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Benghazi Hearings

Aired May 8, 2013 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We're monitoring the latest developments in Cleveland. We'll head back there shortly, but there's also major news unfolding here in Washington right now including news involving Benghazi. Eight months after the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya, lawmakers right now up on Capitol Hill are raising new questions and new concerns. One key question, could the Obama administration have done more to protect U.S. diplomats and prevent the initial attack from escalating?

Up on Capitol Hill, a hearing has begun before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The panel will hear several witnesses, three in particular, about the attack that began on September 11th of last year. The U.S. ambassador, Chris Stephens, died along with information officer, Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.

Republicans have raised many questions about the Obama administration's handling of the attack and many questions have been raised and will be front and center today.

The hearing has begun. The opening statements are now out of the way. The chairman, Darrell Issa, has asked the first witness to testify.

Let's listen to Mark Thompson, the counterterrorism acting deputy assistant secretary.

(BEGIN LIVE FEED)

MARK THOMPSON, COUNTERTERRORISM ACTING DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY: -- already described. The night I was involved in this incident, I was at my desk at the end of the day when the first reports came in that indicated that we had an attack going on at our diplomatic facility in Benghazi. In that facility, we knew we had our ambassador and we had his security personnel. Later, when I heard that the situation had evolved to them going to a safe haven and then fact that we could not find the ambassador, I alerted my leadership indicating that we needed to go forward and consider the deployment of the Foreign Emergency Support Team.

That particular team is an interagency team. It's been represented as something that the State Department deploys. It does not -- the deputies committee of the National Security Council deploys that organization. But I wanted that considered.

I notified the White House of my idea. They indicated that meetings had already taken place that evening that had taken fest out of the menu of options. I called the office within the State Department that had been represented there asking them why it had been taken off the table and was told that it was not the right time and it was not the team that needed to go right then.

Let me explain the team a little more. It is comprised of the leadership from my office. It is comprised of professionals from special operations command, from diplomatic security, from the intelligence community, from FBI. It is a holistic comprehensive organization that is designed to go forward to embassies, just as we did as indicated in 1998 in East Africa, as we've done in the other places indicated, the USS Cole and other hostage situations. It is designed to be the glue and the connective tissue that gets all the options on the table for the decision makers. Decision makers in my line of work are the chief of mission and the authorities back here in Washington that make the decisions of what -- where we send people into harm's way. It doesn't mean it has a - it has a irreversibility to it.

The other thing that I pointed out was that with the tyranny of distance, at least eight or nine hours to get to the middle of the Mediterranean, we needed to act now and not wait. There's sometimes the hesitancy to not deploy because we don't know what's going on. One definition of a crisis is, you don't know what's going to happen in two hours, so you need to help develop that situation early. We have a robust com suite on the airplane (ph) that we - or (ph) transported on. It is ably flown by my SOCOM (ph) colleagues. It is on alert to do just this mission and is designed to carry a comprehensive team to a conflict - or a crisis and to help the ambassador and work for the ambassador and/or the chief of mission to handle that crisis and to make sure he or she has the best information possible to make decisions and to make recommendations back to Washington.

And those same representatives make their views known back to their parent organizations so that when we do have deputies committees and principle committees meetings at the White House, we have a situation in which everyone is using the most up-to-date information and so that we can figure out whether -- what we have to do security wise, what we have to do intelligence wise, what we have to do with the military, what we have to do diplomatic wise, what we have to do on the public affairs front. That works for the chief of mission. And I can't emphasize that enough. We're not there to subsume any activities. The experts on the team know that the real experts are in the embassy and they work for the chief of mission to do that.

My time is drawing to a close. I'll end there and await your questions.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, CHAIRMAN, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: Thank you.

Mr. Hicks.

GREGORY HICKS, FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

ISSA: We really will have to -- you're pretty soft spoken. Get that a little closer in toward you (ph). HICKS: Try to get this (INAUDIBLE).

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you, ranking member. Thank you, members of the committee.

I am a career public servant. Until the aftermath of Benghazi, I loved every day 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 eastern and North African studies. I have served my country extensively in the Mideast.

Besides Libya, I served in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Begambia (ph). I speak fluent Arabic. In Bahrain, my Shia opposition contacts gave me advanced warning of impending attacks on our embassy and anti-government - anti-American demonstrations, allowing us to prepare and avoid injuries to staff. I learned that knowledge of local conditions and strong connections with the local population are as important as the strength and height of walls.

