The Republicans mishandled the Benghazi whistleblowers’ hearing. What should have been stretched across several days to give the nation time to digest it all, was instead packed into a single day filled with an overwhelming amount of information. The media’s attention span is not that long. The verdict in the Jodi Arias trial came along in the afternoon and blew Benghazi off the networks, most of which didn’t want to cover it at all. Even Fox joined the drive-by media, taking Benghazi off the air in favor of the irrelevant Arias trial. Following the announcement of the Arias verdict, charges were read in the Cleveland kidnapping case. Those were aired live as well, relegating Benghazi again.
Nevertheless, for those who slogged through the entire day of hearings and ignored local crime stories, new information was there to be learned.
1. There were multiple stand-down orders, not just one. Special operations forces were told, twice, by their chain of command not to board aircraft to Benghazi to rescue the Americans then under attack. The U.S. deputy diplomat, Greg Hicks, testified that the military commander, Lt. Col. Gibson, had his team ready to go twice. They were on the runway about to board a flight to Benghazi in the middle of the attack. They were ordered to stand down and remain in Tripoli to receive wounded who would be coming out of Benghazi. One of the orders came in the middle of the attack, the other came toward the end after Hicks’ team had traveled from Tripoli to Benghazi. The fact that Hicks’ team was able get to Benghazi before the end of the assault strongly suggests that the special operations team could have made a real difference.
At the same time, the State Department’s commander on the scene, Hicks, ordered his personnel into Benghazi and went there himself. Hicks testified that Gibson never told him who issued the stand-down orders. He commented that Gibson told him that the military stand-down was a shock: “This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than someone in the military.”
Hicks also testified that the U.S. government never even requested military overflight to support the Americans in Benghazi. The U.S. had an unarmed drone overhead and could have gotten permission to fly fighters over the scene, at least, but never asked.
2. Ambassador Stevens’ reason for going to Benghazi has been cleared up. Hicks testified that Ambassador Stevens traveled to Benghazi to fulfill one of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s wishes. Despite the fact that security was worsening in Benghazi for months leading up to the 9-11 attack, Clinton wanted to make the post there permanent. Her State Department had denied repeated requests from the U.S. team in Libya to upgrade security there, but she wanted to use the permanent post as a symbol of goodwill. Stevens was committed to that goal and told Clinton he would “make it happen.” He was in Benghazi on 9-11 furthering Clinton’s goal. She had denied requests to beef up security at Benghazi and then blamed his death on a YouTube movie. Hicks’ testimony raises the question of Clinton’s competence and grasp on reality, strongly suggesting that she put political perceptions ahead of the facts on the ground in Benghazi.
3. Clinton was briefed at 2 am on the night of the attack, was never told that a movie had anything to do with the attack by those on the ground in Libya, yet blamed the movie anyway. Hicks also testified that he was shocked when Ambassador Susan Rice blamed a YouTube movie for inspiring the 9-11 attack. He testified that he had briefed Secretary Clinton directly via phone at 2 a.m. and told her that Benghazi was a terrorist attack. He never mentioned a YouTube video, which he never once believed had anything to do with the attack. But Clinton shocked him by blaming the movie on Sept 12. She would blame it, again, while standing before the coffins of the slain Americans, on Sept. 14. During the attack, Clinton told Hicks that no help would be on the way to relieve the Americans under sustained assault.
4. Whistleblowers were intimidated into silence. Hicks testified to a pattern of behavior that leads to the reasonable conclusion that many officials within the State Department wanted him to remain silent after the Benghazi attack. He said that on the night of the attack he was personally commended both by Secretary Clinton and President Barack Obama. But he later questioned why Ambassador Rice blamed the YouTube movie, and from that point on his superior, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones, questioned his “management style” and told him directly that no one in State should want him on their team in the field again. He was eventually demoted to a desk job after having been deputy to Ambassador Stevens, and remains in that post. Hick also testified that the Accountability Review Board, convened by Clinton last fall allegedly to determine the facts of the attack, never had stenographers in the room during his tw0-hour interview. Nordstrom concurred. Thompson was not even allowed to testify to the ARB despite having direct knowledge of the attacks due to his position on the U.S. Foreign Emergency Support Team. Thompson testified that the FEST was designed to go from zero to wheels up very quickly but was not deployed at all. He wanted to tell his story to the ARB, but was not allowed to. Hicks also testified that for the first time in his career, the State Department assigned a lawyer/minder to attend witness interviews with the ARB. He also testified that Jones told him not to be personally interviewed by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican House member who was investigating the attack on behalf of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee. It all adds up to a pattern of witness control and intimidation.
