A former US diplomat in Libya gave a dramatic account on Wednesday of the attack on the mission in Benghazi last year that killed the US ambassador, and told US lawmakers that more could have been done to stop the assault by suspected Islamist militants.
Gregory Hicks, the second-in-command at the US embassy in Libya at the time, expressed his frustration in an emotionally charged congressional hearing that a US military jet and special forces were not sent to help in Benghazi.
“They were furious,” Hicks said of the four special operations members in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who wanted to go to Benghazi, but were told not to.
As the first US official who was in Libya during the attack to testify publicly, Hicks detailed a series of frantic phone calls to Washington, and between Tripoli and Benghazi, on the night of the attack on Sept. 11 last year.
One call from then-US ambassador Christopher Stevens was cut off after Stevens said: “Greg, we’re under attack.”
Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack by suspected Islamists linked to al-Qaeda on a lightly defended US diplomatic mission and a more fortified CIA compound in Benghazi.
The testimony from Hicks and two other US officials gave Republicans new fuel to assail US President Barack Obama’s administration over security lapses in Benghazi as well as early, conflicting accounts of what happened there.
The Benghazi incident followed Obama as he campaigned for re-election this year, with Republicans accusing him of being weak on foreign affairs. However, after months of criticism, there is little sign it posed a serious threat to his reputation or his poll numbers.
Hicks gave an emotional account during the hearing of the US House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee. His eyes grew teary and he choked up, collecting himself by sipping water as he gave a minute-by-minute description of the hectic night.
Hicks learned of Stevens’ death in a 3am telephone call from the Libyan prime minister.
“I think it is the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life,” he said.
Democrats charged Republicans during the hearing — the latest of a series — with politicizing the attacks and making false accusations about members of the Obama administration.
“What we have seen over the past two weeks is a full-scale media campaign that is not designed to investigate what happened in a responsible and bipartisan way, but rather to launch ... unfounded accusations to smear public officials,” said US Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee.
However, Republicans deny that they are motivated by a desire to discredit a Democratic White House or former US secretary of State Hillary Clinton, considered a favorite to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2016.
An official inquiry into the incident released in December concluded that “leadership and management failures” in two US Department of State bureaux led to a security posture “inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”