WASHINGTON – A former top diplomat in Libya on Wednesday described a 2 a.m. call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the middle of the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, amid confusion about the fate of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and fears about the safety of additional American personnel.
"She asked me what was going on and I briefed her on developments. Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens," Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi and I told her we would need to evacuate and she said that was the right thing to do."
Haltingly, Hicks recounted "the saddest phone call in my life" — getting word from a Libyan official that Stevens had been killed.
The politically charged hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012 attack is the latest in a long-running and bitter dispute between the administration and congressional Republicans who have challenged the White House's actions before and after the deadly assault, in which when Stevens and three other Americans died.
The target of much of the conservative wrath is Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, who stepped down after four years with high approval ratings. In her last appearance on Capitol Hill in January, a defiant Clinton took responsibility for the department's missteps leading up to the assault, while rejecting suggestions the administration had tried to mislead the country about the attack.
The witnesses Wednesday were Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Hicks, the former deputy of mission in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer in Libya who testified before the panel in October.
Hicks said that shortly after he was told Stevens was dead, unidentified Libyans called Hicks' staff from the phone that had been with the ambassador that night. These Libyans said Stevens was with them, and U.S. officials should come fetch him, Hicks said. Hicks said he believed Stevens' body was at a hospital at that point, but he could not be certain.
"We suspected we were being baited into a trap," Hicks told the committee, so the U.S. personnel did not follow the callers' instructions. "We did not want to send our people into an ambush," Hicks testified.
An independent panel led by former top diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Gen. Mike Mullen concluded that management and leadership failures at the State Department led to "grossly" inadequate security at the mission. The panel's report singled out the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near East Affairs.
The report has failed to placate GOP lawmakers, conservatives and outside groups, some of whom contend that Benghazi is comparable to the Watergate and Iran-Contra scandals and deserves a more thorough examination. They contend that the Obama administration is covering up information.
Republicans at the hearing focused on the widely debunked talking points used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack in which she said the attacks appeared to be associated with demonstrations in Egype and Libya over an anti-Islam video.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said Rice's comments contradicted statements by Libyan leaders and others who called the attacks pre-meditated assaults by terrorists.
Gowdy said Rice's comments "perpetuated a demonstrably false narrative." Hicks, asked his reaction to the Rice's remarks on five Sunday talk shows, said: "I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed."
Democrats countered with a video clip of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper telling a Senate panel earlier this year that the hit on Rice was unfair.
"She was going on what we were giving her," Clapper said of the talking points.