The chief diplomat at the embassy in Libya the night of the Benghazi attacks claims the Pentagon ordered Special Forces troops in Tripoli to "stand down," despite his belief that they were needed to support evacuation and security efforts.
Gregory Hicks, a career Foreign Service officer and former deputy chief of mission in Libya, testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Wednesday, alongside two other State Department officials. He provided the inaugural public, first-person account of the events that took place in Libya the night of Sept. 11, 2012, that led to the death of four Americans in Benghazi, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Hicks testified he was standing next to a U.S. Army Special Forces officer that night who was instructed not to assist in efforts to secure and evacuate American personnel from Benghazi. The Pentagon says these troops were ordered to remain where they would do the most good.
At roughly 6 p.m. local time, the defense attaché at the American Embassy in Tripoli confirmed that the Libyan government would be willing to fly a C-130 cargo plane into Benghazi to evacuate the American wounded and deceased who had rallied at a U.S. annex there.
"We wanted to send external support forces," along with the C-130 and Libyan forces to assist with the efforts, Hicks testified on Wednesday. Hicks, who was in Tripoli, was standing near a "Lt. Col. Gibson," who commanded a four-person Special Forces team. These troops were what remained from a 14-person security team tasked with establishing security at the U.S. diplomatic presence following the 2011 Libyan revolution.
The remaining Special Forces soldiers' mission had changed in August 2011 from providing security to offering training. Command of this team also switched from the embassy, under Ambassador Stevens, to Army Gen. Carter Ham, then-commander of U.S. Africa Command.
Hicks testified these troops had highly trained skills that would have been useful to the personnel in Benghazi, who were "exhausted from a night of fighting against very capable opponents."
"There was every reason to believe our personnel was still in danger," he says, adding he does not know why the Special Forces troops were not allowed to get on the C-130.
He says Lt. Col. Gibson was "furious" that he could not assist the Americans in Benghazi. "That's what he wanted to do."
Pentagon spokesmen had previously stated that no U.S. assets were ever told to "stand down" the night of the attack in Benghazi. Air Force Maj. Rob Firman told USA Today Tuesday that the military's account of this response "hasn't changed."
"There was never any kind of stand down order to anybody," Firman said.
Firman reaffirmed this statement to U.S. News following Hicks' Wednesday testimony.
"Were these guys told not to do anything? No. They were in Tripoli, supporting the U.S. security in Tripoli, and they were told to stay there," Firman says. Special Operations Command Africa leadership told them to remain where they were, and "it was more important for those guys to be in Tripoli."
"I look at that as not so much a stand-down order, as it is a 'stay where you are,'" says Firman. "Those guys met the planes and continued to support."
Firman adds that the C-130 was tasked with picking up the American personnel at the Benghazi airport and leave immediately. These Special Forces troops would not have been on the ground long enough to have contributed significantly to the operation.
"There was a very limited amount of time that they could have done anything," he says.
The Joint Operations Center that was overseeing the response was getting inputs from Benghazi and from Tripoli, Firman says, adding it was "in a position to coordinate in a way that people standing on the ground aren't necessarily."
Hicks recounted Wednesday the first few hours of the attack, beginning with a cell phone call with Stevens in which the ambassador said, "Greg, we're under attack."