A team of U.S. special forces ready to head to Benghazi, Libya, after the assault on the American diplomatic mission had ended was told to stand down, according to a former top diplomat.
Gregory Hicks also told Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that if the U.S. military had flown aircraft over the Benghazi facility after it came under siege it might have prevented the second attack on the CIA annex that killed two CIA security officers.
Excerpts of the interview with the former deputy chief in Libya were released Monday in advance of Hicks' testimony on Wednesday before the panel.
The Sept. 11 assault killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Nearly eight months later, Republicans insist that the Obama administration is guilty of a cover-up of the events despite a scathing independent report that faulted the State Department for inadequate security at the diplomatic mission.
Hicks' comments and the hearing are likely to revive the politically charged debate in which GOP lawmakers and outside groups have faulted former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible presidential candidate in 2016.
After the first word of the attack in Benghazi, a seven-member security team, including two military personnel, flew from Tripoli to Benghazi. Upon their arrival, they learned that Stevens was missing and the situation had calmed after the first attack, according to a Pentagon timeline released last year.
Meanwhile, a second team was preparing to leave on a Libyan C-130 cargo plane from Tripoli to Benghazi when Hicks said he learned from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens was dead. The Libyan military agreed to transport additional U.S. personnel to Benghazi on its cargo plane, but Hicks complained the special forces were told not to make the trip.
"They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it," Hicks told GOP committee staff. Pressed on why, he said, "I guess they just didn't have the right authority from the right level."
That flight arrived well after the second attack on the CIA annex that killed two security officers — Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Hicks also contended that if the U.S. military has scrambled jet fighters after the first attack that it would have prevented the mortar attack on the CIA annex around 5:15 a.m.
"I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them," Hicks said, according to the excerpts.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other military leaders have said there wasn't enough time for the military to respond as the events in Benghazi occurred too quickly.
At the State Department on Monday, spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the committee's work appeared to have political aims rather than ensuring the protection of U.S. diplomats serving overseas.
"It certainly seems so, so far," he replied when asked if the department believed the investigation to be driven by partisan politics. "I mean, this is not sort of a collaborative process where the committee is working directly with us and trying to establish facts that would help as we look to keep our people safe overseas in a very complex environment."
Democrats on the committee said Monday they have been excluded from the investigation.
Ventrell said the department had not seen the full transcript of Hicks' statements to committee investigators and could not comment until it had or until after his testimony on Wednesday. At the same time, he insisted that the department was not blocking any employee from appearing before Congress or intimidating them into silence.
"We understand this testimony's going to go forward, and we want people to go and tell the truth," he told reporters. "But in terms of the full context of these remarks or these sort of accusations, we don't have the full context, so it's hard for us to respond."
Ventrell also pushed back against allegations from congressional Republicans and their surrogates that the independent panel appointed by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had not conducted a comprehensive or credible investigation into the Benghazi incident and were somehow involved in a cover-up.
He noted that the independent panel, called the Accountability Review Board, had produced a harshly critical report, blaming systematic leadership and management failures at senior levels of the State Department for the inadequate security at the Benghazi compound.
Meanwhile the co-chairs of the review board, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former senior diplomat Thomas Pickering, released a statement rejecting claims that their panel had been denied access to key witnesses or had conducted anything less than a thorough and impartial probe.
"From the beginning of the ARB process, we had unfettered access to everyone and everything including all the documentation we needed," the two men said. "Our marching orders were to get to the bottom of what happened, and that's what we did."
Meanwhile, the former head of the State Department's counterterrorism bureau, Daniel Benjamin, denied allegations that his office had been cut out of the loop in the discussions and decision-making processes in the aftermath of the attack.
"This charge is simply untrue," he said. "At no time did I feel that the bureau was in any way being left out of deliberations that it should have been part of."
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