WASHINGTON — They summoned a whistle-blower to Capitol Hill, but instead they got a virtuoso storyteller.
Gregory Hicks, the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Libya the night Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, was to be the star witness for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the man leading the probe of the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.
But despite Issa’s incautious promise that the hearing’s revelations would be “damaging” to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hicks didn’t lay a glove on the former secretary of state Wednesday. Rather, he held lawmakers from both parties rapt as he recounted the events of that terrifying night — revealing a made-for-Hollywood plot with a slow, theatrical delivery and genuine emotion.
He spoke of watching TV at his residence in Tripoli when a security officer “ran into my villa yelling, ‘Greg! Greg! The consulate’s under attack.’” He described his brief final phone conversation with Stevens, 600 miles away: “He said, ‘Greg, we’re under attack. … And I said, ‘OK,’ and the line cut.”
He detailed the frantic effort to call in fighter jets from a U.S. base in Italy (“It would take two to three hours for them to get on-site” and there “were no tankers available for them to refuel”). He sipped water to regain his composure after recounting the “saddest phone call I have ever had in my life” — learning from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens had been killed.
His yarn before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee mentioned embassy office manager Amber Pickens carrying ammunition to the getaway vehicles and smashing hard drives with an ax, as well as the rescue-by-ladder of a severely wounded David Ubben from the mortar attack that killed two others.
Hicks went on for 39 minutes — far beyond the customary five-minute allowance — and nobody objected until Issa finally paused the storytelling so lawmakers could pose questions.
Hicks had his grievances with how events in Benghazi were handled, but his gripes were about bureaucratic squabbles rather than political scandal. And this whistleblower spent a good bit of time tooting his own horn. “I earned a reputation for being an innovative policymaker who got the job done. I was promoted quickly and received numerous awards,” Hicks informed the lawmakers. “I have two master’s degrees. … I speak fluent Arabic. … Incoming charge Larry Pope told me personally that my performance was near-heroic.”
Issa and his Republican colleagues encouraged this cult of personality in their own statements, evidently anticipating an effort by Democrats to discredit Hicks. But it turned out there was no need.
Hicks said his “jaw dropped” when he heard U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice falsely claim on TV that there had been a protest at the Benghazi consulate, but he declined an invitation to challenge the veracity of the director of national intelligence, who said the statement reflected “our collective best judgment at the time.”
Hicks said he thought a flyover by U.S. jets could have deterred the second of the two attacks that night, but he declined to question the judgment of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said there was no way to get the fighters there in time.
Hicks was of little use to Republicans in their efforts to connect the lapses in the Benghazi response to Clinton or to the Obama White House. He said that he spoke to Clinton by phone at 2 a.m. that night and that she supported his actions. He undermined one of Issa’s claims — that Clinton had rejected an increase in security for the Libya facilities — when he agreed that the secretary of state’s name appears on all cables, even if she doesn’t write them.
Hicks did have some damning things to say about the State Department trying to block him from cooperating with Issa’s committee. But that wasn’t quite the evidence Issa had promised: that politics drove the administration’s response to Benghazi.
Instead of hearing a tale of political shenanigans, those in the audience heard a far better story of confusion and desperation on the ground — such as Hicks’ attempt the morning after the fighting to send a four-member Special Forces team from Tripoli to Benghazi for reinforcement. When military higher-ups rejected the request, the team leader, a lieutenant colonel, was “furious,” Hicks recounted. “He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’”
That’s not much use to Issa, but it will be a great line in the movie.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.