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Diplomats criticize Benghazi response in GOP-led probe

In what became an emotional hearing on Capitol Hill, Gregory Hicks testified Wednesday that he and a defense attaché tried to send four more special forces to Benghazi and pleaded for air support -- but was told to stand down. NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

 

In a day of congressional testimony that once again found the Obama administration under fire, a trio of whistleblowers expressed frustration toward the government’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012 assault against a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, and its subsequent investigation into that incident.

The diplomatic officials appeared on Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to describe a hasty and chaotic response to the attack, which left four Americans – including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens – dead.

The witnesses said that the government was poorly prepared to weather the attack and was hesitant to respond, also contending that a subsequent review of the incident ordered by the State Department came up woefully short.

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The testimony included new details from Gregory Hicks, a career foreign service officer who served as the deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the attacks.

He painstakingly recounted frenetic efforts to communicate between besieged individuals in Benghazi, and the governments of Libya and the United States. And he relayed the frustration of special forces who were told to stand down in Tripoli – Hicks said he did not know who gave the order – from deploying to Benghazi.

“They were furious,” Hicks told lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “I will quote Lt. Col. Gibson. He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’”

IN DEPTH: Official: US Special Forces team wasn't allowed to fly to Benghazi during attack

Hicks joined two other witnesses in a hearing driven primarily by Republicans, who have zealously pursued the Benghazi incident based on suspicions that President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been caught flat-footed by the attack, or worse, orchestrated a cover-up about the attack to benefit the president’s re-election bid.

At no point did Hicks or his fellow witnesses – Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, and Eric Nordstrom, diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya – accuse the president or Clinton of having halted forces that might have assisted besieged diplomats in Benghazi. Democrats repeatedly pointed to testimony suggesting that reinforcements would have not have arrived in time, anyway.

But Republicans seized on several morsels of information, in particular Hicks’s incredulity toward the administration’s initial explanation, voiced by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, that the attack was the spontaneous outgrowth of protests related to an anti-Islamic video.

“I was stunned. My jaw dropped, and I was embarrassed,” Hicks said of his reaction to Rice’s appearances on a series of Sunday talk shows following the attack. He further testified that there were no indications of protests in Libya, and that at no time did they suspect that the Benghazi attack was related to protests.

Republicans also homed in on suggestions by Hicks that a top Clinton aide had reacted angrily when Hicks agreed to speak privately with GOP investigators looking into the Benghazi attack. Hicks said that Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, called him “upset” about his conversation with the GOP lawmakers.

The witnesses also expressed their misgivings about the Accountability Review Board’s (ARB) findings in a subsequent investigation into the government’s response to the attacks. The ARB, the witnesses said, failed to interview senior enough leaders in the State Department.

The testimony prompted pointed responses from Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who co-authored the ARB, and allies of Clinton, the popular former secretary of state who’s seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2016.

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“I believe the Accountability Review Board did its work well,” Pickering, a coauthor of the report, said Wednesday afternoon on MSNBC. “I think the notion, quote, of ‘a cover-up’ has the elements of Pulitzer Prize fiction attached to it.”

And Philippe Reines, a senior aide to Clinton, told NBC News that accusations that Mills interfered in an investigation into Benghazi “completely and utterly false.”

Indeed, Democrats headed into the hearing warning against politicization of the Benghazi incident.

“I am not questioning the motives of our witnesses,” said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, at the outset of the hearings. “I am questioning the motives of those who want to use their statements for political purposes.”

His admonition didn’t stop many Republicans from plowing ahead with their questions.

“It's one of great mysteries,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, of questions as to why terror response forces were not ordered into action on Sept. 11. “Here we have this expertise, we've invested heavily in it, they tabletop it, they understand it, this is exactly what they train for and they were never asked to go into action.”

But while many Republicans appeared eager to keep Benghazi alive as a political issue, not all Republicans seemed as concerned about the issue, or the Obama administration’s forthcoming.

“I’ve been able to read all the cables, I’ve seen all the films. I feel like I know what happened in Benghazi; I’m fairly satisfied,” said Sen. Bob Corker, Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on MSNBC. “I’m fairly satisfied.”

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