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Benghazi Attack Hearing; Syrian Chemical Weapons Use Hard to Prove; US Military Sexual Abuse Hits Headlines Again

Aired May 8, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Tonight, Benghazi and finally a public and first-hand account from the ranking U.S. official on the ground during the attack on the U.S. mission there last September 11th.

The issue has been tossed around like a political football in Washington ever since armed men stormed the mission and killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with three other U.S. government employees.

The Obama administration said the attack was sparked by a spontaneous demonstration that night. But his Republican opponents in Congress immediately accused the president and his team for failing in their response and then of denying that it was a preplanned terrorist attack.

So all eyes were on the congressional hearing today, when top State Department official and number two at the U.S. embassy, Gregory Hicks, testified that the U.S. officials on the ground there knew that it was a terror attack from the get-go. Here's what he said about his phone call with Ambassador Stevens just as the attack began.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), S.C.: What precisely did he say to you?


GOWDY: Would a highly decorated career diplomat have told you or Washington had there been a demonstration outside his facility that day?

HICKS: Yes, sir, he would have.

GOWDY: Did he mention one word about a protest or a demonstration?

HICKS: No, sir, he did not.

GOWDY: So fast-forward, Mr. Hicks, to the Sunday talk shows and Ambassador Susan Rice. She blamed this attack on a video; in fact, she did it five different times.

What was your reaction to that?

HICKS: I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed.


AMANPOUR: Hicks also said that he sent a frantic SOS for military help, for aircraft, but got nothing in return.


HICKS: "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. The nearest -- where there were fighter planes. And he said that it would take two to three hours for them to get onsite, but that there also were no tankers available for them to refuel.


AMANPOUR: Now after the Benghazi attack, veteran U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering, who's a former U.S. ambassador and a former top State Department official, led an independent panel to investigate what exactly happened that night. And in a moment, I'll ask him whether now truth is being sacrificed on the altar of bitter partisan politics.

But first, here's a look at the other stories we're covering tonight.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Chemical weapons in Syria:

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have made clear that the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): If we can't prove they're being used and who is using them, how will we know that Syria is crossing the red line?

And uncovering the U.S. military's dirtiest secret, the ongoing outrage of sexual assault on tens of thousands of female soldiers.

Then in Bangladesh, the garment factory death toll keeps rising. But if foreign investors wash their hands and walk away, the survivors will become another kind of victim.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first to former ambassador and top State Department official, Thomas Pickering, the author of the after-action report on the Benghazi attack. He joins me from the State Department.


AMANPOUR: Ambassador Pickering, thanks for joining me from the State Department.

AMB. THOMAS PICKERING: Thanks, Christiane, it's nice to be with you.

AMANPOUR: You were yourself a part of the discussion at the hearings this morning. In fact, the chairman of the committee said that you had refused to come to today's hearing, that they invited you and you didn't go.

Why not?

PICKERING: I think it's colossally misinformed. I made it very clear yesterday through the White House, who made it clear to Chairman Issa, according to what they told me, that I was more than willing to come; in fact, I was ready to come at any time, to be part of these hearings today.

AMANPOUR: So why weren't you there?

PICKERING: Because I was not invited. Chairman Issa sent word back that he might want to take me up in a -- sometime in the future.

AMANPOUR: All right. Let's move onto the substance of what happened today.

Greg Hicks, the number two in charge in Libya at the time, delivered some pretty harsh condemnation of the State Department response and the U.S. response in general.

Did he tell you this when you were conducting the official investigation afterwards?

PICKERING: Greg Hicks had two hours and more with us. So a lot of what he had to say we had heard before. I admire Greg for the wonderful job he did under very difficult circumstances and certainly you could not have been helped but be impressed by the emotion of the moment as he had to go back and relive this very difficult time in his life.

But there were some issues there, including, I believe, the aircraft question that I don't recall -- and I've reviewed the record and didn't find it again in the record.

Nevertheless, that question answered itself. It made it very clear that the military advice to him at the time was aircraft are available but there's no tanker capacity and therefore they're not in a position to help.

AMANPOUR: So there was no extra help that the U.S. could deliver at that time, is what you're saying?

PICKERING: Not at that time, no. Extra help came later and rather expeditiously; but not in time in the view of all of us or the Defense Department to be able to make a difference in Benghazi.

AMANPOUR: Let us go back to the substance of your report. You have found that there wasn't enough security around the consulate in Benghazi. Tell me about that.