One reason I am here is because I have pledged to the foreign service as 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 Burns (ph) and General Ham (ph) told me how much they appreciated how I handled the night of the assault and its aftermath. I received written notes of commendation from Undersecretary Wendy Sherman and from Executive Secretary Steven Mull (ph). Incoming charge (ph) Larry Pope (ph) 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'm here today to honor that oath. I look forward to answering your questions fully and truthfully. Thank you very much.

ISSA: Thank you. And I understand that some of those commendations and letters are in your opening statement. And for all the witnesses, all extraneous material or other insertions will be placed in the record on your behalf.

Mr. Nordstrom.

ERIC NORDSTROM, DIPLOMATIC SECURITY OFFICER: Good morning, Chairman Issa, Ranking Member Cummings and other distinguished members of the committee. For the benefit of the new committee members, my name is Eric Nordstrom and I currently serve as the supervisory special agent with the U.S. Department of States Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Since September 2012, I've been enrolled in long-term language training in preparation for my next assignment. As Chairman Issa noted, I've served in federal law enforcement since January 1996, first as a customs inspector before joining the U.S. Department of State.

I've served in domestic and overseas postings including Washington, D.C., Honduras, Ethiopia, India and most recently the regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. All of those assignments have been assignments in which I faced the threat of criminal or terrorist attacks.

I held the last position as RSO from September 21, 2011, until July 26, 2012. As the regional security officer, or RSO, at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, I served as the principle security advisor to U.S. Ambassadors Eugene Cretz and Chris Stevens on security and law enforcement matters.

I want to thank the committee again for the opportunity to appear and provide further testimony and support of your inquiry into the tragic events of September 11, 2012. I would also like to thank the committee for your continued efforts in investigating all the details and all the decisions related to the attack on our diplomatic facility. Specifically, the committee's labors to uncover what happened prior, during and after the attack matter. It matters to me personally, and it matters to my colleagues -- to my colleagues at the Department of State. It matters to the American public for whom we serve. And, most importantly -- excuse me -- it matters to the friends and family of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who were murdered on September 11, 2012.

In addition to my testimony before this committee in October 2012, I also met with the FBI, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the department's Accountability Review Board and I've discussed my experience in Libya with all of them. I'm proud of the work that our team accomplished in Libya under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the protection of our nation's diplomats. Our embassies and consulates and the work produced there is deserving of the time that this committee, other congressional committees and the Accountability Review Board and no doubt future review efforts will invest in making sure that we get this process right. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to appear before you today. I stand ready to answer any questions that you might have.

ISSA: Thank you.

I'll now recognize myself for a quick round of questioning.

Mr. Thompson. I'm -- Mr. Thompson, you went through a process of things that you observed and how you tried to activate your team. Did you do so because you had an initial view of whether this was a terrorist attack or something else? And please be brief. I want to use my time.

THOMPSON: Yes.

ISSA: OK. Thank you.

Mr. Hicks, as the principle officer and the high - you know once the ambassador had been murdered, the highest ranking officer on September 11th from the moment that you unexpectedly became the sharge (ph), 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 September 11th 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.

HICKS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

As I remember, September 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 saying, Chris, are you aware of what's going on in Cairo? And he said, no. So I told him that the embassy -- in another text 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 watching a television show that I particularly like. And at 9:45 p.m. -- and all times will be Libyan times - there's a six-hour time difference -- the RSO, John Martineck (ph), ran into my villa yelling, Greg, Greg, the consulate's under attack. And I stood up and reached for my phone, because I had an inkling or a thought that perhaps the ambassador had tried to call me to relay this same message, and I found two missed calls on the phone. One from the ambassador's phone, one from a phone number I didn't recognize.

And I punched 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 because I knew we would all have to gather there to mobilize -- or try to mobilize a response. And it was also a bad cell phone night in Tripoli. Connections were weak. And I said, OK, 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 got no response. When I got to the tactical operations center, I told people that the ambassador -- that I had just talked to the ambassador and what he said. At the time John Martinec was on the phone with Alec Henderson (ph) in Benghazi, the RSO there, and I asked one of our DS agents who -- what number did I reach Ambassador Stevens on?

