House Oversight Committee chair Darrell Issa knows how to put on a show. Issa teased his Wednesday congressional hearing on Benghazi like a movie, tweeting movie poster-style photos with the hearing date and his face, as if he were an action star (right). The hearing was packed with emotional testimony from former State Department officials who were there the night the American consulate was attacked. Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz even started crying (below left) late in the afternoon as he questioned the witnesses, who, at that moment, were not crying. The Washington Post's Ernesto Londoño describes it as "a riveting account of that frantic night." Politico's Ginger Gibson said the "dramatic and personal stories… injected real emotion" into the hearing. "Do you hear the pain and the sadness?" Rush Limbaugh said Wednesday. However, the hearing offered little to prove a coverup of nefarious acts by the Obama administration. We already knew an anti-Islam movie did not inspire the attack. We already knew the consulate had requested more security.
That is not to say there was no new information in the hearings. Gregory Hicks, who was deputy chief of mission at the time of the Benghazi attack, provided new details about what happened that night and the struggle to find Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation after the safe house was set on fire. Hicks spoked with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at 2 a.m. the night of the attack — she asked if they needed more resources, and Hicks said yes. He said he could not remember if Clinton asked who caused the attack. Hicks explained Clinton wanted to make the Benghazi consulate converted into a permanent constituent post, and so Stevens had to go there before the start of the fiscal year September 30, 2012, he said. Even though the British closed their diplomatic post, Hicks believes "we needed to stay there as a symbolic gesture to a people we saved" during the Libyan revolution.
But the two most potentially damning parts of Hicks's testimony did not give House Republicans clean blows. First, Hicks was "furious" the military would not send a team of four Special Operations soldiers from Tripoli to Benghazi after the attacks. The Pentagon says "there was nothing this team could have done to assist during the second attack in Benghazi," The Washington Post reports. The American mission was attacked in two waves — the first at 9:45 p.m., after which a six-man security team was sent from Tripoli. The second attack was at about 5:15 a.m., and in it, two members of the security team were killed by mortar fire.
Second, Hicks made the case for why Susan Rice's claim that the attacks were "spontaneous" on September 16 matters. On September 25, Libyan president Mohammed Magarief called the Benghazi attack an "act of terrorism" in an interview with NBC News. Hicks said this was "a gift for us from a policy perspective," yet Obama administration officials undercut Magarief by saying the assault was inspired by an anti-Islam video that had inspired protests in Cairo the same day. Hicks said:
President Magarief was insulted in front of his own people, in front of the world. His credibility was reduced. His ability to govern was [damaged]. He was angry... He was still steamed about the talk shows two weeks later. I definitely believe it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi.
But Clinton had called Benghazi a "terrorist attack" for the first time four days earlier, on September 21. As Mother Jones explains, on September 27, two days after Magarief's interview White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called it a "terrorist attack." However, it took until October 9 for the State Department to explicitly say the attack had nothing to do with the video.
At times on Wednesday, it was clear the questioners wanted more show than the witnesses. Eric Nordstrom, who was the regional security officer in Libya, had said he felt like the "Taliban" was in the State Department when requests for extra security were denied. When Rep. Jim Jordan asked him about the statement, Norstrom laughed uncomfortably and looked down. It was late in the afternoon, and the questions had stopped being real questions, and started becoming more like speeches. "This hearing is closed, but this investigation is not over," Issa said at the end. He should hope not — he still hasn't delivered the smoking gun.