Benghazi attack: Hicks 'stunned' at Rice explanation

Gregory Hicks said the US explanation that Benghazi was a spontaneous attack was "embarrassing"

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A top US official who was in Libya during the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi has given the first public account of the event.

Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Tripoli, said he was "stunned" by UN Ambassador Susan Rice's comments that the attack was spontaneous.

He also told lawmakers he received a phone call from US Envoy Christopher Stevens, just before he died.

Three other Americans were killed in the attack on 11 September 2012.

Start Quote

My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed”

End Quote Gregory Hicks on his reaction to Susan Rice's comments

During several hours of emotional testimony before a House of Representatives committee on Wednesday, Mr Hicks described the moment he was informed of the attack.

He said he was in Tripoli watching TV when he received a phone call from Ambassador Stevens.

"Greg, we're under attack," the ambassador reportedly told Mr Hicks by telephone before the line cut.

He later received a phone call from the Libyan prime minister informing him of Ambassador Steven's death.

"I think it is the saddest phone call I have ever had in my life," Mr Hicks said.

After the disrupted phone call with Ambassador Stevens, Mr Hicks said he received calls from Libyans using the ambassador's phone who said they had the envoy with them.

At the scene

The Benghazi hearing, billed as sure to be "explosive", was packed. People lined the walls, including some notable members of Congress not assigned to the committee.

Behind the witnesses sat the mother of embassy attack victim Sean Smith. She has said she blames Hillary Clinton for her son's death. Since the embassy attack, the incident has been vigorously debated.

Mr Hicks, who was Chris Stevens' deputy on the ground, said he did not speak to UN Ambassador Susan Rice before her ill-fated Sunday chat show rounds where her talking points clashed with his report of a terrorist attack. But the hearing did not resolve how and why things went wrong.

But Mr Hicks decided not to act on the calls, fearing an ambush.

UN Ambassador Susan Rice has been the focus of outrage from Republicans in Congress, for giving the news media what has been acknowledged as an incorrect explanation for the attack.

She said on a Sunday chat show on 16 September that the attack had grown out of an anti-US protest, while other officials have said they knew at the time it was an organised, armed assault, possibly by an Islamist militant group.

"My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed," Mr Hicks said on his reaction to her interview.

Some Republicans accuse the White House of hiding information about the attack, while Democrats say the issue has become politicised.

The BBC's Jane O'Brien in Washington says Wednesday's testimony will do nothing to dispel Republican concerns that President Barack Obama tried to cover up a terrorist attack in the run-up to a presidential election.

Democrats will continue to say there was no attempt to mislead the public, our correspondents adds.

'Need to evacuate'

At Wednesday's hearing, Mr Hicks expressed frustration with the lack of a US military response during the night-time attack, saying one could have deterred a second assault.

The Pentagon has said nothing could have been done to assist the Americans in Benghazi.

Mr Hicks and two other state department employees criticised an official review undertaken after the attack, saying many people with first-hand knowledge of the event were not interviewed and it focused too much on lower-ranking officials.

The review found that poor leadership and management in two state department teams led to a security plan that was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place".

Mr Hicks told the panel he spoke to people at the State Department and to Libyan officials, and had a conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton around 02:00 on the night of the attack.

"Secretary of State Clinton called me along with her senior staff... and she asked me what was going on. And I briefed her on developments," Mr Hicks told congressmen.

"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. She said that was the right thing to do."

The ambassador died of smoke inhalation when he was trapped in the burning consulate building, after armed men stormed the compound.

State department employee Sean Smith and former Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty also died in the attack.

Mrs Clinton angrily defended her handling of the Benghazi raid in a series of hearings on Capitol Hill in January.

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