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Benghazi Truths vs. Washington Politics

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
May 8, 2013
Wall Street Journal

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'I was stunned. My jaw dropped," said Gregory Hicks at Wednesday's House hearing on the Benghazi terror attack last fall and its aftermath. Mr. Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya under Ambassador Chris Stevens, was referring to the now-famous TV appearances by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice.

Ms. Rice, blanketing the Sunday talk shows the weekend after the murderous assault on the American consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, spoke of spontaneous protests and linked them to a video insulting Islam. But Mr. Hicks said "there was no report from the U.S. Mission in Libya regarding a demonstration," and there were no protests. "The YouTube video was a nonevent in Libya," he added. In the last telephone call that Mr. Hicks received from Stevens, the ambassador said "we're under attack" and then the cell connection dropped.

The hearing deepened the mystery of how Ms. Rice came to say such things. It added a new political wrinkle in the person of Cheryl Mills, whose role was previously unnoticed. Mr. Hicks testified that when a Republican member of the committee, Jason Chaffetz, visited Libya to investigate what had happened, he was instructed that no State Department officer was ever to be alone with the congressman—and that a lawyer was to attend every meeting he had.

When the lawyer was excluded from one meeting with intelligence officers because he lacked the security clearances, Mr. Hicks received a furious call from Ms. Mills, who was then chief of staff to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We can be confident that Ms. Mills, who represented Bill Clinton in his impeachment hearings and who was counsel to the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2008, was not calling to guarantee due process. She was calling to protect Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Hicks also told the committee that when he asked the acting assistant secretary for the Near East, Beth Jones, why Ms. Rice had spoken about protests and the video, he was curtly told to drop that line of questioning.

Mrs. Clinton's role in this matter remains obscure, in part because the State Department's Accountability Review Board did not interview her, amazingly enough. The review board protected all of the department's higher-ups and blamed career officials down the ladder. The board is now itself under investigation by State's inspector general, and Wednesday's testimony revealed the sore feelings of career officers about the review board's conduct.

It is now widely known that the "annex" in Tripoli was a CIA location, but the whole story of Benghazi makes little sense unless the CIA role in the affair can be clarified. There were very few security officers at the consulate, and this seems like a huge error by the State Department. But is this because the whole Benghazi set-up was mostly a CIA operation?

That could explain as well why the annex was permitted there, though it did not meet minimal State Department security standards. It may explain why State had a presence in dangerous Benghazi at all—as a cover for the intelligence presence. This may not be fodder for an open hearing, but unless we understand the interplay between State and the CIA, we will not have the full story.

The three witnesses—Mr. Hicks and two other State Department officers who work on counterterrorism and security, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom—came across as civil servants of whom Americans can be proud. Mr. Hicks's account of the night of the attack and following morning, and the desperate efforts to save the Americans in Benghazi, were gripping.

The hearing room was silent as he told the tale, for the most part without emotion. He named the Americans on his team who had risked their lives to try and rescue Stevens, and others who had performed so well in the intense crisis that gripped the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. At 3 a.m. he gave the order to abandon the embassy building because there were Twitter feeds saying an attack was coming, and he told stories like that of the embassy nurse who started "smashing computer hard drives with an ax" to protect classified information.

The hearing also showed the chasm between the culture of career civil servants ready to risk their lives and the vicious political culture of Washington. No doubt politics motivated some of the Republicans, but due to the nature of the hearing they were cast as investigators. Most Democrats appeared far more dedicated to defending Mrs. Clinton and the Obama administration than to finding out exactly what happened, and any criticism of Ms. Rice was rebutted. After all, Chris Stevens is gone but 2016 is just around the corner.

The three witnesses seemed to be visitors from a different reality—different from Rep. Carolyn Maloney and her outrage that anyone could criticize the great Secretary Clinton, or from Cheryl Mills and the anger she expressed at Mr. Hicks for allowing a congressman to escape the presence of the lawyer she had sent.

The Accountability Review Board was also part of that Washington culture, protecting the top levels of the State Department—the secretary and the deputy and under secretaries—and laying blame (and punishment) on the career people below them. This hearing did not ascertain where the buck should stop, but it was a step forward in getting the facts. And it was a reminder that in Washington we should not permit people with political motives to blight the careers of civil servants and blame them for failures of management and policy at the top.


This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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