By Ernesto Londoño,
May 06, 2013 09:39 PM EDT
The Washington Post Published: May 6
As the weakly protected U.S. diplomatic compound in eastern Libya came under attack the night of Sept. 11, 2012, the deputy head of the embassy in Tripoli 600 miles away sought in vain to get the Pentagon to scramble fighter jets over Benghazi in a show of force that he said might have averted a second attack on a nearby CIA complex.
Hours later, according to excerpts of the account by the U.S. diplomat, Gregory Hicks, American officials in the Libyan capital sought permission to deploy four U.S. Special Operations troops to Benghazi aboard a Libyan military aircraft early the next morning. The troops were told to stand down.
Defense Department officials have said they had no units that could have responded in time to counter the attack in Benghazi, but Republicans on Capitol Hill have questioned whether the Obama administration could have saved lives with a nimbler, more assertive response. They say that the reluctance to send the Special Operations troops may have, at the very least, deprived wounded Americans in Benghazi of first aid.
Congressional investigators released a partial transcript of Hicks’s testimony Monday ahead of a hearing Wednesday at which he is scheduled to appear. His remarks are the first public account from a U.S. official who was in Libya at the time of the attacks about the options that were weighed as militants mobbed the American diplomatic outpost and CIA station in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other government employees.
The new details are certain to reignite a debate over whether the Obama administration has been sufficiently forthcoming in its public accounting of the events and missteps that resulted in the first death of a U.S. ambassador in the line of duty in a generation. If Republicans in Congress succeed in portraying the administration’s response as feckless, the episode could dog any future political aspirations of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state when the attacks happened.
After the attacks ended without planes being scrambled or special forces dispatched, the lieutenant colonel in Tripoli who commanded the Special Operations team told Hicks he was sorry that his men had been held back.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than someone in the military,” the officer told Hicks, according to the diplomat’s account. Hicks called that “a nice compliment.”
Hicks may have been the last American official to speak with Stevens. After an embassy security official ran into his residence to tell him about the initial attack, Hicks managed to get Stevens on the phone. “Greg, we’re under attack,” Stevens blurted out, according to Hicks. “My response is ‘Okay,’ and I’m about to say something else and the line clicks.”
The administration has said the independent review of the Benghazi assault was exhaustive, and State Department officials have vowed to implement reforms to make U.S. missions abroad safer. Republicans, however, say Hicks’s account suggests the administration has not been entirely truthful.