Benghazi whistle-blowers to testify; State defends its actions

9:56 AM, May 8, 2013   |    comments
An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the U.S Consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, on Sep. 11, 2012. (Photo: Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON -- State Department whistle-blowers will testify Wednesday that requests for a military rescue were turned down in the Benghazi terrorist attack that killed a U.S. ambassador, according to Republican lawmakers.

The witnesses will show how the country was mislead by the Obama administration about the events leading up to the attack in Libya last September and the handling of it afterward, said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"Hopefully we'll get closer to the truth," Chaffetz said Wednesday.

Chaffetz and committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. say Obama administration officials have tried to suppress information about its errors and "reckless misjudgments" in the Sept. 11 attack.

But on Wednesday the State Department said the allegations are refuted by the report of an Administrative Review Board appointed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to investigate the attack and its aftermath.

"The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," according to a statement released by State, citing the report. "Senior-level interagency discussions were underway soon after Washington received initial word of the attacks and continued through the night."

A Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) that State has activated in past threats to diplomats was not done in the case of Benghazi. Chaffetz suggests it was not activated because the Obama administration did not want to publicly acknowledge that the U.S. consulate was under attack by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.

The attack happened just weeks before the re-election bid of President Obama, whose campaign had been making the claim that al-Qaeda had been largely defeated. Killed were Ambassador Christopher Stevens, State Department employee Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.

The State Department statement released Wednesday says the FEST was not activated because it would not have arrived in Libya in time to make any difference.

The team can deploy within four hours of a decision to do so, usually after a catastrophic bombing, hostage situation or mass casualty incident, according to State. It restores secure communication lines and provides other capabilities as needed, but it is not a fighting force.

In Benghazi, all U.S. personnel were evacuated within 12 hours of the beginning of the attack, "with no presence remaining," the fact-check document says. "By the time the FEST would have arrived in Benghazi, all (government) personnel were gone from there and the facility closed."

However, the State Department officials scheduled to speak Wednesday have offered a different version of events, Chaffetz said. Due to testify are Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission and chargé d'affairs in Libya, and Eric Nordstrom, the former regional security officer in Libya. All are current State Department employees.

Documents released by various congressional committees and excerpts of interviews provided by the House oversight committee contradict descriptions of the Sept. 11 event as provided by the Pentagon, the White House and Clinton.

Among them:

• The U.S. military refused to send jets over a raging battlefield in Benghazi in an attempt to scatter the attackers.

• The Pentagon's Africa command refused to let a Special Forces team in Tripoli fly the short distance to Benghazi in an attempt to rescue U.S. personnel.

• The CIA told the White House the attack on the U.S. Consulate was a coordinated assault by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, but the White House and State Department publicly blamed the attack on a spontaneous mob angered over an anti-Islam video and claimed the reports of terrorists was not learned until later.

• The State Department never activated a Foreign Emergency Response Team that assists diplomats under attack. A State official will testify this was done to avoid the appearance that a terrorist attack had happened.

"These witnesses have information that has not previously come forward because the administration has tried to suppress it," said Frederick Hill, spokesman for the oversight committee. "The testimony of the former deputy chief of mission directly contradicts statements made by high-ranking officials."

Issa has taken in further, saying the American people "were lied to."

"I challenge the administration to explain what they were protecting other than their own backsides," he told Fox News.

The witnesses have told investigators U.S. officials rejected a suggestion to send jets to fly over a raging battlefield in Benghazi while diplomats were pinned down and surrounded, and ordered a team of special operators not to fly to the city to join the fighting, according to excerpts of interviews provided by the House oversight committee.

While it was clear from the start that terrorists were involved, that information was scrubbed from talking points memos distributed by the White House, according to the witnesses and investigations conducted by various Republican-led committees in the House.

Hicks, who became the top U.S. official in Libya after Stevens' death, told committee staffers he pushed for a stronger military response to an attack he knew from the start was launched by Islamist terrorists. He said he was rebuffed by Washington, according to excerpts of interview transcripts provided by the House oversight committee.

Hicks said he asked twice whether an F-16 or some other "fast-mover" aircraft could fly over the battlefield with hopes it would scatter the attackers.

"I talked with the defense attache, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and I asked him, 'Is there anything coming?' "

According to Hicks' account, Phillips said the nearest fighter planes were in Aviano, Italy, and it would take two to three hours to get them airborne, and there were no tanker assets close enough to support them.

Hicks said when he asked again, before the 5:15 a.m. mortar attack that killed Doherty and Woods, "the answer, again, was the same as before."

Hicks said he believes the Libyan government would have approved the flyover and that it would have been effective because the militias "were under no illusions that American and NATO air power won that war for them," he said.

"If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split," according to Hicks' excerpts.

"The Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them."

A four-man team of military special operations forces was told not to board a Libyan military flight from Tripoli to Benghazi to reinforce troops sent to defend U.S. diplomatic personnel, Hicks said.

A previous team had already arrived at Benghazi at 1:15 a.m., Hicks said. Less than two hours later, Hicks received a phone call from then-prime minister of Libya Mohammed Magarief reporting that Stevens had died. His death meant Hicks was then in charge of the U.S. mission in Libya.

A second Special Forces team was organized, geared up and about to drive to a C-130 aircraft, when its commander, Lt. Col. Gibson, was ordered to stop by his superiors, Hicks said.

"He got a phone call from SOCAFRICA (Special Operations Command Africa) which said, you can't go now, you don't have authority to go now," Hicks said. "They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it."

Hicks said Gibson told him: "I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military."

Hicks said he believed the military stopped the trip because "they just didn't have the right authority from the right level."

Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said there was never any kind of stand-down order. Firman said Tuesday that the military is trying to assess the incident Hicks is referring to, but the aircraft in question wound up evacuating a second wave of Americans from Benghazi to Tripoli, not transporting rescuers to a firefight.

The Department of Defense "responded in every way it could as quickly as it could and we were coordinating with the Department of State every step of the way," he said.

State Department and White House officials scrubbed any mention of terrorism from Benghazi talking points given to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, before she went on Sunday talk shows five days after the attack, according to a report by five House committees that investigated how that happened.

The CIA on Sept. 14 circulated a memo that said it had issued numerous warnings about al-Qaeda-linked extremists in Benghazi and throughout Libya. According to the Weekly Standard, which said it saw copies of the CIA memo in its various stages of editing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland objected that the CIA report gave the appearance that State did not heed agency warnings. By the time work on the memo was complete the next day, the Standard reported, mention of al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists was gone.

By Oren Dorell, USA TODAY

USA Today / Gannett

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