Transcript: Testimony of Gregory Hicks, former Deputy Chief of Mission in Tripoli, on the 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi before the House Oversight Committee on May 8, 2013
Partial transcript of testimony of Gregory Hicks, former Deputy Chief of Mission in Tripoli, on the 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya before the House Oversight Committee on May 8, 2013:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, Ranking Member. Thank you, members of the committee.
I’m a career public servant. Until the aftermath of Benghazi, I loved everyday of my job.
In my 21 years of government service prior to Tripoli, I earned a reputation for being an innovative policymaker who got the job done.
I was promoted quickly and received numerous awards. People who worked for me rated my leadership and management skills highly.
I have two Master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in applied economics and modern Near East history…
One reason I am here is because I have pledged to the Foreign Service as a part of my campaign to be State Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association that none of us should ever again experience what we went through in Tripoli and Benghazi on 9/11/2012.
After I arrived in Tripoli as Deputy Chief of Mission on July 31, 2012, I fast became known as the Ambassador’s bulldog because of my decisive management style.
In the days immediately after the Benghazi attack, the President and Secretary of State praised my performance over the telephone. President Obama wrote Libyan President Magariaf expressing confidence in my abilities.
Deputy Secretary [William] Burns and General [Carter] Ham told me how much they appreciated how I handled the night of the assault and its aftermath.
I received written notes of commendation from Under-Secretary Wendy Sherman and from Executive Secretary Stephen Mull.
Incoming Charge Larry Pope told me personally that my performance was near heroic.
In February 1991, I swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States. I am here today to honor that oath. I look forward to answering your questions fully and truthfully.
Thank you very much.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.):
Mr. Hicks, as the principal officer once the Ambassador had been murdered, the highest-ranking officer on Sept. 11th, from the moment that you unexpectedly became the Charge, America has heard many accounts of what happened. We’ve never heard accounts from a single person who was in Libya that night. You will be the first person who observed it. In your own words, take as much time as you want, please take us through the day of Sept. 11 from whatever time you want to begin through when you first heard from Ambassador Stevens and through the hours and days immediately following that if you would so we could have an understanding for the first time from somebody who was there.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
As I remember Sept. 11, 2012, it was a routine day at our embassy, and until we saw the news about Cairo.
And I remember sending a text message to Ambassador Stevens and saying, “Chris, are you aware of what’s going on in Cairo?” And he said, “No.” So I told him that the embassy in that attack – that the embassy had been stormed and they were trying to tear down our flag. And he said, “Thanks very much.”
And, you know, then I went on with business.
Closed the day and I went back to my villa and was relaxing and watching a television show that I particularly like and at 9:45 p.m. – and all times will be Libyan time, this 6-hour time difference – the RSO John Martinec yelling, “Greg! Greg! The consulate’s under attack.”
And I stood up and reached for my phone because I had an inkling or thought that perhaps the Ambassador had tried to call me to relay the same message. And I found two missed calls on the phone – one from the Ambassador’s phone and one from a phone number I didn’t recognize. And I’d punch the phone number I didn’t recognize and I got the Ambassador on the other end and he said, “Greg, we’re under attack.”
And I was walking out of the villa on my way to the tactical operations center, and I knew we’d all have to gather there to mobilize or try to mobilize a response. And it was also a bad cell phone connection in Tripoli – connections were weak. And I said, “Okay” and the line cut.
As I walked to the tactical operations center, I tried to reach back on both of the numbers – the unknown number and the Ambassador’s personal number and I got no response.
When I got to the tactical operations center and told people that the Ambassador had just talked to me and about what he said, at the time John Martinec was on the phone with Alec Henderson in Benghazi, our RSO there. And I asked one of our DS agents, “What number do I reach Ambassador Stevens on?” He said, “Oh, that’s Scott Wickland’s number.” Scott Wickland was Ambassador Stevens’s agent-in-charge, his personal escort for that night and was with him in the villa during the attack.
