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by Sharon Rondeau

Ranking Oversight Committee member Rep. Elijah Cummings questioned those testifying about their statements that lives could have been saved in Benghazi to obtain “the complete picture”

(May 8, 2013) — Testimony from three witnesses considered whistleblowers will be given to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday after opening statements expected at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

A fourth whistleblower was planning to testify, but the person’s attorney was not granted a security clearance in time.  The Daily Caller reports that the attorney, Victoria Toensing, has now been given a clearance “at such a low level that it will probably slow the congressional probe of how the administration handled last year’s terrorist attack on the embassy in Benghazi, Libya.”

At 11:37 a.m., Committee Chairman Darrell Issa began opening remarks.  He gave a tribute to the four Americans killed on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi during the terrorist attack on the U.S. compound and acknowledged that relatives of those lost were in attendance.

“Their families deserve answers,” Issa said.  “They were promised answers when their bodies came home…We want to make certain that those promises are kept…”

Issa said that “extensive efforts” have been made to “engage the administration” but that the Obama regime has not been cooperative in the investigation.  He said that “the minority,” meaning the Democrats did not engage in “transparency,” which has been a hallmark of Obama’s tenure.

At 11:42, Issa introduced Gregory Hicks, a 22-year State Department veteran, as the first whistleblower.  Hicks became the acting mission chief after Amb. Christopher Stevens was killed.

Issa then introduced Eric Nordstrom as “perhaps the most knowledgeable person about security requests that were made and denied…in Benghazi.”

Issa specifically addressed Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the committee, as having refused to cooperate in the probe.  Cummings told CNN that Democrats were “iced out” of the investigation.

Cummings was then recognized and took the floor.  He said that “both Republicans and Democrats” were “greatly saddened” by the deaths of the four Americans.  “They were the ones that were often unseen…and unapplauded,” he said.  “On behalf of this Congress and a grateful nation, I say ‘thank you,'” Cummings said.

Cummings added that he will “protect whistleblowers” and was “glad” that they were present to testify.  “…Their interests will be protected,” he assured, and stressed that there should be no retaliation against them by the government.  “Whistleblowers are important,” he said.

Reports surfaced that the whistleblowers had been intimidated prior to coming forward.

Cummings voiced questions which relatives of the slain might have asked such as “Where was the military?”  In response, he said that a report that a special forces team was not dispatched was false and that the truth was that they could not have made it to Benghazi in time, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.  Cummings addressed himself to Hicks when he said that Dempsey and other military commanders provided the information.

Cummings said that over the last two weeks, there has been a “full-scale media campaign…to smear public officials.”  He said that Issa has “accused the administration” of withholding information on the Benghazi attack and that he found it “troubling.”  He refuted the reports that said that the military had been told not to go to Benghazi.  He said that the decision to keep the four-member special forces was not made by the White House or the State Department.

Cummings was obviously defending the Obama regime when he said that “Chairman Issa attacked Susan Rice” when she spoke on five Sunday talk shows.  Cummings quoted various officials as having provided the faulty information that the attack had begun as a protest.  Cummings said that Issa’s assertions constituted the suggestion that “a conspiracy” involved the members of the Accountability Review Board, who completed a report on the security lapses which facilitated the attack.

Cummings stressed improving security of diplomats serving overseas.

Issa resumed speaking at 11:53 a.m. and gave Hicks’ background, which included security as a Marine.  Hicks was “transitioned into civil service” at the State Department in 1988.  Hicks traveled and worked throughout the Middle East in his posts at State.   Issa said that Hicks received numerous honors and meritorious service awards.

Issa then gave Eric Nordstrom’s background.  Nordstrom had been an advisor to Stevens, working out of the Tripoli consulate.  Issa then asked the three witnesses to rise and take an oath that the testimony they were to give would be the truth.

After taking the oath, Hicks spoke first.

He said that he was “at his desk” when he heard about the attack in Benghazi.  He said that when Stevens could not be located, the “deployment” of a security team needed to be “considered.”  “I notified the White House of my idea; they indicated that meetings had already taken place that evening…” Hicks said, but was told that the idea was “taken off the table.”

