Friday, May 10, 2013

Benghazi Gate: Transcript of the House Hearing May 8, 2013

Benghazi Gate: Transcript of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Hearing on May 8, 2013

[The Benghazi Gate Live Blog is available here >>> ]

Rep. Darrell Issa opened the hearing noting the many ways in which the Obama administration has stonewalled Benghazi investigations, and how the Democratic minority in the House has aided the stonewalling.

Rep. Elijah Cummings used his opening statement to attack Issa and assail the as yet undelivered whistleblowers’ testimony. Cummings in effect filibustered their testimony by wasting time, while he claimed to be a champion of whistleblowers. Disgraceful.

11:56 AM — Three whistleblowers are sworn in. They are Eric Nordstrom, Mark Thompson and Greg Hicks. First to testify is Mark Thompson. He is a high-ranking counterterrorism official in the US State Department. Thompson’s role is rapid response to crises around the globe. Visible in the shot behind him are lawyer Joseph DiGenova, who represents some of the whistleblowers, and Rep. Michele Bachmann.

12:02 pm Greg Hicks begins his opening statement. Hicks is the former deputy chief of the US mission in Libya.

12:05 pm Eric Nordstrom offers his opening statement. He directly challenges then SecState Hillary Clinton’s “What difference, at this point, does it make?” by noting that the truth matters to him, his colleagues, and to the American people. Nordstrom’s opening statement was brief but emotional as he took Clinton on without naming her.

12:10 pm Hicks says he texted Amb. Stevens about the riot in Cairo. Shortly after that, he got word from Stevens that their own consulate in Benghazi was under attack. “Greg, we’re under attack,” Hicks testified that Stevens said to him.
Hicks: The mission was quickly breached by about 20 armed hostile individuals. He says everyone on the ground in Benghazi that night believed that it was a terrorist attack from the beginning. There was no protest or demonstration. He earlier said that Stevens wasn’t even aware of the situation in Cairo until he, Hicks, told him about it. As many as 60 hostiles attacked the consulate.
Hicks lauds officers’ “heroism” for repeatedly trying to get into the burning consulate during the attack, noting that it was a petroleum-based fire.
Hicks: Stevens went missing, then he and his officers in Tripoli were notified that Stevens had been taken to a hospital controlled by Ansar al-Sharia (al Qaeda’s Libya brand, and the group behind the attack on the consulate). The attack then had the potential of becoming a hostage situation. (Meanwhile in Cairo, al Qaeda had stormed the US embassy to pressure the US government into releasing the 1993 WTC attack mastermind, Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, and other al Qaeda operatives held in Western prisons.) Hicks says the terrorists’ mortar attacks were “terribly precise.” He feared that his team were being lured into an ambush at checkpoints, raising again the question of why the State Department failed to secure the Benghazi compound. Hicks and military commander in Libya “wanted to go and bring our people home” from Benghazi. They were ordered not to go.

12:43 pm Rep. Cummings delivers another statement, tells whistleblowers that he and other politicians “feel their pain.” That’s dubious, given his pre-emptive attack on them in his opening statement, and the fact that they lost friends and colleagues in the attack.
Cummings says Chairman of JCS testified that it would have taken 20 hours to get fighters on the scene from Italy. Hicks says his own defense attache told him that it would take 2 to 3 hours. Cummings is taking the administration line that it was impossible to get any aircraft to the scene in time to help.
Cummings is peppering Hicks with SecDef Panetta’s testimony, but Panetta may be among the officials who have a vested interest in downplaying US capability to deploy defense assets to relieve those who were under attack in Libya.

12:51 pm Cummings stands down, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) steps up. Gowdy asks Hicks whether Stevens or anyone else had ever believed that there had been a protest or that the YouTube movie had anything to do with the attack. Answer: No. “I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed."
Hicks, on his reaction to Amb. Susan Rice’s five national television appearances in which she blamed a movie. Hicks says Rice never called him for his input before her appearances on TV. “Why in the world would Susan Rice go on five talk shows?” and blame a movie, Gowdy asks Hicks. Hicks cannot answer for Rice. Hicks says it took the FBI 18 days to get to the scene of the attack.