5. “The YouTube movie was a non-event in Libya.” Hicks directly testified that the YouTube movie, for which a man remains in jail, was not in any way relevant to the attack in Benghazi. Why Obama, Clinton, Rice et al blamed that movie for the attack remains an unanswered question. Hicks said that no American on the ground in Libya that night believed the movie was to blame. He also testified that there was no protest prior to the attack. When the attack began, he was in Tripoli. He texted Stevens, who was in Benghazi, to advise him of the riot in Cairo at the U.S. embassy. In that riot, jihadists had stormed the walls and replaced the American flag with the black flag of Islam. Stevens had not been aware of the Cairo situation at all, but shortly after Hicks texted him about it, Stevens called and told Hicks that the Benghazi consulate was under attack. He never mentioned a protest.
Hicks also testified that blaming the movie had strongly adverse real-world effects. According to him, it humiliated Libya’s president, who had correctly stated that Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Blaming the movie, Hicks said, did “immeasurable damage” to our relations with Libya and delayed the FBI investigation. On Sept. 12, Ambassador Susan Rice told the first of her many untruths, claiming in an email that the FBI investigation into the attack was already underway. It would not actually get underway for 17 days after the attack, by which time the scene of the attack had been compromised and contaminated.
We still do not know who decided to change the original CIA talking points and blame the movie, but the finger is pointing directly at Hillary Clinton. She was briefed by Hicks during the attack, the movie was never mentioned, but in her first public statement on September 12, she blamed the movie. Her subordinate, Ambassador Susan Rice, also blamed the movie the following weekend. The fact that Obama himself blamed the movie repeatedly, though, strongly suggests that he took part in the decision as well.
6. Democrats were uninterested in getting at most of the facts, but were very interested in destroying Mark Thompson. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) set the tone for the Democrats’ angle on the hearings in his opening remarks. He used his opening to attack the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, and to pre-question the witnesses. Most of the Democrats who followed him failed to ask many questions of the witnesses. Instead, they delivered speeches or blamed budget cuts, an argument that has already been debunked by the State Department itself. One sadly hilarious moment came during Rep. William Clay’s questioning. The Missouri Democrat blamed the repeated denials to enhance security at Benghazi on budget cuts. Issa reminded him that the State Department has debunked that line, in the person of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb. She testified last fall that budget cuts had not impacted the decisions not to enhance security at Benghazi. Clay claimed not to remember Lamb’s testimony, then moved quickly to cite the ARB, which backed his side. His selective memory proved politically, if not factually, reliable.
Mark Thompson, member of the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) testified that his section had been cut out of decision making during the attack. The Democrats consistently circled on him to try to get him to contradict himself or attack his boss, Daniel Benjamin, who has claimed FEST was included throughout the attack. They never really succeeded, and now Benjamin will be called to testify in a future hearing to clear up the dispute. The heads of the ARB, Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen, will now be called as well.
7. House hearings are a poor way to determine who did what and why during and after the attack. The Republicans, as I said, should have broken today’s hearing out across several days. When they did question the witnesses, they kept their speeches short and focused on getting answers. Their Democratic counterparts consistently gave speeches and raised red herrings. They were able to waste time and stall long enough for the Arias trial to push the hearing off the TV, and for energy to flag and boredom to set in. The Benghazi attack needs to be properly investigated by someone outside the political process and outside the Obama administration. State cannot be trusted; its own investigation failed even to interview Clinton. Defense may also have officers and political appointees to protect. A special prosecutor is in order and should be appointed.