(WASHINGTON) — Gregory Hicks, who became the top diplomat in Libya after Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed during an attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, told a congressional committee Wednesday that the attack left him scrambling for help that failed to arrive in time.
“Is anything coming?” Hicks said he asked a defense attache as he worked to coordinate a response from Tripoli, Libya, during the attack. “Will they be sending us any help? Is there something out there?”
During more than four hours of testimony, Hicks recounted for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform the terrorist attack initially described by some in the Obama administration as a protest.
Hicks, believed to be the last person to speak with Stevens before he was killed, recalled his final phone conversation with the ambassador as news began to reach him in Tripoli, Libya, just shortly after the attack had begun in Benghazi.
“I got the ambassador on the other end, and he said, ‘Greg, we’re under attack,'” Hicks recalled, speaking slowly and purposely throughout his testimony. “It was also a bad cell phone night in Tripoli. Connections were weak. And I said, ‘OK,’ and the line cut.”
Hicks said he believed Stevens would have shared any reports of a protest at the consulate, given a conversation he had with the ambassador about demonstrations in Cairo, Egypt, earlier in the day.
When U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice later publicly attributed the attack to a demonstration gone bad, Hicks said, he was “stunned.”
“My jaw dropped, and I was embarrassed,” Hicks said, noting that, even as the top-ranked diplomat in charge once Stevens was killed, he never spoke to Rice about what had transpired before she initially attributed the attack to a demonstration in multiple television appearances.
“The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya,” Hicks said, denying there was ever a connection to unrest in Egypt. “Our assessment in the embassy was that video was not an instigator of anything.”
Throughout the hearing, Hicks detailed his role coordinating with the U.S. and Libyan governments during the attack. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned him directly at 2 a.m. asking for an update. Hicks also noted that Stevens’ body was taken to a hospital controlled by Ansar al Sharia, a group with ties to Islamic terrorists.
While Hicks charged that fast-moving aircraft could have possibly scared off the attackers and prevented some of the American deaths, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, pointed to prior congressional testimony from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said it was not possible to scramble aircraft in time to make a difference.
“The fact is that our nation’s top military commanders have already testified repeatedly that they did everything in their power to mobilize and deploy assets as soon as possible,” Cummings, D-Md., said. “We have the best military in the world, but even with all of their technological advances, they could not get there in time.”
The only U.S. aircraft over Libya that day was one unarmed drone, Hicks said.
“We continue to believe there was nothing this team could have done to assist during the second attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11,” Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said Wednesday, reacting to Hicks’ testimony. “The team remained in Tripoli and performed admirably. They supported the evacuation effort when the first aircraft arrived back to Tripoli. This team played a key role in receiving treating and moving the wounded.”
David Lapan, a spokesman for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that “it makes sense that these guys want to go to where the action is, but their higher headquarters also has a role with the big picture to understand that you going to Benghazi, at this point, is not going to be helpful.”
Hicks also testified that he was instructed by State Department counsel not to allow himself or the acting deputy chief of mission to be personally interviewed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, an Oversight Committee member traveling to Libya on a congressional delegation to investigate the attack.
When Hicks provided Chaffetz with a classified briefing that excluded a lawyer from State who did not have high enough security clearance to attend, he was phoned by Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“A phone call from that senior of a person is, generally speaking, not considered to be good news,” Hicks said. “She was upset.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the Oversight Committee, said the goal of the hearing was “to get answers because [the victims’] families deserve answers.”
“They were promised answers at the highest level when their bodies came home,” Issa said. “We want to make certain those promises are kept on behalf of those individuals. We also want to make certain that our government learns the proper lessons from this tragedy so it never happens again and so that the right people are held accountable.”
Given that Wednesday was the first time Congress has heard from anyone who was on the ground in Libya during the attack, lawmakers pledged that the so-called whistleblowers would be protected from potential retaliation.
“I am glad the whistleblowers are here, and I will do everything single thing in my power to protect the whistleblowers,” Cummings agreed. “Whistleblowers are important. They are very important.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Shelbie Harris, Idaho State Journal
Ruth Brown, Idaho Press-Tribune
Ruth Brown, Idaho Press-Tribune