12:57 pm So far, questioners have refrained from giving speeches rather than asking questions. Well, the Republican questioners have. Cummings has filibustered twice and now Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is giving a speech. She accuses Benghazi skeptics of “attacking the military, attacking the president” by questioning what happened. Now she is attacking Rep. Issa.
After three minutes of speaking, Maloney asks a question to the “panelists and witnesses,” meaning no one in particular. She goes off into the weeds about the number of cables that go in and out of diplomatic missions and the State Department every year. She then cites a mainstream media “fact check” to slam Issa. The mainstream media have mostly ignored Benghazi, when they haven’t tried to debunk the scandal.

1:03 pm Rep. Jason Chaffetz is up, he asks Hicks about the second rescue team. Hicks says that team were “furious” that were told to stand down, commanding general said that “This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than someone in the military.”
Chaffetz then moves to question Thompson, the counterrorism officer on the FEST (Foreign Emergency Support Team). State Dept. claims FEST can respond to attacks with aircraft in four hours.
Chaffetz asks why FEST was not deployed – Thompson says he was told the Benghazi situation was “too unsafe” for the FEST. Morning after attack, he was told not to attend a meeting that should normally have involved him.

1:11 pm Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) asks Thompson why he believes that his section of FEST was kept out of the meeting. Thompson refuses to blame it on politics, Norton turns that into “Thompson is not saying that politics” drove the decision, implying that politics played no role. Clever, but dishonest on her part.
Holmes interrupts when Thompson says that his group being cut out of the meeting, while other sections of the bureau were represented, mattered because of his group’s role, and treats him like a hostile witness. She accuses him of not telling the truth. Holmes is using the testimony of Dan Benjamin, who was out of country during the events of 9-11-12, to contradict Thompson, who was in Washington and says his counterterror section was cut out of meetings regarding Benghazi.

1:19 pm Rep. James Langford (R-OK) asks Hicks and Nordstrom whether security was adequate at Benghazi. Answer from Nordstrom: No. They did not meet the minimum standards. Nordstrom testifies that only the Secretary of State can grant waivers for facilities that do not meet the minimum standards. That’s BIG.

1:24 pm Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) gives speech saying that we must learn from Benghazi so that it does not happen again. Democrats continue the pattern of talking at rather than asking questions of the three whistleblowers. Tierney continues the pattern of isolating and attacking Rep. Issa, bringing Alinsky tactics into the U.S. House of Representatives hearing on a terrorist attack that killed four Americans. Tierney accused Thompson of not making himself available to the State Dept.’s ARB investigation. Thompson corrects him — he did make himself available but the ARB did not interview him. Tierney now playing a video of DNI James Clapper defending Hillary Clinton. Democrats defend Democrats — big shocker there. Hicks: “There was no report of a demonstration.” Tierney quickly interrupts him. Tierney ends with a speech.

1:30 pm Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) notes that Hicks was commended by SecState Clinton after the Benghazi attack. Obama also called Hicks directly to commend him for his actions on the night of the attack. But those commendations changed after Rice’s statements blaming the movie, and on a call with Beth Jones, Hicks questioned Rice’s statements. “The sense that I got twas that I needed to stop that line of questioning.” Jones was Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs. State told Hicks not to be personally interviewed by Rep. Chaffetz, who was investigating the attack. Hicks says that has never happened to him before in his 22-year State career.
Hicks details how State shut lawyer out of briefing due to lack of clearance. Consistent with Victoria Toensing’s statements that State has limited her ability to represent the whistleblowers. Hicks says Clinton chief of staff Cheryl Mills personally called him demanding a report. A call from someone so senior is “Not generally considered good news.”