So I asked when John Martinec got off the telephone, I asked him what was going on and he said that the consulate had been breached and there were at least 20 hostile individuals that are armed in the compound at the time.
So I next called the annex chief to ask him if he was in touch with the Benghazi annex to activate our emergency response plan.
And he said that he had been in touch with the annex in Benghazi and they said they were mobilizing a response team there to go to the – to our facility and provide reinforcements and to repel the attack.
With that knowledge, I called the operations center at the State Department at approximately 10 p.m. to report the attack and what we were doing to respond to it.
The next thing I did was to begin calling senior officials in the government of Libya that I knew at the time and so I dialed first President Magariaf’s chief of staff and reported the attack and asked for immediate assistance from the government of Libya to assist our folks in Benghazi.
I followed that up with a call to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff to make the same request and then to the MFA’s America director. The MFA is Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The defense attache was at the same time calling the leadership of Libya’s military with the same purpose – to ask them for assistance.
Once that was done, I called again to Washington to report that these actions had been commenced.
Over that night, that’s basically how our team operated. I was talking to the government of Libya, reporting to the State Department through the operations center, and also staying in touch with the annex chief about what was going on.
Let me step back one minute if I could and say that I also discussed with the annex chief about mobilizing a Tripoli response team and we agreed that we would move forward with a chartering a plane from Tripoli to fly a response team to Benghazi to provide additional reinforcements.
The defense attache was also reporting through his chain of command back to AFRICOM and to the Join Staff here in Washington about what was going on in the country.
David McFarland, our political section chief, had returned from Benghazi where he had been our principal officer for the previous 10 days. And so he jumped into this picture by reaching out to his contacts in Benghazi and trying to get them at the local level there to respond to the attack. And he also was in touch with our local employee there as well.
Excuse me if I check my notes here. It’s a long…
The attack unfolded in four phases – or the night unfolded in four phases.
The first phase was the attack on our consulate. The story is well-known, I think. The Benghazi response – the consulate was invaded. The Villa C where the Ambassador, Sean Smith, and Scott Wickland were hiding in the safe area was set on fire. The attackers also went into another building; they were unable to enter the tactical operations center in Benghazi because of improvements to that facility that had been made.
They – Scott attempted to lead the Ambassador and Sean Smith out of the burning building. He managed to make it out. He tried repeatedly to go back in to try to rescue Sean and the Ambassador but had to stop due to exposure to smoke.
The response team from the annex in Benghazi – six individuals – drove the attackers out of our compound and secured it temporarily. There’ve been estimates as high as 60 attackers at the compound at one particular time.
There were repeated attempts by all of the RSOs and by the response team from the annex to go into the burning building and recover – try to save Sean and the Ambassador. They found Sean’s body and pulled it out but he was no longer responsive. They did not find the Ambassador.
And I just spoke with a medical officer – one of our medical officers after the attack, and the heroism of these individuals in repeatedly going into a petroleum-based fire cannot be understated. According to our Regional Medical Officer, petroleum-based fires emit enormous amounts of cyanide gas. He told me that one full breath of that would incapacitate and kill a person if exposed to it.
The second – it was noticed that a second wave of attackers was coming to attack the facility, and our teams evacuated. Five RSOs and Sean Smith in one vehicle which suffered heavy fire but they managed to break through and get to the annex. And then the annex team also withdrew from the facility and the second wave of attackers took it over.
After the second phase of the evening occurs, the timing is about 11:30 p.m. or so. The second phase commences after the teams have returned to the annex and they suffered for about an hour and a half probing attacks from terrorists. They are able to repulse them and then they desist at about 1:30 a.m.
The Tripoli response team departs at about midnight and arrives at about 1:15 a.m. in Benghazi.