He described the “security team” as “the glue and connective tissue” for “decision-makers” when there is a diplomatic emergency anywhere in the world.  He said that he thought they “needed to act now” rather than wait for reinforcements.  He said that an airplane available to them at the time was designed to “handle that crisis.”

Hicks gave his background following his opening statement, which included commendations from Obama himself in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack.

At 12:08 p.m., Eric Nordstrom began speaking.  He said that he had served in “federal law enforcement” and in posts around the world, including in Tripoli.  He said he had “faced the threat of criminal or terrorist attacks.”  He thanks the committee for allowing him to testify and for continuing its investigation.  He became emotional when he said, “It matters to me personally…and to my colleagues at the Department of State.”

Nordstrom said he met with members of the FBI and the Accountability Review Board as the investigation unfolded.  Nordstrom yielded the floor back to Issa at 12:11 p.m.

Issa then called upon Mark Thompson to testify.

He asked Thompson to describe “the day of September 11 from whatever time you want to begin through when you first heard from Ambassador Stevens…” so that eyewitness testimony could be obtained.

Hicks then spoke about the protest in Cairo, Egypt, which occurred earlier on September 11.  He said that he was notified at 9:45 p.m. Libyan time that “the consulate was under attack.”  He said he found “two missed calls, one from the ambassador…”  He called Chris Stevens, whose number he recognized, and Stevens told him that he was “under attack.”  The connection was not good and the call cut off.

Hicks went to the Tactical Operations Center and said that people there attempted to reach Stevens’ “personal escort,” who had left the second call for Hicks.  Hicks was told that “the consulate had been breached…by at least 20 armed individuals.”  He said he called the “annex chief” to “activate our emergency response plan.”

Issa asked Hicks to explain what the “annex chief” was, but Hicks continued testifying.

Hicks said he called the Operations Center at the State Department at “approximately 10:00 p.m.” to advise them of the attack.  He then called Libyan officials, including Libyan president Magariaf’s chief of staff.  He then called the Foreign Minister’s chief of staff to ask for assistance.

“Once that was done, I called again to Washington to report that these actions had been commenced,” Hicks said.

“Over the night, that is basically how our team operated,” he said, describing various calls exchanged among the “annex chief” and Libyan officials.  He said that he planned to fly a Libya response team to assist the Benghazi compound.

Hicks said that “the night unfolded in four phases.  The first attack was the attack on our consulate.”  He said it was “invaded,” with three people hiding in the “safe area” after the building was set on fire.  He said that one tried to evacuate Sean Smith and Amb. Stevens but “had to stop due to exposure to smoke.”  He said that six people from the “annex” near the compound drove the attackers away temporarily.  He said that members of that team found Sean Smith’s body but not that of the ambassador.

“The heroism of these individuals…cannot be understated,” Hicks said.  He said the fires were fueled by cyanide, which is deadly.

He described a second wave of attackers during which some people were able to escape the compound.

Hicks said that at 11:45, he asked an attache group if any other help would be coming.  The response was that the closest military team was in Aviano, Italy.

The third stage began when Hicks learned that Stevens’ body had been reported to be at a hospital operated by Ansar-al-Sharia, a terrorist group which Hicks said took credit for the attack on “Twitter feeds.”

“Our contacts with government in Tripoli are telling us that Stevens was in a safe place…and we keep telling them ‘no,’ we do not have him,” Hicks said, speaking in the present tense.  Hicks said that Ansar-al-Sharia was then stating on Twitter that an attack would be launched on the Tripoli location, necessitating a warning to all of the diplomats in the area.

Hicks explained the security setup in Tripoli.  He said he kept Washington “posted” over the night hours as to what was occurring.

He said that at about 2:00 a.m., Hillary Clinton called and asked “what was going on.”  he said that most of the call concerned the whereabouts of Stevens.  Hicks told Clinton that they “would need to evacuate.”  Clinton agreed that that was “the right thing to do.”