And he said, oh, that's Scott Strickland's telephone. Scott Strickland was Ambassador Stevens' 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, 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.

ISSA: Please explain the annex, Chief, so that people who don't know as much would understand that.

No, go ahead, please.

HICKS: OK. Thank you.

And he said 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.

(EBD LIVE FEED)

BLITZER: We're listening to Gregory Hicks. He was the deputy chief of mission, the number two diplomat, at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya, when he got that phone call from then-ambassador Chris Stevens, saying that the consulate in Benghazi is under attack. And he's explaining what he was going through.

We're going to be picking up this story shortly. I want to bring in Jake Tapper, though. He's here in Washington with me, listening very carefully.

This is a politically, explosively charged hearing that's under way right now because the upshot of what the chairman, Darrell Issa, and other Republicans are suggesting, is simply, A, that the Obama administration was inept in dealing with this crisis on the anniversary of 9/11 and that they later, potentially, the accusation they're making, engaged in a cover-up to make them look better.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

But if you strip away the politics, what you have here is you have a number of State Department officials nonpartisan, presumably, Mr. Hicks being one of them, Eric Nordstrom who was the regional security officer at the embassy in Tripoli in (inaudible) that summer 2012, and then Mr. Thompson from the counterterrorism department of the State Department talking about the failures to provide enough security to diplomats in Libya before the attack, questions about whether or not more could have been done that night.

There were actually two attacks, one at the compound in Benghazi the night of September 11th. The next one, early in the morning at the annex a couple miles away.

And then, of course, there's how did the White House respond to this when it became clear that this was a terrorist attack, these officials saying that they knew it immediately.

The White House pushed back on that, suggested this was a spontaneous protest as a result of that anti-Muslim video.

So there are a lot of questions, but if you strip away the partisan veneer of all of this, and the fact that there is so much partisan politics going on here on both sides, there really are, fundamentally, some serious questions from some nonpartisan diplomats about this event.

BLITZER: And Gregory Hicks, the man who's testifying right now, career foreign service officer, a career diplomat, not a politically appointed diplomat, but a career diplomat making some serious allegations right there.

Christiane Amanpour is watching what's going on. Christiane, I guess the major argument that many of these Republicans are making is that this notion that this was immediately seen as a coordinated terrorist operation, probably with links to al Qaeda, that did not fit the Obama administration's narrative at the time.

This was in the final weeks of the presidential election, and that's why they decided to supposedly clean it up. And that's a pretty serious charge.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Here's the thing, Wolf.

You know, I'm not in Washington dealing with the politics of this, and as you've just discussed, it is a very partisan issue, but there are facts that also need to be taken to grip.

And that is that the consistent narrative from Libya, from the officials in Libya, starting with the president of the national congress, Mohammed Mogariaf, all the way to prime ministers and the justice minister today and intelligence officials, they from the very beginning when asked said that they believed this was a pre-planned terrorist attack.

On a competing network on CBS September 16th, the president of Libya was in New York for the General Assembly meetings, and he said that dozens had been arrested since the attack five days previously and that he believed that they'd been planning.

They'd been in the country for months planning what he called a criminal attack. And, furthermore. he said that he and his intelligence had information that some of them were from Algeria and Mali.

And now this long-predated what became this al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali and then, you remember, in January of this year, the big attack and siege of the gas facility in southern Algeria.

So he was presaging something that then we all knew about several months later.

And I've interviewed many of the Libyan officials, prime ministers, as I said, the justice minister, and they all agree on one point, and that is they do not have the security inside their country right now, that it is becoming a place where these foreign jihadists are gathering as they're being pushed out of other areas and as this security vacuum and the political vacuum in Libya is expanding.

So this a real problem, and furthermore, in published interviews and articles recently, Libyan intelligence sources are saying they are quickly becoming the new base for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM.

So this is a very serious issue and a serious problem going forward.

BLITZER: It certainly is. It's really, really critical right now what's happening in Libya, indeed throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

Arwa Damon is in Beirut. Arwa, a lot of our viewers will remember you were there in Benghazi. You were there on the scene within a few days of the killing of Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans.

We all remember you found, together with your team over there, you found Ambassador Stevens' diary there.

