Witnesses denounce response to Benghazi in emotional hearing

"This hearing is closed, but this investigation is not over," House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., vowed after guiding six hours of emotionally fraught, politically charged testimony about the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya.

That's quite clearly true, but whether Republicans will ever unearth the kind of bombshell revelation that they need to cripple Hillary Clinton's potential 2016 presidential bid is unclear. Still, the marathon question-and-answer session unearthed several interesting and possibly damaging nuggets that came to light and gave other criticisms new life.

It was the first time lawmakers heard publicly from someone who was actually in Libya during the attack, organizing the evacuation of U.S. personnel and pleading for military help that never came. They heard that officials on the ground and in Washington immediately believed the attack to be the work of terrorists, and that the extremists tried to lure more Americans into what could have been a deadly trap. They heard that the Obama administration's decision to link the onslaught to popular demonstrations of Muslim anger at an Internet video denigrating Islam had offended Libya's government and hampered the FBI's investigation. And they heard suggestions that the administration threw up obstacles to the committee's investigation and may have retaliated against one of the "whistleblowers."

Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Tripoli, provided a step-by-step account of what began as a "routine day" in Libya and ended with the first killing of a U.S. ambassador at his post in three decades. His voice shrouded with emotion, Hicks held back tears as he recounted the moment when he learned that respected veteran diplomat Chris Stevens was dead.

At 3 a.m., according to Hicks, Libya’s prime minister called. “I think it's the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life,” Hicks said softly but clearly. “He told me that Ambassador Stevens had passed away. I immediately telephoned Washington that news afterwards.”

Hick’s recollections were not the only emotional moment in the early part of the hearing. Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer in Libya, teared up and his voice broke as he told the packed committee room that he wants the full story to come out. "It matters," he said. "It matters."

In addition to Hicks and Nordstrom, the committee heard from Mark Thompson, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism.

Among the key points in their testimony:

- Thompson testified that he had urged the deployment of an elite response team—known as the Foreign Emergency Support Team, or FEST—but was rebuffed by the White House. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called the motivation for that decision one of the “mysteries” that need to be solved. Hicks said he pleaded for fighter planes to buzz the compound but was told none was close enough (and that military officials have cast doubt on the effectiveness of such a tactic). Hicks also said higher-ups nixed his request to send four special forces to the burning compound.

- Hicks said he spoke by telephone with Stevens shortly after armed men stormed the compound. “Greg, we’re under attack,” Stevens said, according to Hicks. Hicks said American officials in Libya concluded from unspecified Twitter feeds that al-Qaida-affiliated Islamist extremists were carrying out the attack. He confirmed that officials on the ground never believed that the attack grew out of a demonstration.

- Hicks slammed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearance on Sunday news shows days after the attack, when she linked it to angry demonstrations in the Muslim world against the video denigrating Islam. “I was stunned. My jaw dropped,” Hicks said in response to a question from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. “I was embarrassed.”

- Rice's comments flatly contradicted Libyan President Mohammed Magariaf's public statement that the attack was the work of terrorists, effectively humiliating him, with the result of delaying the FBI's access to the compound, Hicks said.

- After Hicks received the phone call about Stevens' death, unidentified Libyans called to say Stevens was with them and that American staff should come get him. “We suspected that we were being baited into a trap,” Hicks said. “We did not want to send our people into an ambush.” The Americans stayed put.

- Hicks said that, after years of glowing performance evaluations, higher-ups at the State Department turned on him when he questioned Rice's account of the events. He described his current position as a demotion.

- Hicks said that the State Department directed him not to speak to Chaffetz when he came to Libya as part of a congressional investigation into the attack. "We were not to be personally interviewed by Congressman Chaffetz," Hicks said. (A top aide to Clinton emailed NBC News to dispute the notion of a cover-up.)

- Hicks also suggested that a State Department-commissioned independent investigation into the tragedy, by retired diplomat Tom Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, had failed to hold senior figures responsible, pointedly naming Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management, as someone who bore some responsibility for poor security at the site. (Issa said he had invited Pickering and Mullen to testify, but that they refused.)

- Gowdy provided one of the few surprises in the hearing, reading what he described as an email from the day after the attacks in which acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones said she had told the Libyan governor that "the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists." That raised fresh questions about why top Obama aides emphasized the role of spontaneous demonstrations against the video in public remarks for days afterwards.

Lawmakers mostly listened respectfully. But they missed no opportunities to score partisan points.

Issa started the session by describing the administration’s version of the events as “their facts.” Issa accused the State Department and the White House of refusing to provide witnesses and documents to his committee.