PICKERING: Yes, it was not a consulate; it was a mission. But we felt that the physical security at the site was inadequate. We also felt that the churn in personnel made serious mistakes in terms of continuity, the ability to continue to work at that site with an understanding that things were going to be improved and that they were in charge of honchoing those improvements.

AMANPOUR: So in other words, the fast turnover -- sometimes 30 days, 40 days -- was to the detriment of what, institutional capability, institutional memory on the ground?

PICKERING: Exactly. It takes a while to learn a job; Benghazi's a difficult place. It's very complicated. A lot of them didn't have Arabic. Many of them hadn't served overseas in the State Department before.

So all of those were a disadvantage. I think that the security officers under the circumstances performed admirably when they were tested. But it was very clear that that helped to add to the inadequacies of security in the judgment of my group.

AMANPOUR: Now, of course, Chris Stevens did speak the language; Greg Hicks did speak the language. But nonetheless, you say that you felt that there was a sort of a culture of comfort -- these are my words now -- that people hadn't fully internalized the threat from the terrorists, the radicals and all of that, who were, in fact, threatening Libya at the time.

PICKERING: Well, Mr. Hicks had only been there since the 31st of July, and I don't think he had an opportunity yet to visit Benghazi. But between April and September, there were 40-some incidents catalogued in our report involving foreigners -- not all the United States.

Most of these were in one way or another dismissed as being, oh, one- offs or maybe it was a mistake or it didn't really affect us in a serious way or it was a disgruntled employee. And to some extent then the pattern seems to have been dismissed. And that's part of what we felt was the culture of comfort with the situation.

AMANPOUR: And of course, now we're seeing that the U.K. mission was nearly threatened; that was foiled recently. The French embassy was targeted and set ablaze. Libyan officials themselves have had their ministries surrounded and, in fact, a Libyan official says that the country is becoming Al Qaeda in the Maghreb's new headquarters.

First of all, your reaction to that; and do you believe that the United States has implemented the recommendations from your report?

PICKERING: Much of what you recite happened after September 11th, but it was clearly part of what we now believe was an ongoing epidemic of virility (sic), of growth in what was operations of militia who felt negative about the United States and were perhaps more than influenced by Al Qaeda and Islamic fundamentalism. So I think that part is there.

The U.K. attack was before ours, but it could have been and should have been, I think, a serious warning. So all of that is taking place. And I think that's important.

AMANPOUR: How do feel, as a veteran diplomat who's really been working these issues, all your career, to see this tossed around in such a political way in Washington?

PICKERING: Well, you know, I've expressed my views on that before. I think that the political Indian handwrestling that is going on around this is a real distraction to the central question. You asked about implementation of the recommendations. It needs time and effort. It needs congressional cooperation.

It needs the kind of thing that seems to be absent in Washington and our people are on the line, risking their lives daily out there, serving the country, doing so voluntarily and with an expectation that the country is behind them, that the Congress is behind them and that the executive branch is behind them.

We've pointed to failings in order to find a way to assure that this never happens again. And I remain disturbed with what we are seeing in terms of what is essentially seemingly a diversionary approach, an exercise to seek to find hobgoblins where I never found them, and I don't believe they seriously exist.

AMANPOUR: Worrying indeed. Ambassador Pickering, thank you very much for joining me.

PICKERING: Thank you, Christiane, very much. It's great to be with you as always.


AMANPOUR: And turning now to Syria and whether there might be some diplomatic light at the end of that country's dark tunnel. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, have announced an international peace conference in the coming weeks. But will President Assad's government or the opposition come to the table?

Meanwhile on the battlefield, the Obama administration continues to seek concrete evidence of chemical weapons use, said to be responsible for this scene of devastation at a farm near Aleppo last March.

But as the Assad regime blocks access to U.N. special investigators, evidence gets harder to find with each passing day.

Gary Samore joins me now from Boston to discuss all this. He was President Obama's chief adviser on all matters relating to weapons of mass destruction and you've advised previous presidents as well.

Gary, welcome to the program again.

Let me --


AMANPOUR: -- let me ask you the first crucial question, then: how difficult will it be to actually find any evidence, given that this team is blocked? Is it a hopeless cause?

SAMORE: I think it's very difficult to determine the circumstances of use. It seems to me that the physical samples have proven fairly reliably that people were exposed to sarin, to a nerve gas.

But in terms of who used it against whom, what were the orders and so forth, I think that's very hard to actually establish unless the U.N. team gets in there. And it seems very clear to me that Damascus has no interest in letting them do that.

