Benghazi: Frantic calls, then silence

Witnesses who testified Wednesday at a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the Benghazi attack were (from left) Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism; Gregory Hicks, foreign service officer and former deputy chief of mission; and Eric Nordstrom, diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya.

Charles Dharapak

WASHINGTON — A State Department official presented a minute-by-minute account Wednesday of what happened during the siege of the diplomatic compound in Benghazi last Sept. 11, offering the first public testimony from an American official who was on the ground in Libya that night.

The official, Gregory Hicks, described a frantic series of phone calls from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to Washington and, ultimately, to J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador, who was in Benghazi and whose line went dead right after he uttered, “Greg, we’re under attack.”

Fearing that armed Islamic militants might storm the embassy in Tripoli, staff members there hurriedly dismantled their sensitive communications equipment and got ready to evacuate to a more secure annex operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.

“None of us should ever experience what we went through in Tripoli and Benghazi,” Hicks, who was serving as the deputy chief of mission at the Tripoli embassy at the time of the attack, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was conducting a hearing into how the Obama administration handled its response to the Benghazi assault.

Ultimately, the hearing may resolve few if any of the questions that Republicans have raised about how robustly the military responded to the attack.

The answers the witnesses provided Wednesday left both sides stuck where they were before: Republicans insisted that the military could have done more to scramble fighter jets and deploy combat forces to help fight off the militants, while Democrats were firm that the military did all it could in a confusing situation in which the closest help was too far away.

Hicks described asking in vain for air support from Italy, which he was told could not make it there in time.

The low point in the attack, he said, came when the prime minister of Libya called to inform him that Stevens had died. “I think it’s the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life,” he said, fighting back tears as he described how he and his team in Tripoli then quickly began their efforts to evacuate.

Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s senior Democrat, sharply criticized Republicans and the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California, in particular, accusing them of distorting the facts of the investigation for their own partisan purposes.

Noting that the nation’s top military and intelligence commanders all have said that American forces could not have reached Benghazi in time to save any of the four lives lost, Cummings, his voice rising, said he had seen no evidence that these officials should not be believed.

Issa, one of the Obama administration’s biggest foes in Congress, kept his comments measured even as Democrats on the panel attacked him. He said the White House had not been as forthcoming as it should have been.