Issa vowed to “make certain that our government learns the proper lessons” from the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans, and ensure that “the right people are held accountable.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat, used his opening statement to offer a rebuttal of what he denounced as “irresponsible allegations” that the administration withheld military assets that might have made a difference. He accused Issa of suggesting a high-level “conspiracy” grouping top military officers who have testified that the Pentagon did everything it could.

“I am not questioning the motives of the witnesses,” Cummings said. “I am questioning the motives of those who want to use their statements for political purposes.”

The hotly anticipated hearing, which drew an army of reporters to the hearing room, seemed unlikely to shift the partisan battle lines on Benghazi. But it tackled some thorny questions. All sides agree that heavily armed assailants stormed the U.S. facility in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, and, in two separate attacks hours apart, killed Stevens and three other Americans.

But did President Barack Obama’s administration do everything it could to save Americans? Did senior aides try to cover up findings that the strike was the work of terrorists? Should former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pay a price? Or is this a Republican fishing expedition unfairly using the tragic death of four Americans for political gain?

While the testimony was underway, White House press secretary Jay Carney yet again cast overall criticism of the handling of the tragedy as a politicized attack, and branded Mitt Romney as the first offender.

"Within hours of the attack, beginning with a press release that was much-maligned even by members of his own party, the Republican nominee for president tried to politicize this, and that has been the case ever since," Carney told reporters during Wednesday's daily press briefing.

Carney said continued efforts to challenge the handling of the attack is "part of an effort to chase after what isn't the substance here" and that what should be looked at instead is the attack itself, those killed and how to prevent future attacks. Carney stated once again that the White House has been fully cooperative and forthcoming with the review board, members of Congress and others.

In a back-and-forth with reporters, Carney also responded Wednesday to a new report suggesting that more extensive revisions were made to talking points about the incident than the White House had originally suggested.

Carney had formerly stated that a "single adjustment" was made by the White House or State Department to those talking points. When asked to defend that statement Wednesday following a new report about the changes made, Carney said that "the only edits made by anyone here at the White House were stylistic and not substantive."

Carney also took aim at an argument made last week by Issa that Clinton's signature on a cable containing those talking points indicated she personally endorsed their content. "This effort last week to turn a pro-forma signature on a cable into a scandal ... has been laughed out of the room, appropriately, because it doesn't hold water," Carney said.

Republicans have waged an aggressive media campaign over the past week—releasing snippets of testimony and interview transcripts coupled with predictions that the hearing will offer blockbuster revelations.

But there’s cause for skepticism, and not just because GOP lawmakers seem to make these kinds of predictions regularly.

First, the independent investigation commissioned by the State Department has already delivered a blistering indictment of how top officials mishandled repeated warnings about extremist threats in Benghazi and requests for additional security. That particular "system failure" has amply been documented.

Second, charges that the Obama administration could have deployed military assets that might have made a difference have been explored in previous hearings—and dismissed by the Pentagon.

Hicks testified that the military opted against sending a second special forces rescue team while the fighting raged. It's not clear that the team would have arrived in time to make a difference—and administration officials say there were "Black Hawk Down"-style concerns about dropping more Americans into an uncertain conflict. Still, Republicans argue, the people who made the decision about the deployment couldn't have known the gesture would be futile.

The "after" part, though, has gotten progressively more interesting.

Republicans have charged that the Obama administration misled Americans by suggesting the Benghazi assault was tied to the Internet video denigrating Islam—a video that was getting significant media attention at the time and fueled violent demonstrations against the U.S. embassy in Cairo. The administration, Republicans insist, wrongly portrayed the Benghazi attack as a demonstration that had gotten out of hand rather than an act of terrorism. Why? To protect Obama's re-election campaign claim that al-Qaida was on the run.

The flap has already cost Rice, who withdrew her name from consideration as Clinton's successor. The White House has repeatedly dismissed GOP attention to Rice's TV appearances as an "obsession" over "talking points" on Sunday shows. (Does that mean that if Obama misspoke in his State of the Union, the White House would shrug it off as "canned comments to Beltway insiders"?)

As it happens, the administration knew the Benghazi assault was terrorism from the start, even though its public message changed several times. And senior State Department officials, in an Oct. 9 2012, conference call, formally acknowledged that officials in Libya never indicated that there had been a demonstration in Benghazi.

But the real problem with the Republican claim that the administration tried to cover up the terrorist nature of the Benghazi assault is that Obama himself called it terrorism in a Rose Garden appearance shortly after the assault. There, the president tied Benghazi in with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and said the country would never bow in the face of "acts of terror."

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