- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
Today, spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the White House view that the attacks in Benghazi have already "been looked at exhaustively." But despite the Obama administration’s reflexive posture, Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing — which followed a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 7 and a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Jan. 23 — offered a few juicy revelations that observers on both sides of the aisle should find illuminating.
1. The moment the phrase "Islamic terrorists" first left the State Department’s lips
The charge that President Barack Obama is afraid to use "the t word" is a rather tired attack line, something he disputed forcefully in the second presidential debate. But legitimate questions remain about why his administration misrepresented the nature of the deadly assault after evidence quickly emerged that it was a terrorist attack, not a "spontaneous reaction" to a YouTube video, as U.N. Amb. Susan Rice repeated on five Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16.
Today, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) divulged a previously undisclosed e-mail revealing just how early senior members of the State Department concluded that Benghazi was a terrorist attack. In a Sept. 12 e-mail from Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones to Amb. Susan Rice and several other top State officials, Jones said, full-stop, "The group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists." The e-mail provides new fodder for Rice critics wondering why she actively rebuffed questions about a planned terrorist attack on TV while her own colleagues had been saying just that for days. Update: Pushing back against Gowdy’s remarks, State Department senior adviser at the bureau of public affairs Moira Whelan tells The Cable that the e-mail Gowdy referenced mentions "Islamic extremists" not "Islamic terrorists," as Gowdy recounted. The second time Gowdy read the e-mail on Wednesday, he cited it correctly. It still stands that the State Department e-mail attributed the attack to Ansar al-Sharia, a group with ties to al Qaeda. In addition to Jones, Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, said he knew immediately that the assault on the compound was a terrorist attack. Here’s Rep. Gowdy’s rather theatrical reading of the e-mail:
2. Hillary engineered a mass Benghazi coverup, debunked
One of the more interesting flash points today was an exchange between Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) and Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism at the State Department. For days, Thompson’s leaked testimony made headlines with the claim that on Sept. 11, Hillary Clinton cut the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau out of the chain of reporting for political reasons. However, when Norton pressed Thompson on the issue, he rescinded the allegation that he was pushed out of the loop for political reasons and confessed to not knowing why he wasn’t included. "The quote isn’t entirely accurate?" asked Norton. "Correct," said Thompson.
3. Gregory Hicks was demoted
Star witness Gregory Hicks, the No. 2 U.S. official in Libya prior to the Benghazi attack, was unexpectedly demoted after the Sept. 11 assault, according to his testimony. Hicks said that after the tragedy he was told by Ambassador Laurence Pope — who replaced the slain J. Christopher Stevens as America’s top diplomat in Libya — that he could expect a "good level of assignment." Instead, he was made a foreign affairs officer.
"It’s a demotion," he testified. "‘Foreign affairs officer’ is a designation that is given to our civil service colleagues who — frankly, who are desk officers…. So I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer." This is an especially interesting revelation given Hicks’s sterling reputation at the State Department prior to the Benghazi attacks.
The State Department, however, says the story is more complex. "The Department has not and will not retaliate against Mr. Hicks," Whelan tells The Cable. She explained that after the Benghazi attack, Hicks opted to shorten his assignment in Libya and began a "standard" employment process. "Since Foreign Service Officer assignments work on annual cycles, by shortening his assignment Mr. Hicks was in the position of finding an ‘off-cycle assignment,’" she said. "The Department worked with him to find a suitable temporary assignment and succeeded." She noted that Hicks now receives the same salary and employment status as he did previously and is under consideration for a new assignment.
4. Emotions over Benghazi still run high
Even though the text of testimonies was released Wednesday, reading doesn’t do it justice. The powerful delivery of the witnesses offered a blunt reminder of the deep scars left by the attack, and the lingering despair over the death of Amb. Chris Stevens. All three men gave stirring testimonies of the events of that day, but Hicks’s wrenching account is especially worth watching:
5. Eulogies can not be re-gifted
In his attempt to comfort the grieving State Department whistleblowers, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) recycled a eulogy he used "for a relative." Unfortunately, the phrase "death is a part of life" doesn’t resonate quite so well when the purpose of your gathering is to find answers to a tragedy that may have involved negligence.
6. Hicks was told not to meet with Republican investigator Jason Chaffetz
Another new tidbit from today was the revelation that Hicks said he was told by a top State Department official not to talk to a congressional delegation inv
estigating the Benghazi incident. "I was instructed not to allow the RSO, the acting deputy chief of mission — me — to be personally interviewed," said Hicks. "We were not to be personally interviewed by Congressman Chaffetz." In the end, Hicks went ahead and met with Chaffetz and other congressional investigators, but not without controversy. He said that Cheryl Mills, who was then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, "demanded a report on the visit."
"The phone call from that senior of a person is, generally speaking, not considered good news," Hicks said. While the incident is intriguing, it’s still plausible that senior State Department officials were simply following protocols rather than covering up embarrassing testimony.
Whelan disputes the charge that the State Department was not accomodating to Chaffetz’s investigation. "This was not an ordinary congressional delegation but part of an announced congressional investigation," she said. "When congressional investigators ask the Department to make employees available for interviews that are part of a congressional investigation, it is the Department’s practice to seek to have Department counsel present during the interviews. As confirmed by the portion of the transcript read into the record by Ranking Member Cummings and Representative Speier, Mr. Hicks was not instructed to withhold information."
This post has been updated to reflect a response from the State Department.