If I may step back again to Tripoli and what’s going on there at this point. At about 10:45 p.m. or 11 p.m., we confer and I asked the defense attache who had been talking with AFRICOM and with the Joint Staff, “Is anything coming? Will they be sending us any help? Is there something out there?” And he answered that the nearest help was in Aviano [Italy], the nearest where there were fighter planes, and he said that it would take two to three hours for them to get on site but that there were also no tankers available for them to refuel. And I said, “Thank you very much.” And we went on with our work.
Phase three begins with news that the Ambassador’s body has been recovered. And David McFarland, if I recall correctly, is the individual who began to receive that news from his contacts in Benghazi. And we began to hear also that the Ambassador’s been taken to a hospital. We don’t know initially which hospital it is but we – through David’s reports – we learned that it is in a hospital which is controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, the group that Twitter feeds had identified as leading the attack on the consulate.
We’re getting this information as the Tripoli response team arrives in Benghazi at the airport. Both our annex chief and the annex chief in Benghazi and our defense attache are on the phone during this period trying to get the Libyan government to send vehicles and military and/or security assets to the airport to assist our response team.
At this point, this response team looks like it may be a hostage rescue team that they’re going to – we’re going to need to send them to try to save the Ambassador who’s in a hospital that is, as far as we know, under enemy control.
Our contacts with the government in Tripoli are telling us that the Ambassador is in a safe place, but they implied that he is with us in the annex in Benghazi. And we keep telling them, “No, he is not with us. We do not have his – we do not have him.”
At about 12:30 a.m. – about the same time that we see the Twitter feeds that are asserting that Ansar al-Sharia is responsible for the attack, we also see a call for an attack on the embassy in Tripoli. And so we begin to – we had always thought that we were under threat but we now have to take care of ourselves, and we began planning to evacuate our facility. When I say our facility, I mean the State Department residential compound in Tripoli and to consolidate all of our personnel at the annex in Tripoli. We have about 55 diplomatic personnel in the two annexes.
On that night, if I may go back, I’d just like to point out that with Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith in Benghazi, there are five diplomatic security agents – assistant regional security officers. With us in our residential compound in Tripoli, we have the RSO John Martinec, three assistant regional security officers, protecting 28 diplomatic personnel. In addition, we also have four special forces personnel who are part of the training mission.
During the night, I’m in touch with Washington, keeping them posted of what’s happening in Tripoli and to the best of my knowledge what I’ve been told in Benghazi.
I think at about 2 p.m. – 2 a.m. sorry, the Secretary of State Clinton called me and along with her senior staff we’re all on the phone. And she asked me what was going on and I briefed her on developments. 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 she said that was the right thing to do.
At about 3 a.m., I received a call from the Prime Minister of Libya. I think it’s the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life. He told me that Ambassador Stevens had passed away. I immediately telephoned Washington that news afterwards and began accelerating our effort to withdraw from the villa’s compound and move to the annex.
The – excuse me. Take a glass of water.
Our team responded with amazing discipline and courage in Tripoli in organizing our withdrawal. I have vivid memories of that.
I think that most telling though was of our communications staff dismantling our communications equipment to take with us to the annex and destroying the classified communications capability.
Our office manager, Amber Pickens, was everywhere that night, just throwing herself into some task that had to be done. First, she was taking a log of what we were doing. Then she was loading magazines, carrying our ammunitions supply to our vehicles. And then she was smashing hard drives with an ax.
Alan Greenfield, our management officer, was a whirlwind of activity – organizing vehicles to lining them up, finding the drivers, making sure everybody was getting the things that they would need for the coming days.
John Martinec was a mountain of moral support, particularly to the guys who were in Benghazi, who was on the phone talking them through the whole ordeal.
David McFarland on the phone constantly all the time, talking to his contacts in Benghazi urging them to help.
Lt. Col. [Keith] Phillips, Lt. Col. Arnt, and Lt. Col. Gibson mountains of strength and awe. I’m still in awe of them.
They asked me in one of the phone calls, “When are you going to move to the annex?” And I said, “We’ll move at dawn.”
