WASHINGTON — A veteran diplomat gave a riveting minute-by-minute account on Wednesday of the lethal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 and described its contentious aftermath in nearly five hours of testimony at a politically charged congressional hearing.
During a chaotic night at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, hundreds miles from Benghazi, the diplomat, Gregory Hicks, got what he called "the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life" informing him that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was dead and that he was now the highest-ranking American in Libya. For his leadership that night when four Americans were killed, Hicks said, he subsequently received calls from both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Barack Obama.
But within days, Hicks said, after raising questions about the account of what had happened in Benghazi offered in television interviews by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, he felt a distinct chill from State Department superiors.
"The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning," said Hicks, who has been a Foreign Service officer for 22 years.
He was soon given a scathing review of his management style, he said, and was later "effectively demoted" to desk officer at headquarters, in what he believes was retaliation for speaking up.
House Republican leaders made the hearing the day's top priority, postponing floor votes so that the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform could continue without interruption. The Obama administration appeared focused on the testimony, with senior officials at the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon responding throughout the day to Republican accusations of incompetence and cover-up in campaign war room style.
In the balance, in the view of both Democrats and Republicans, is not just the reputation of Obama but also potentially the prospects for the 2016 presidential election, since Clinton, who stepped down in February, is the Democratic Party's leading prospect. If the testimony did not fundamentally challenge the existing facts and timeline of the Benghazi attack and the administration's response to it, it vividly illustrated the anxiety of top State Department officials about how the events would be publicly portrayed.
Hicks offered an unbecoming view of political supervision and intimidation inside the Obama administration. Hicks said that when Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, visited Libya after the attack, his bosses told him not to talk to the congressman. When he did anyway, and a State Department lawyer was excluded from one meeting because he lacked the necessary security clearance, Hicks said he received an angry phone call from Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
"So this goes right to the person next to Secretary of State Clinton. Is that accurate?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. Hicks responded, "Yes, sir."
In a statement late Wednesday, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the department had not and would not retaliate against Hicks. Ventrell noted that Hicks "testified that he decided to shorten his assignment in Libya after the attacks, due to understandable family reasons." The spokesman said that Hicks' current job was "a suitable temporary assignment" at the same salary and that he had submitted his preferences for his next job.
The accounts from Hicks and two other officials, Mark I. Thompson, the former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department's Counterterrorism Bureau, and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security who had testified previously, added some detail to accounts of the night of Sept. 11 in Benghazi, where armed Islamic militants penetrated the diplomatic compound, starting the fire that killed Stevens and an aide, and later killed two security officers in a mortar attack; in Tripoli, where frantic diplomats fearing a similar invasion used an ax to destroy classified hard drives; and in Washington, where officials struggled to keep up with events.
The three witnesses challenged both the Obama administration's initial version of events — long ago withdrawn — and its claim to have exhaustively investigated the attacks.
When Rice suggested on Sunday talk shows days after the attack that it had begun with protests against a crude anti-Muslim video that had been posted on YouTube, Hicks said, "I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed."
The witnesses also said they felt that the administration's own official investigation, led by a veteran retired diplomat, Thomas R. Pickering, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was inadequate.
"They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions," Nordstrom said.
Hicks also said the State Department's Accountability Review Board, as the inquiry was called, failed to hold high-level political appointees at the department responsible for inadequate security in Benghazi.
Nordstrom said that when he pressed for additional security personnel, he was told, "Basically, stop complaining."
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee's senior Democrat, accused the Republicans and the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, in particular of distorting the facts of the investigation for partisan purposes.
But Cummings joined Republicans in promising that they would make sure the three witnesses did not suffer for their candid testimony.
"I try to do everything in my power to protect witnesses," he said. "I don't care if they are brought by Republicans or Democrats."