1:36 pm Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO) uses his time to blame budget cuts for the lack of security at Benghazi. That line has been debunked, by the State Department itself. He is wasting time and intentionally distracting from the facts of the situation in Benghazi. Clay, like his fellow Democrats, is delivering a speech. Filibustering. Clay is citing the Accountability Review Board’s findings, but the ARB was hand-picked by Clinton and failed to interview her. A skeptic could view the ARB as an exercise in giving Clinton the appearance of seeking the facts, while giving her enough cover to get past the 2012 election. Clay makes no allowance for this possibility. Issa reminds Clay that Charlene Lamb testified in October that budget cuts were not the issue. Clay claims that he cannot remember what Lamb said, but that the ARB said resources were an issue. Laughable. Clay is, so far, the least serious member of the panel, and that’s saying something after Cummings’ and Maloney’s antics.

1:43 pm Rep. John Mica (R-FL) takes over the questioning. He asks Thompson whether the ARB ever interviewed him about Benghazi. Answer: No, despite his offer to be interviewed. Thompson is the counterterror official who says his group was cut out of the response to Benghazi. “Accountability” Review Board was the theme of his questions, as at least two principals involved — Thompson and Clinton — were never interviewed.

1:48 pm Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-MA) takes over the mic. He is delivering a speech. Lynch eventually asks Nordstrom a bureaucratic question about security in Benghazi. Nordstrom says it’s unclear who made the decision to deem the Tripoli and Benghazi facilities as temporary, denying them the requested security upgrades.

1:54 pm Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) takes over, notes that there were two stand-down orders given to Benghazi rescue teams. Both orders were given to Lt. Col. Ed Gibson’s Special Forces team, which wanted to go to Benghazi and bring the Americans there home.
Hicks testifies that he does not know why the stand-down orders were given, but there was no reason to believe that the attack was over when they were issued. Americans were still in danger. Hicks, responding to Issa, says that once command passed to him upon Stevens’ death, he ordered his personnel to rescue. He could not order the Special Forces in, as they were outside his command authority.

2:01 pm Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) questions Thompson regarding whether his team was cut out. The Democrats have focused on Thompson because while he says his section was cut out of meetings, the overall counter terror team was not, according to Thompson’s boss, Daniel Benjamin. Benjamin, though, was out of country during the attack. To his credit, Connolly notes that security in Libya was so bad that when he visited months before the attack, he was not allowed to stay in country overnight.

2:07 pm Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) takes over, notes how strange it is for someone with first-hand knowledge of an incident not to be interviewed by investigators about it. He asks Hicks whether the ARB let anyone “off the hook.” Hicks: Yes. Says Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy bears “some responsibility.” Nordstrom: The ARB fixed blame at the “mid-level,” implying that it did not seek accountability high enough in the State Department. That would be consistent with the view that the ARB was really an exercise in keeping accountability away from Clinton and her closest officials.

2:13 pm Rep Jackie Speier (D-CA) accuses Thompson of not “engaging” with Democrats when they ask questions. Speier’s pointless questioning ends with her telling Hicks that he deserves a post in a country of “his desire” and asks him where he would like to be posted. Hicks defers the question to his wife.

2:20 pm Patrick McHenry (R-NC) “brings the subject matter of this hearing back to the subject matter of this hearing,” which is to get at the “root cause and the root facts” of Benghazi.
After a brief speech, McHenry asks Hicks if there was a protest prior to the attack. “There was none,” Hicks replied, and if there had been, Stevens would have taken appropriate action and gotten staff out of the consulate. “The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya,” Hicks testified.
McHenry plays video of State Dept. spokesman defending Rice for blaming the movie, asks Hicks if he would have said the same things that Rice said. No, says Hicks, noting that even the Libyan president called it a “planned attack.” “I was jumping up and down” when he said that, Hicks testified. “It was a gift.” Hicks connects, for the second time, Rice’s misleading statement with the 17 to 18 day delay to get the FBI into Benghazi to investigate. He is suggesting that her statements had the effect of obstructing the investigation of the scene of the attack.

