Capitol Hill heard testimony from whistleblowers on Wednesday on the topic of the Benghazi consulate attack last fall which left four Americans dead, including the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.
During the hours-long hearing, witnesses told lawmakers terrorists were clearly behind the violence and said there was little to support the White House's portrayal of the attack as connected to protests over an anti-Islam video on YouTube that outraged Muslim communities in the region.
The lead witness appearing before lawmakers attending the Republican-led House Oversight Committee hearing was Gregory Hicks, who was deputy chief of mission in Tripoli, Libya during the attack on September 11, 2012.
Hicks, asked how he felt when he heard US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's portrayal of the incident, which hinged on protests near the consulate in Benghazi, said he was "stunned."
“My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed,” he said. He later described the YouTube video as a "non-event in Libya."
This was in response to Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who suggested the Obama administration suspected at the outset that the violence was the work of Islamic extremists rather than originating from a spontaneous demonstration, accusing Rice of perpetuating a “demonstrably false narrative." Hicks said he was surprised by Rice's portrayal of events.
“There was no report from the US mission in Libya of a demonstration,” he later said, reported the Washington Post.
Lawmakers also aggressively pursued Hicks' treatment at the State Department after raising questions, zeroing in on his perceived demotion following the move.
Witness Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, also raised eyebrows when he mentioned a stand down order allegedly issued soon after violence broke out in Libya. As Newsweek's Eli Lake has it:
State Department emergency response team in DC was told to stand down on night of #Benghazi attacks, whistleblower Mark Thompson testifies.
— Eli Lake (@EliLake) May 8, 2013
Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah returned to Thompson's comments in a question to Hicks, asking: “How did the personnel react at being told to stand down?”
“They were furious,” Hicks responded, according to a CNN transcript of the hearing. “I can only say, well I will quote Lieutenant Colonel Gibson who said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’”
(The comment was quickly seized upon on Twitter -- more on that below.)
Hicks said he found out about the attack directly from then-US Ambassador Stevens, whom he said he spoke with while at US compound before he died.
"I got the Ambassador on the other end [of the phone] and he said, 'Greg, we're under attack'," Hicks told lawmakers on Wednesday.
The ambassador later went missing. Hicks went on to detail his conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“At about 2 a.m., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called me, along with her senior staff who were all on the phone, and she asked me what was going on and I briefed her on developments,” Hicks said. “Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens. It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi and I told her that we would need to evacuate. And that was the... she said that was the right thing to do.”
An hour later, Hicks said, the prime minister of Libya called.
"I think it was the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life," Hicks said, recalling being informed of the ambassador's death.
Later Wednesday, Hicks provided the first explanation of why Stevens was sent to Benghazi in the first place, according to the Washington Post, writing:
"Hicks for the first time was publicly asked why Ambassador Chris Stevens was in Benghazi the day of the attack. He gave two reasons. First, he said, Clinton wanted the Benghazi facility converted from a temporary to a permanent post, and funds available to do that needed to be obligated before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. 'In addition,' Hicks said, 'Chris wanted to make a symbolic gesture to the people of Benghazi that the people of the United States stood behind their dream of establishing a new democracy.'"
During the hearing, Hicks provided a play-by-play account of the attack, which he said unfolded in "four phases." Here's some detail from Reuters' Patricia Zengerle:
More Hicks Benghazi testimony: "They didn't know whether any more mortars were going to come in. The accuracy was terribly precise."
— Patricia Zengerle (@ReutersZengerle) May 8, 2013
The third witness was Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer who formerly served as a regional security officer in Libya, but Hicks was by far the most heavily questioned witness.
There was extensive discussion as to Clinton's role in the US response to the violence in Benghazi, given reports of her approving various State Department measures. However, witnesses on Wednesday confirmed that her name was typed onto documents in a procedural manner and very likely she was not immediately aware of all administrative details surrounding the attack.
The Post called such questioning a "major subplot of it all." The scrutiny on the then-US Secretary of State comes as Republicans are on alert for any sign of a slip-up in the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attack. Republican lawmakers have been vocal in their criticism of the government's response, charging them with not acting on intelligence and some even accusing the State Department of an attempt to cover-up an allegedly inadequate response. The Obama administration maintains the authorities did the best they could under the circumstances.
But this being Washington, there seems to be no end to the back-and-forth about the Benghazi events and there's already talk of another follow-up hearing.
"Grab some popcorn," advised Foreign Policy in their rundown of the major players at the hearing, adding: "It should be a good show."
But if you missed the Wednesday event, no worries -- apparently there's more to come. After hours of exhaustive questioning, lawmakers concluded: "The hearing is now closed, but the investigation is not over."