WASHINGTON - As the weakly protected U.S. diplomatic compound in eastern Libya came under attack the night of Sept. 11, 2012, the deputy head of the embassy in Tripoli sought in vain to get the Pentagon to scramble fighter jets over Benghazi in a show of force that might have averted a second attack on a nearby CIA complex.
Hours later, according to excerpts of the account by the U.S. diplomat, Gregory Hicks, American officials in the Libyan capital sought permission to deploy four U.S. special operations troops to Benghazi aboard a Libyan military aircraft early the next morning. They were told to stand down.
Congressional investigators released a partial transcript of Hicks' testimony Monday in advance of a hearing on Wednesday at which he is scheduled to appear. His remarks are the first public account from a U.S. official who was in Libya at the time of the attacks about the options that were weighed as militants mobbed the American diplomatic outpost and CIA station in Benghazi, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other government employees.
The account is certain to reignite a debate over whether the Obama administration has been sufficiently forthcoming in its public accounting of the events and missteps that resulted in the first death of a U.S. ambassador in the line of duty in a generation.
When it was all over and the jets had not been scrambled and the troops not dispatched, an American lieutenant colonel in Tripoli who commanded the four-man special ops team told Hicks he was sorry his men had been held back.
"I've never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than someone in the military," the officer told Hicks, according to the diplomat's account. Hicks called that "a nice compliment."
The administration has said that the independent review it commissioned after the Benghazi attack was exhaustive, and State Department officials have vowed to move swiftly to implement post-Benghazi reforms to make U.S. missions abroad safer. Republicans in Congress, however, say Hicks' account suggests the administration has not been entirely truthful.
"The White House and the Pentagon have allowed us to believe that there were no military options on the table," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah), one of the lawmakers who has called for greater disclosure about the attacks, said in a phone interview Monday. "The model of the military is to leave no person behind, and it's stunning and unacceptable to think we had military willing and ready to go and the Pentagon told them to stand down. That's just not the American way."
Chaffetz said the four troops who were not allowed to travel to Benghazi would have arrived after the attack on the CIA base ended, but may have provided first aid to wounded personnel. He noted that the order to keep them from traveling was given before the second attack began.
A Pentagon spokesman said he would review the excerpt from the forthcoming testimony. Defense Department officials have said they had no units that could have arrived in Benghazi in time to counter the attacks.
State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told reporters Monday afternoon that the Republican-led inquiry into the Benghazi attacks appears to be politicized.
He said, however, that the State Department is not seeking to suppress the accounts of whistle-blowers. "We have always encouraged any State Department employee who wants to share their story and tell the truth," he said.
Part of the Benghazi debate has focused on whether prompt action might have saved lives. In the initial attack, armed militants overran the compound where Stevens was staying, and he and another State Department officer, Sean Smith, were killed. Others in the compound made their way to a nearby annex used by the CIA, where the other two Americans, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died in an attack several hours later.
Hicks, a veteran foreign service officer who is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, told congressional staffers that he and others in Libya thought that flying U.S. military jets over Benghazi during the early hours of the attack could have had a deterrent effect.
"If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the [CIA] annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split," Hicks said. "They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them."
Hicks said that late on the night of Sept. 11 he called the embassy's defense attache, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and asked about sending jets.
"Is there anything coming?" he said he asked, according to the transcript.
Phillips told Hicks that the nearest planes were at Aviano Air Base in Italy, and that it would take two to three hours to get them off the ground, the diplomat told congressional staffers. There were no planes nearby that could have refueled airborne planes.
"The answer was, it's too far away, there are no tankers, there is nothing, there is nothing that could respond," he said.
A team of American officials from Tripoli arrived in Benghazi in a plane shortly after midnight to provide support, but the excerpts offer no insight into what they did. Shortly after that flight took off, the Libyan prime minister notified Hicks that Stevens had died and told the diplomat he was sending a Libyan military aircraft with reinforcements. Hicks and a special operations officer at the embassy sought permission to send the four-man team on that flight, according to the staffers.
"I guess they didn't have the right authority from the right level," he said.