2:27 pm Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) opines that “there is no smoking gun…there isn’t even a warm sling-shot” coming from today’s hearings. That line seemed to have been pre-written to minimize the testimony near the end of the hearing. Pocan then proceeds to deliver a speech and again cast doubt on Thompson’s statements that he was not allowed to testify to the ARB. Hicks notes that the security situation was so bad that officials could not get out on the street to talk with average Libyans, and were thus unable to find out how terrified Libyans were of the Islamist militias.

2:23 pm Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI) takes over questioning. He asks Thompson why he is so concerned about being cut out, and the ARB’s failure to interview him. Thompson responds that his group can go from zero to wheels up in hours, could have responded to Benghazi. Hicks testifies that none of the people he knows who testified to the ARB have been allowed to read its classified report.

2:37 pm Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) gives speech about “putting politics aside.” Then asks Hicks what he believes needs to be done to improve security. Hicks is a diplomat, says “We have to be able to go outside” to do our jobs. Duckworth asks Nordstrom how to improve security. Does not ask about specific requests and denials leading up to Benghazi attack. Nordstrom says that his requests for security enhancements consistently stopped at the Undersecretary for Management — Patrick Kennedy. He denied requests in the Benghazi attack and prior to an attack in East Africa. Both Hicks and Nordstrom have pointed at Kennedy in their testimony. He would be above the level of “accountability” that the ARB chose to examine, according to Nordstrom’s earlier testimony.

2:44 pm Rep. Chaffetz takes the mic again after brief questioning from another GOP member. He asks whether the US government ever asked the Libyan government for overflight permission. Hicks responds that a drone was overhead and it had permission. No other requests for permission were asked for, but Hicks and Nordstrom say the Libyans would have granted such permission if it had been asked. Hicks testified that he debriefed Clinton at 2 am after the attack, but she continued to blame the YouTube for days afterward. He never even believed that the YouTube movie had anything to do with the attack.

2:50 pm Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL) takes over, asks Hicks about timelines. She gets the flight time wrong in her first question. Asks Hicks if he knows why the rescue team was told not to go to Benghazi. Answer: He does not. Kelly reads a DOD press release stating that there was nothing the team could have done in Benghazi, yields the rest of her time to Rep. Connolly. Connolly brings up a NYT time story from Sept. 12 quoting a Libyan official blaming the movie. Hicks says his team’s assessment was that the video played no role in instigating the attack, based on the lack of demonstration and any sign that the video had made any difference anywhere in Libya. Issa notes that the same NYT story reported that the consulate was unsafe and should have been shut down.

2:56 pm Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) takes over questioning, asks Hicks about his conversation with Jones regarding Rice’s statements. He says the conversation was “curt,” and that soon thereafter he started getting questioned about his “management style.”
Gosar plays Clinton’s “What difference, at this point, does it make?” video, asks Hicks to respond to it. Hicks: Libyan president was insulted, and his credibility was reduced along with his ability to govern. He was angry even two weeks later. It negatively affected our ability to get the FBI to Benghazi quickly enough to investigate. This is the third time Hicks has connected the Clinton and Rice statements to obstructing the FBI investigation. Hicks says the FBI never interviewed him. Command had passed to Hicks after Stevens’ death.

3:02 pm Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) takes over questioning. Horsford pins the blame on Congress, another go at blaming budget cuts rather than the individuals who made concrete decisions before, during and after the attack. This line of argument has been debunked by Charlene Lamb under oath, but Democrats do not seem to care.
Horsford’s speech is aimed at blaming Congress collectively, meaning anyone who wants to cut federal spending, rather than Clinton, Obama or anyone else who made decisions in Benghazi.