Just remind our viewers what you saw there because, based on everything I remember talking to you at the time, it was pretty clear to you this was a sophisticated attack. It wasn't some sort of spontaneous demonstration that occurred similar to what occurred at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Pretty much everyone who we spoke to on the scene from security guards, Libyan security guards to other individuals who happen to be at the consulate compound during the attack all said that it happened instantly and it happened simultaneously from multiple different directions.

There was no doubt in their mind that this was some sort of a coordinated complex attack.

When we arrived on scene, of course, the consulate was burnt. It had been largely looted. It wasn't secured as a crime scene. We were able to spend a few hours on the ground there finding, of course, as you mentioned, the ambassador's diary that was lying close to his bed along with other sensitive items as well.

And journalists, even days and weeks later, were able to access the compound and also come up with other sensitive items.

It took the FBI weeks to arrive on site and do whatever they could to salvage bits of information.

And it's also important here to look back at the landscape of Libya prior to this attack taking place. The consulate had already been attacked in the past. There had been numerous attacks against various other Western interests.

And Libyan officials who we spoke to whether on the government side or on the Libyan security forces side were telling us that, in the days before the attacks, they were warning the Americans that they could not provide the necessary security and that they believed, although they did not have a specific timeframe, that such an attack on the consulate was imminent.

And we also now know, of course, throughout our reporting that Ambassador Stevens himself was incredibly concerned about the lack of security at the consulate in Benghazi, Wolf.

BLITZER: Arwa, stand by.

Dana Bash is our chief congressional correspondent. She's been covering this story since September 11th of last year when it exploded with the tragic death of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Within days, Dana, I remember vividly -- I think the next day -- I interviewed Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, and we both sort of agreed that without knowing exactly what happened, coming on the anniversary of 9/11, this certainly looked like it was a coordinated attack by an al Qaeda affiliate or an al Qaeda supporter, if you will.

But then within a few days the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, was on five Sunday talk shows as you well remember, saying this was a spontaneous attack based on everything she knew, and the talking points, the declassified talking points gave her, those talking points, what to say to the American public. And that's generated so much commotion and the cause of these hearings, I suspect, at least in part.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. You know, Darrell Issa, who's the chairman, actually said that he didn't think they were going to delve too much into the talking points, who changed them and why.

But it's hard to imagine that that won't be at least part of the undercurrent in what's going to be happening here because that goes to the heart of what Republicans have been asking about, pressing about, from the get-go, which is that they believe that there was, whether it was explicit or implicit, that the problem was that this was part of the culture that had to do with the presidential campaign and the president's reelection, making the point that he crippled al Qaeda by killing Osama bin Laden and that anything internationally or anywhere else that would suggest al Qaeda was still active and still very strong could undermine that.

So I think that there's no question that that is going to be part of this.

Right now I should say that Gregory Hicks is still giving his opening statement, an account narrative for the first time from somebody who was actually on the ground. He was in Tripoli. He wasn't in Benghazi, but explaining minute-by-minute, effectively, of what happened that night.

So that's what we're hearing right now. And the Q&A is going to start.

I should also say the Republicans have been telling us that there are some surprises in here. One Republican on the committee said it could even be explosive what we hear.

So they're raising expectations that there really is going to be a lot more meat on this bone. So we're going to have to wait and see if they follow through with that.

BLITZER: We're going to, of course, continue to monitor throughout the day. The hearings can go on for hours and hours.

Jake, I know you wanted to make one more point.

TAPPER: Well, just Greg Hicks had said in his interview with congressional investigators that when he watched Dr. Susan Rice give -- talk to Sunday shows, the Sunday after the attack, and talk about how this was in the view of the White House a spontaneous attack from -- that resulted from a demonstration that his jaw dropped.

BLITZER: Because of a YouTube video.

TAPPER: Because of a YouTube video, the anti-Muslim YouTube video.

He said his jaw dropped because what she was doing in his view was undercutting the president of Libya. Christiane and others have referred to the Libyans saying that this was terrorism right off the bat.

And he thought that that was a violation of Diplomacy 101. You don't undercut in which the country you serve. So he was very surprised about that.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to monitor this important hearing up on Capitol Hill. We'll get back to it.

We're also watching what's going on in Cleveland right now. Just a little while ago, Amanda Berry, one of the three women who escaped from a Cleveland house after a decade in captivity, she finally has returned to her home.

Three brothers are accused of holding them. They will be charged today.

We're going to Cleveland when we come back.

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