U.S. Diplomat Reports Little Help During Benghazi Attacks

A congressional committee on Wednesday heard testimony from three witnesses about the events that led to deaths of four Americans at Benghazi in September, 2012. The Benghazi attack has become a political controversy — Republicans accuse the Obama administration of mishandling security there and of misleading the American public after the attack. One new allegation: that a four-person team set to deploy to Benghazi the night of the attack was told not to go.

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Now, to one of those issues that's made it hard for the president to focus on his agenda: Benghazi. An attack on the U.S. consulate there last September 11 resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

Today, the number two diplomat at the time in Libya, Gregory Hicks, told lawmakers about frustration that night that more U.S. soldiers weren't sent to help. NPR's Tom Bowman has that story.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Gregory Hicks was at the Tripoli Embassy that night, on the other side of the country from Benghazi. He talked to Ambassador Stevens. We're under attack, the ambassador said. Then the phone cut out. Hicks called the Libyan government for help. He called Washington. Hours passed, he prepared to evacuate the embassy. Then a call came in at 3 a.m. from the Libyan prime minister. Hicks choked up and could barely tell the story to the lawmakers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

GREGORY HICKS: I think it's the saddest phone call I've ever had in my life. He told me that Ambassador Stevens had passed away.

BOWMAN: Benghazi has become a political catchphrase. Republicans accuse the Obama administration of mishandling security there and misleading the American people about what happened that night. An independent panel has faulted the State Department, saying security for the diplomats was grossly inadequate.

Once the consulate was under siege, Pentagon officials insist the military did all it could. Three separate rapid reaction forces deployed from the U.S. and Europe, none had a chance of getting there in time. Now Hicks has provided new information. He says four Special Operations soldiers at the Tripoli Embassy wanted to head to Benghazi to help other responders. They were told no. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah asked Hicks about that.

REPRESENTATIVE JASON CHAFFETZ: How did the personnel react at being told to stand down?

HICKS: They were furious. I can only say - well, I will quote Lieutenant Colonel Gibson. He said: It's the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.

BOWMAN: Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement, the four Special Operations soldiers were told by their headquarters to stay and help the evacuation of U.S. personnel from the Tripoli Embassy. And there's no indication, Little says, that those soldiers could have arrived in time to help.

The hearing covered a wide array of questions about Benghazi. Hicks testified that he was stunned and embarrassed that then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said the attacks were spontaneous, the result of an Internet video and not terrorism.

Republicans say the Obama administration was slow in calling it a terrorist attack. Hicks also questioned why American warplanes could not have been sent from a base in Italy. He thinks that might have prevented the second attack late that night in Benghazi when two of the four were killed.

Hicks said he was told by the U.S. defense attache in the embassy that it would take only two to three hours to get the planes there. But Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland said the top officer in the military estimated it would take 20 hours to get U.S. aircraft over Benghazi.

REPRESENTATIVE ELIJAH CUMMINGS: The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they simply could not get there quickly.

HICKS: Again, I was speaking from my perspective...

CUMMINGS: I understand.

HICKS: ...on the ground in Tripoli based on what the defense attache told me.

BOWMAN: Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, the committee chair, said he wants to bring in more officials to testify about the military's response. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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