3:05 pm Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) takes over, immediately debunks Horsford’s speech. Meehan asks Nordstrom how security could have been so lax on that day, Nordstrom says he is still asking that question. Meehan notes that Clinton had to sign off on any security waiver. Nordstrom says that the ARB has never answered that question. Meehan notes the numerous terrorist attacks in Benghazi leading up to the 9-11 attack, asks Thompson whether any reasonable security official in State should have viewed the mission in Benghazi as a likely target.
Thompson: Yes. Nordstrom says that the decisions to deny security enhancements seemed to be part of a “script” driven by politics rather than the security situation. State had “normalized” Libya’s security profile, meaning family of staff could return to the country according to State Dept. protocol.

3:14 pm Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) takes over questioning. Asks Nordstrom if he ever asked Stevens not to travel to Benghazi on 9-11. Nordstrom was not on post at that point. Cardenas tries to turn that statement into a change of opinion on Nordstrom’s part. A skillful questioner may have been able to get away with that sleight of hand, but Cardenas is not skillful. It came off as an attack on Nordstrom, who had repeatedly voiced his security concerns. Nordstrom was not in a position to warn Stevens on 9-11, as he had left Libya in July.
Cardenas turns the questioning to Hicks, who testifies that the mission took several steps to minimize Stevens’ profile before and during the trip. Cardenas is trying to depict the security warnings and today’s statements as Monday morning quarterbacking. He failed.

3:20 pm Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) takes over questioning. Hicks again testifies that Jones started criticizing his “management style” sharply after he asked about Rice’s five statements blaming the movie. Recall that Clinton and Obama had personally commended Hicks prior to his questioning Rice. He says there was a sharp change in how he was treated after that moment. Hicks says that he has taken another job within State which is effectively a demotion to desk officer.

3:26 pm Issa reads from a cable from President Obama to Libya’s president dated Sept. 17, in which Obama calls Benghazi a “tragic attack.” The cable does not call it a “terrorist attack” or talk about fighting terrorism.

3:28 pm Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX) takes over and asks Thompson if his FEST group is built to respond to quiescent situations or “hot spots.” Answer: Hot spots. Asks if blaming the YouTube damaged our relationship with Libya. Hicks: It complicated our relationship with the Libyan people.
Asks Nordstrom to describe the “February 17th Martyrs Brigade” that had been contracted to provide security in Benghazi.
Then asks Hicks if members of that brigade were involved in the attack. Hicks: Yes, they were. Farenthold says he is shocked that the US employs people with terrorist ties to work with our personnel. Nordstrom goes into a long list of similar decisions in Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere. “It was the best bad plan,” Nordstrom said.

3:33 pm Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) assumes the mic. He picks up questioning about the lawyer who was not allowed to attend interviews with the ARB. “Was that unusual?’ Hastings asked Hicks. Hicks says it had never happened before in his career. Then questions Hicks again about his treatment before and after questioning Rice. Hicks says he had never had any adverse relationships with superiors prior that moment, but afterward, Jones questioned why any superior would want him back and complained that staff had complained about him.

3:39 pm Break time.

3:53 pm the hearing resumes.
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) takes the mic. Hicks tells her that he and other witnesses have had their access to information curtailed because they have never been allowed to read the classified ARB report.

3:57 pm Rep. Bob Woodall (R-GA) takes over questioning. Asks Nordstrom whether the security decisions were being made by Lamb or someone above her. He points again at Lamb and Undersecretary Kennedy. He says he believes that any decision Lamb was making was being run by Kennedy. Nordstrom says the reasons for the security denials were never verbalized but he suspected that it was political and that their requests were “embarrassing” to the State Department. He suspects that high level State officials were embarrassed at having to rely on DOD for security. One of his request cables, sent in July, was never even responded to. Nordstrom says that that was very unusual, that putting a request into a cable puts it into the official record and State then usually responds.

4:02 pm Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) takes over questioning. Davis reads from the statement of a unnamed military official, who was interviewed by Fox incognito and says the military had assets in the area that could have responded. Davis reads a DOD statement saying that there was not enough time to respond before the end of the second attack, on the annex in Benghazi. Davis lined that statement up with the ARB’s findings, again, never allowing for the possibility that the ARB itself was compromised.

