheduled to testify before Issa’s committee May 8 are Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer who had been a regional security officer in Libya.
“They have critical information about what occurred before, during and after the Benghazi terrorist attacks that differs on key points from administration officials,” Issa said in a statement.
The Obama administration and congressional Democrats said Republicans are playing politics with the Benghazi incident.
“The politicization of this issue is unfortunate, and it continues unabated,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at a May 1 briefing.