At 3:00 p.m., Hicks received a call from a Libyan official and was told that Stevens “had passed away,” after which he “began accelerating” the evacuation plans to “withdraw to the annex.”

“Our team responded with amazing discipline and courage in Tripoli,” Hicks said.  “I have vivid memories of that.”  He stated that the communications staff was outstanding, even “loading magazines” and ammunition.  He said that hard drives were smashed purposely.

He named several people who tried to get help for those in Benghazi, including military officers.  “I’m still in aw of them,” Hicks said.

Hicks was asked when his team would move to the annex and responded “at dawn,” because no one there was experienced in driving “armed Suburbans.”  They would have had to go through “militia checkpoints” to arrive at the annex.

“So we moved at dawn, and we arrived at the annex..at perhaps 4:45, 5:00 p.m.,” he said.  They then got word that there had been a mortar attack in Benghazi.

Hicks said that several calls were made to Tripoli staff stating that the whereabouts of Stevens were known at the time.  However, Hicks suspected that they were being “baited into a trap.”

Hicks said that another round of mortars had killed Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who had been on the roof of the compound, and “severely wounded” a person identified as “David.”

Hicks said that after the consolidation of his staff, they wanted to fly a C-130 airplane to “send further reinforcements” to Benghazi.  “The people in Benghazi had been fighting all night…” he said.

“As Lt. Col. Gibson and his three personnel were getting in the cars, he stopped and called them off and said that they had not been authorized to go,” Hicks said.  Hicks said he had “told him to bring our people home.”

Hicks reported that “the plane went” and landed in Benghazi at about 7:30 local time.

Hicks said that the Tripoli compound’s nurse went to a local hospital to prepare it to receive the wounded from Benghazi.  “Their doctors were ready and waiting for our wounded,” he said.  Hicks said that the Libyan hospital may have saved a man named David Evans’s life.

Issa then asked for a pause at 12:44 so that everyone could “digest” what Hicks had told the committee.

Cummings then spoke and said he was reminded of the dangers involved in diplomatic missions around the world.  Cummings said that “Death is a part of life…but so often we have to find a way to make life a part of death.”  He said it was important to “learn from this” “so that this never happens again.” “We all feel your pain,” Cummings said.

Cummings asked Hicks, given Dempsey’s statement that a military team could not have made it to Benghazi sooner than “20 hours,” if he doubted Dempsey’s contention.

Hicks responded that he had been speaking from his own perspective but that “the Libyan people were very well aware that American and NATO airpower had been decisive in their victory…that Libyans would not stand if they were aware that American forces were in the area.”

Cummings then repeated previous testimony from former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and asked Hicks if he “questioned” Panetta’s statements.  Hicks had been told that the response time from a military team would have been “2-3 hours.”

Issa interjected and said that the issue of military response time could be explored in the future.

Cummings asked for another minute for questioning.  “All we have is you today, and I’m glad to have you…Remember what I said to you all earlier…I try to do everything in my power to protect witnesses…because your integrity and your reputation is all you got…but we also have some other people whose reputations are being questioned, too…” Cummings said to Hicks.

Cummings said that there was “no evidence” that anyone had “refused” to deploy resources to assist those attacked in Benghazi.  He again said that he would “do every single thing in my power…because you are so very, very important…”

Trey Gowdy then began to speak when named by Issa.

Gowdy expressed sorrow for the deaths of the four Americans.  He then asked Hicks if the President of Libya had immediately declared the attack “a terrorist attack,” to which Hicks answered in the affirmative.

Gowdy, raising his voice, then asked that Stevens had said to Hicks, “We’re under attack” before he died.

Gowdy asked Hicks his reaction to Susan Rice’s statements on five Sunday talk shows to say that the attack was a protest.  Hicks said he was “stunned” and “embarrassed.”  When asked, Hicks said that Rice did not speak with him first about what happened.