AMANPOUR: So just to be clear about these samples, you know, there's a lot of hullabaloo going on about these samples because now people are quoting, you know, various governments have said, yes, we have this evidence of now not being so sure.

From your point of view, is there any doubt that some kind of chemical weapon in some amount was used?

SAMORE: Well, of course, I haven't actually seen the results of the samples. But judging from what is publicly available, the British government was able to actually take samples from a victim. And the analysis of those samples showed evidence of exposure to sarin.

So I think that's pretty reliable. But until the precise details are made public so that outside scientists can examine it, I wouldn't say 100 percent. But it seems to be the operating assumption of all the governments involved -- U.S., Israel, France and the U.K.

AMANPOUR: Now you've been studying this for years and you obviously have some kind of handle on what the Assad regime has.

Tell me what they have in terms of chemical stockpiles.

SAMORE: Well, what is publicly known is that Syria has the largest active chemical weapons program in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea, about which we know very little.

The agents that are said to be in Syria's position are mustard gas, which is a choking agent, and two kinds of nerve gas, sarin and VX. And they have a well-developed arsenal for delivering these chemical weapons through aerial bombs, Scud missile warheads, artillery shells and rockets.

AMANPOUR: And what would it take, because obviously you must have been involved in game planning, war planning, all of this stuff, to secure those stockpiles, to somehow protect them from being used?

What would it take for the U.S. and its allies?

SAMORE: It would be a very daunting operation. It's such an extensive problem with so many different facilities associated with production, filling, storage and so forth, that it would require a very large force to be inserted into many different facilities and, of course, that force would have to be protected.

So I think one of the reasons why the Obama administration is being very careful about considering what to do is that the military options are pretty unattractive to either try to destroy the chemical weapons at storage facilities or to seize them.

So for that reason, I think it's unlikely that those kinds of military steps will be taken until there's a really, you know, clear evidence of large-scale indiscriminate use that removes any doubt about what has happened.

AMANPOUR: And in the meantime, why would these weapons be used? What is the battlefield tactical necessity for them?

SAMORE: Well, you know, think of it like, you know, old, you know, movies, where the -- where the police have gangsters surrounded in a building, but they don't want to approach the building because of danger that they will be shot at. So they shoot tear gas in in order to flush out the gangsters. It's a similar kind of thing.

If you were facing a force that was, you know, protected in a building or a couple of buildings or a small area and you didn't want to run the risk of attacking them directly, you could try to use chemical weapons whether it's, you know, an incapacitating agent like tear gas or a fatal weapon like sarin in order to deal with the threat.

AMANPOUR: Gary Samore, thanks very much indeed for joining me.

SAMORE: Thank you, Christiane. Always nice to be here.

AMANPOUR: Thank you, Gary.

And after a break, a crisis inside the American military: female soldiers under attack, and this time the enemy may share the same foxhole. Sexual abuse in uniform -- when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. And now to the ongoing sexual abuse of women serving in all branches of the U.S. military. It has soared to a new level of outrage.

In an alarming confirmation that women are risking sexual assault just to serve their country, a Pentagon survey released this week says that it's happened to more than 6 percent of women on active duty last year and that is up from previous years.

The military has again been rocked this week after the Air Force officer in charge of a program called sexual assault prevention was himself arrested and charged with sexual abuse. Now both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and President Barack Obama are weighing in, vowing to really enforce a zero tolerance policy.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For those who are in uniform, who've experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I've got their backs. I will support them. And we're not going to tolerate this stuff. And there will be accountability. If people have engaged in this behavior, they should be prosecuted.


AMANPOUR: But only a fifth of all these cases ever get to trial. My next guest, Susan Burke, represents many of the military women who do and who are trying to take their cases to court.

Thank you so much for joining me.

SUSAN BURKE, ATTORNEY: Thank you for having me on.

AMANPOUR: So we've laid out the statistics; you heard what President Obama has said and you've also probably heard what the Defense secretary said. Do you think it's going to make a difference?

BURKE: No. The reality is that neither the president nor Secretary Hagel have stepped forward and supported changing the judicial system, changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And until that is done, we're going to continue this just dreadful cycle, where there are not prosecutions, there's not convictions. And as a result, there's rampant underreporting.

AMANPOUR: What precise element of change are you talking about in the military judicial system?