Because none of our people had great experience driving in cover…We were going to have to use our local staff to move for as part of our security procedures. They of course were not there that night. And we would have to go through checkpoints – militia checkpoints – on the way to the annex to get there, and I didn’t want our people to be going through those checkpoints because I didn’t know what to expect from the militias. And so we moved at dawn.
And we arrived at the annex – at least my group, I think – at about 4:45 a.m. perhaps maybe 5 a.m. And a few minutes later came the word of the mortar attack.
If I could return to Benghazi a little bit – talked through Tripoli and I’m sorry if I bounce back and forth but – the Tripoli team was basically had to stay at the Benghazi airport because they had no transport and no escort from the Libyans. After the announcement of Chris’s passing, military escort and vehicles arrived at the airport.
So the decision was made for them to go to the annex. One of the – before I got the call from the Prime Minister, we’d received several phone calls on the phone that had been with the Ambassador, saying that, “We know where the Ambassador is, please you can come get him.” And our local staff engaged in these phone calls admirably, asking very very good, outstanding, even open-ended questions about where was he, trying to discern whether he was alive, whether they even have the Ambassador, whether that person was with the Ambassador. “Send a picture.” “Could we talk to the Ambassador?”
Because we knew separately from David that the Ambassador was in a hospital that we believe was under Ansar al-Sharia’s hold, we suspected that we were being baited into a trap and so we did not want to go send our people into an ambush.
And we didn’t. We sent them to the annex. Shortly after they arrived at the annex, the mortars came in. First mortar round was long. It landed, actually, among the Libyans who escorted our people. They took casualties for us that night.
And the next was short. The next three landed on the roof, killing Glen and Tyrone, severely wounding David.
They didn’t know whether any more mortars were going to come in. The accuracy was terribly precise. The call was the next one is coming through the roof maybe if it’d hit.
Two of the guys from Team Tripoli they climbed up on the roof. They carried Glen’s body, Tyrone’s body down. One guy – Mark [incomprehensible audio] – full combat gear climbed up there, strapped David Ubben, who’s a large man, to his back, climbed down the ladder, saved him.
In Tripoli, we had – the defense attache had persuaded the Libyans to fly their C-130 to Benghazi. We wanted the airlift.
Since we had consolidated at the annex and the Libyan government had provided us with external security around our facilities, we wanted to send further reinforcements to Benghazi.
We would determine that – Lt. Col. Gibson and his team of special forces troops should go. People in Benghazi had been fighting all night. They were tired. They were exhausted. We wanted to make sure the airport was secure for their withdrawal.
As Col. Gibson and his three personnel were getting in their cars, he stopped and he called them off and said – and told me that he had not been authorized to go. The vehicles had to go because the flight needed to go to Benghazi. Lt. Col. Gibson was furious. I had told him to go bring our people home. That’s what he wanted to do.
He paid me a very nice compliment. I won’t repeat it here.
So the plane went. I think it landed in Benghazi around 7:30 a.m.
The other thing that we did was and I wanted to mention Jackie Levesque’s name in this hearing. She was our nurse. We initially thought that we would – that she should go to Benghazi. One of the special forces with Lt. Col. Gibson’s team was our last military trained medic available – he had a broken foot in a cast. I still remember him walking to go get in the car with his machine gun, carrying a machine gun on his shoulder.
But Jackie I’d refused to allow her to go to Benghazi, because I knew we had wounded coming back. I knew David was severely wounded. I knew others were wounded as well. And Jackie had just made terrific contacts with a hospital in town, and so we sent – I sent her to the hospital to start mobilizing their ER teams and their doctors to receive our wounded.
So when the charter flight arrived in Tripoli, we had ambulances at the airport waiting. Their doctors were ready and waiting for our wounded to come in, to be brought into the operating room. And they certain saved David Ubben’s leg. They may have very well have saved his life. And they treated our other wounded as well as if they were their own.