Gowdy then said, “Mr. Hicks, who was Beth Jones?” and said he wanted to “read an excerpt” from something she had written.  Gowdy said the email had not yet been released although it was unclassified.

The email, dated September 12, was directed to Hillary Clinton, Hicks, and others, and said that “former Gaddafi elements” carried out the attacks and mentioned “Ansar-al-Sharia,” which was “affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”

“Mr Hicks, I want to know two things:  Why in the world would Susan Rice go on five Sunday talk shows…and secondarily, what impact did it have…the fact that she contradicted the president of Libya?”

Hicks responded that the first question should be directed to Rice herself, which Gowdy said he “would love” to do.

As for the second question, Hicks said that they “encountered bureaucratic resistance for a long time from the Libyans” following Rice’s statements on the talk shows.

“It took us an additional…maybe 18 days to get the FBI team to Benghazi,” Hicks said.

“So the crime scene was unsecured for 18 days?” Gowdy asked and then yielded the floor.

Issa asked to keep question period to five minutes.

Rep. Maloney then took the floor and thanked the diplomats for their service.  She said that many in her family had served in the military and that she found it “truly disturbing and unfortunate” that Americans had “attacked the military” in criticism that a better response had not been mounted.

Maloney derided Issa for “accusing Clinton of lying under oath when she testified under oath in front of Congress.”  Maloney said that Issa claimed that Clinton signed a cable indicating that further security would be denied to those in Benghazi.  Maloney said that Clinton “did not sign” the cable, but rather, that her name was “typed” at the bottom in a routine fashion.

“I would like to ask…just one question…Maloney said that a statement posted on the State Department website read, ‘The communications center will place the name of the secretary on all telegrams to post.”  She asked the three witnesses if “that is the procedure,” to which all three answered “yes.”

Maloney quoted a Washington Post article which claimed to have done fact-checking and showed that Clinton had “nothing to do” with the cable.  “The odds are extremely long that Secretary Clinton ever saw…this memo…” Maloney said, quoting the Post’s article as characterizing the claim as “a whopper.”

“There is no way in the world that she could sign every cable coming out…” Maloney said.  At 1:05, Issa said that Maloney’s time had expired.  No response was made by the witnesses.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz then asked about the first airplane which went from Tripoli to Benghazi and back.  He asked Hicks what happened after that.

Hicks answered that they needed to “send a second team.”  Hicks affirmed that a team was told to “stand down,” as Chaffetz had put it.

Chaffetz then asked where the “stand-down” order came from, to which Hicks answered, “Either AFRICOM or…”

Chaffetz asked if Gen. Carter Ham, who was in charge of AFRICOM, was in Washington at the time, to which Hicks said he did not know.

Chaffetz then read a communication between two diplomats named Ferguson and Patrick Kennedy discussing the manner in which assistance could have been extended to Benghazi concerning “the FEST.”

FEST stands for Foreign Emergency Support Team.

Issa interrupted and asked for all documents from which congressmen were reading.

Thompson said that he was told that “the FEST” would not be a safe method.

Chaffetz asked why “FEST” was not called into action and said that they had been trained for such emergencies.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, DC addressed Thompson by quoting him as saying that he had been unwilling to speak privately with any Democrats about the events in Benghazi.  Because of that, she said, she had to rely on his public statements.  She asked Thompson if he believed that the counter-terrorism group had been “left out” “for political reasons.”  Thompson said “I do not politicize my job…” and Norton interrupted him.  However, Thompson said he did not say that the group “had been left out of the loop for political reasons.”

Norton then confirmed with Thompson that he said that “some portions” of the counter-terrorism bureau had not been represented in the investigation of the attack in Benghazi.  She contended that Thompson’s response contradicted his earlier testimony, to which he said that some in the agency were involved but not others.

Norton asked Thompson if he was “aware that is superiors” had been involved in the decision-making.  Thompson clarified the process.

Rep. Lankford asked Hicks if the Tripoli or Benghazi facilities met the security standards, to which Hicks answered in the negative.