BURKE: Right now, the military operates a judicial system that's somewhat parallel to the civilian system. But they have a unique structure in which they let the chain of command, the operational day-to-day warfighters to interfere and intervene in those judicial proceedings.

So for example, say you are a major; the colonel or the lieutenant colonel above you can intervene and tell the prosecutors, no, you know, I really like him; I don't think this should go forward. They can -- they can even turn things over, once a jury has found someone guilty.

AMANPOUR: I want to play a little bit of an interview that I did with a military officer who you actually represent -- and I talked to her months ago about this issue.


JENNIFER SMITH, SGT, USAF: The most traumatic thing that has happened to me with when I was in Iraq in Balad, I was assaulted by an Army personnel. And he basically just grabbed me and threw me up against the wall.

But that changed -- that was like the pinnacle that changed how I thought about some of the things that I had seen in the military prior. I kind of didn't tell anyone. I just came back, went to work the next day like nothing happened and buried it.


AMANPOUR: I mean, Susan, it really does beg a belief that a serving officer in the U.S. Air Force, not to mention all the others, you know, feel that they are not going to get any recourse for these crimes that are committed against them.

What do you think is going to be the fallout from this, you know, the officer who's just been himself accused of sexual abuse, and who was meant to be preventing it?

BURKE: Well, I would hope that it would persuade members of Congress that, given after two decades of the military trying to fix this, there needs to be a recognition that we cannot just leave the problem in their hands. It is beyond their abilities to solve it.

And remember, the Constitution, thus civilian control, oversight belongs to the Congress. So I very much hope this dismal sequence -- I mean, you know, you remember back in '91, there was Tailhook; we had Naval proving grounds, Aberdeen proving grounds, scandal after scandal after scandal culminating with Lackland recently and then this, you know, the gentleman arrested this weekend.

It's long enough to have fixed it if they were able to. A change has to come from Congress now.

AMANPOUR: And not only that, it seems that even those offenders who go to court, some have had their convictions overturned.

BURKE: And that's the -- you know, that is the part -- this is why the platitudes that you hear the military people speaking are not going to fix it, because it's -- right now, it is not rational to report. You have -- if you report, the documents put up by the military demonstrate that you have a 62 percent chance of being retaliated against. So your career is going to take a hit.

And yet you have a less than 1 percent chance that your perpetrator is going to be convicted. So you have got to step up and say the judicial process has got to be fixed. That is the first thing that has to be fixed. Because otherwise you're going to keep having the underreporting.

AMANPOUR: Now former Defense Secretary Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, did come out with a whole set of proposals. And I'm waving it around right here. Did they implement any? Has any of that made a difference?

BURKE: It has not, because the reality is that if you have a unfair and corrupted judicial process, nobody trusts it. So all of these other Band-Aids, although they are well-intentioned, they are not going to work. And we know this from history. These are the same type of fixes, the same type of solutions that were proposed back after Tailhook in '91.

So it's just more of the same. We have as a nation, we've got to look at each other and say, wait a minute, these are our soldiers. These are our troops. We owe them a fair and impartial justice system.

AMANPOUR: At the very least.

Susan Burke, thank you very much indeed and remembering, of course, that there is no draft and 1 percent of this country is in armed -- is in uniform and serving, and 99 percent are not.

After a break, as the body count climbs in Bangladesh, the blame game intensifies. But there are more hard questions than easy answers. We'll have that when we come back.



AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, an update on a story we've been following for two weeks, that catastrophic collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. The death toll is now a staggering 800 and still climbing.

At the same time, a government crackdown against Islamist protesters has cost nearly 40 more lives. Clearly, Bangladesh is in crisis. But imagine a world where the answer to the national tragedy isn't as simple as pointing fingers.

Recently, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appeared on this program, and she said foreign investors and cheap prices share some of the blame for the dreadful working conditions. Take a listen.


SHEIKH HASINA, PRIME MINISTER, BANGLADESH: Listen, if they want to do business, this buyer, they also consider they should increase the price of the garments so that the business can run properly and the labor can get good salary. So they are also partly responsible for it.


AMANPOUR: Now it's easy to say the prime minister was passing the buck, especially given Bangladesh's woeful record when it comes to worker safety.

But she is right in a way, with major buyers like Disney washing their hands and pulling out, what is to become of the 14 million families who depend on the garment industry for their very livelihood? Cut and run or stay and rebuild?

Tomorrow, we will take an in-depth look at that complex and compelling ethical question when it comes to the Bangladesh garment industry. I hope you'll join us. And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.