4:07 pm Maloney (D) asks whether Stevens was aware of the security situation in Benghazi. Nordstrom says yes, he was.

4:08 pm Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) asks Thompson about reaction to his request to deploy the FEST to rescue the Americans in Benghazi. He was told “It was not the right time.” Thompson says the FEST trains for emergencies and could have been deployed effectively. Massie asks him if the ARB has led to changes that would prevent another Benghazi from happening elsewhere. Answer: No. Hicks testified that Amb. Pickering was surprised that Sec. Clinton intended to establish a permanent post in Benghazi, and that was why Stevens was there on 9-11-12. Clinton also intended to visit Tripoli later in the year, and wanted to announce the permanent post at that time. Stevens was in Benghazi to make her wish come true, and died.

4:14 pm Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) questions. Nordstrom says he expected Clinton to have read or been briefed on his cable requesting more security, “Absolutely.” Hicks says that Washington was told that Stevens would travel to Benghazi around August 22nd. Washington offered no concerns about traveling to Benghazi.

4:20 pm Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) questions. Asks Thompson whether anyone other than himself wanted to deploy the FEST. Yes, both the FBI and DOD were interested in deploying it. They were “shocked and amazed” that they were not being called.

4:24 pm Gowdy (R) asks about an email Hicks received on Sept 12.

4:25 pm Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R-MI) asks Thompson about the composition of the FEST. Asks why Special Operators were not deployed to rescue. Hicks says his teams did deploy, first with seven members, then with more, but could not deploy all of their security personnel.

4:28 pm Gowdy resumes questioning about the email he brought up at 4:24. The email was sent on 9-12 and in it, Rice claims that the FBI investigation had already begun. It would not begin for 17 days. Gowdy drives home the point that Rice’s blaming the movie delayed the investigation and did “immeasurable” damage to the investigation.

4:31 pm Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) asks who gave the stand-down orders (finally!). The commanding officer, LtCol Gibson did not tell Hicks who was responsible for the stand-down order.'

4:52 pm Chaffetz is eviscerating sections of the ARB’s unclassified report. Today’s testimony has contradicted the ARB’s findings that there were no denials of support during the attack and no delays in responding. Unsurprisingly, Maloney steps up to defend the ARB and rip the Republican majority on the committee. 

Now Cummings has joined the attack, which centers on Mark Thompson’s testimony. The Democrats are upset that they never had access to Thompson’s testimony before the hearing and had not had a chance to prepare to respond to it. In other words, they’re mad that they could not adequately pre-spin him. Issa asks all three witnesses if the Republicans ever told any of them not to speak with any of the committee’s Democrats. Answers: No.

4:53 pm: Rep. Jason Chaffetz breaks down and weeps as he remembers the dead in Benghazi.

4:54 pm: Chairman Issa counters Rep. Maloney's claim that Republicans on the committee did not provide equal access to the witnesses to both sides of the aisle. 

Cummings weighs in, saying that while Democrats want to protect whistleblowers, they would have liked to interview all the witnesses. 
Issa asks Thompson, Hicks, and Nordstrom whether Issa had asked them not to speak with the Democrats; all say no. 

4:56 pm: As the hearing winds down, one question that remains unanswered is who ordered U.S. forces not to intervene--or to "stand down."
Hicks could not say who gave those instructions, or why. Only President Obama could have given such an order. The question remains: what did President Obama do when he learned of the Benghazi attacks, and why? 

5:02 pm: Debate now revolves around the decision to open a mission in Benghazi, and stay there after the British left. Rep. Gowdy makes clear, through questioning, that Clinton was responsible for those decisions. He adds that Cheryl Mills was responsible in part for the talking points debacle. Nordstrom adds that she prepared State Department staff for testimony about Benghazi in October. At the very least, the Committee now has a new key witness to call. Gowdy: "We're going to find out what happened." 

5:16 pm: "This hearing is now closed, but this investigation is not over."