“Were they listed as critical or high-level?” Lankford asked, to which Hicks said, “Yes.”

Nordstrom said that “the only person who could grant waivers…was the Secretary of State.”

Lankford asked why Stevens went to Benghazi on September 11, to which Hicks said that Clinton had wished Benghazi to be “converted from a temporary facility to a permanent facility.”

“Was there some hesitation about him going…? in September, Lankford asked.

Hicks said that there was a September 30 deadline to start the conversion of the Benghazi location.

Lankford asked Nordstrom about a cable which Nordstrom said he wrote in April 2012 which asked for security to be maintained at the current level.

Rep. Tierney then took the floor and said “we haven’t heard enough” testimony about people’s bravery on September 11, 2012.  Tierney criticized Issa for “misleading” people in his comments about what members of the Obama regime knew about the attack.

Tierney asked the three witnesses if they were involved in the drafting of the “talking points” which Susan Rice used on September 16, to which one said he did not make an attempt to remove himself from the process.

Tierney then played a video clip of Gen. Clapper, who said that the attacks on Rice were “unfair.”  Clapper had said that Rice had spoken based on the information she was given.  Tierney asked Hicks if he had a problem with “the veracity” of General Clapper, to which Hicks said that “there was no report of a protest” in Libya on September 11.

Tierney cited a “bipartisan investigation” done by two senators which said that the talking points were not changed “for political reasons.”

Rep. Jordan then confirmed with Hicks that he had received accolades from Obama, Clinton and others after the Benghazi attack.

Hicks said that he had asked Beth Jones why Rice had said there was a “protest” when that had not been the case.  Jordan again cited Hicks’s “outstanding service” and said he noted that Hicks’s rapport with his superiors following Hicks’s questions to Jones.

Jordan then asked Hicks if it were true that he was told not to speak with Rep. Jason Chaffetz when he visited Libya following the attack.  Hicks said he had never been asked not to speak with any member of Congress for any reason before.

Jordan asked who “Cheryl Mills” was.  Mills had called Hicks, which Hicks stated was “not good news.”

Jordan then asked Hicks if Mills “had been upset” that Hicks “would not help them cover this up.”

Rep. Clay asked questions next.  He asked Nordstrom if he had read the ARB’s report and if its recommendations were “important,” to which Nordstrom said he did.

Clay asked if “a diplomat like you feels disheartened” that Congress might have cut funding for security overseas.  “In order to make security possible at our embassies and missions throughout the world…the solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs…” Clay read, and said that Congress “had failed to do in the past.”

Clay affirmed that all three witnesses had spoken with members of the ARB.  He quoted the board as decrying a lack of funding in “high-risk, high-threat environments.”

Clay asked Nordstrom if he agreed with the ARB’s “review,” to which Nordstrom said that the recommendations were developed “after the fact.”

Clay asked Hicks if he “agreed with that,” to which Hicks said he was not a “security expert,” but rather, “a diplomat.”

Issa said that when State Department official Charlene Lamb testified earlier this year, she had said that “resources were not an issue.”

Clay said that he believed that if the ARB’s recommendations were implemented, future attacks will be averted.

Issa said that it had been acknowledged that the Benghazi location had been insecure.

Rep. Mica then spoke.

Mica referenced the ARB report and said that “We have a responsibility under law” to review the recommendations.

He asked Thompson if he had been interviewed by the ARB, to which Thompson said he had requested to be interviewed but had not been.  Mica asked Nordstrom if Thompson “was an important player,” to which Nordstrom said, “After the attack, yes.”

Mica asked Hicks about his interview with the ARB.  Hicks said that it lasted two hours and was “incomplete,” in his opinion.  He had a second interview to clarify some points.

Nordstrom said his interview was “thorough and professional,” but that he believed people who should have been interviewed were not.


Editor’s Note:  The Post & Email will be publishing further coverage later on Wednesday.

The Oversight Committee posted photos of the hearing, which at 3:29 p.m. EDT, is still ongoing.  A 30-minute segment containing Hicks’s testimony is here.

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