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By Jake Tapper and Dana Bash
In an interview with congressional investigators, the former top diplomat in Libya expressed concern that more could have been done by the military on the night of September 11, 2012 and morning of September 12, 2012, to protect those being attacked at the U.S. compound and annex in Benghazi, Libya. Specifically, he wondered why the military did not send a plane as a show of force into Libyan airspace, and why four U.S. Special Operations soldiers were not permitted to travel to Benghazi on a Libyan plane the morning of September 12.
“The Libyans that I talked to and the Libyans and other Americans who were involved in the war have told me also that Libyan revolutionaries were very cognizant of the impact that American and NATO airpower had with respect to their victory,” Greg Hicks, then the US deputy chief of mission in Libya, told investigators on April 11 of this year. “They are under no illusions that American and NATO airpower won that war for them. And so, in my personal opinion, a fast mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night.”
Hicks went on to say he believes “if we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced” – around 9:30 p.m. that night – “I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.”
The former deputy chief of mission in his April 11, 2013 interview suggested that the Libya government would have granted the U.S. permission to fly the planes. “I believe that the Libyans were hoping that we were going to come bail them out of this mess,” Hicks said. “And, you know, they were as surprised as we were that American, the military forces that did arrive only arrived on the evening of September 12th.”
In February, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey was asked by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, why F-16s at Aviano Air Base in Italy were not deployed to Benghazi that night.
“This is the middle of the night now, these are not aircraft on strip alert,” Dempsey said. “They're there as part of our commitment to NATO and Europe. And so, as we looked at the timeline, it was pretty clear that it would take up to 20 hours or so to get them there. Secondly, Senator, importantly, it was the wrong tool for the job.”
Then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified that “unfortunately, there was no specific intelligence or indications of an imminent attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi. And frankly without an adequate warning, there was not enough time given the speed of the attack for armed military assets to respond. That's not just my view or General Dempsey's view. It was the view of the Accountability Review Board that studied what happened on that day. In the months since the tragedy at the temporary mission facility in the nearby annex in Benghazi, we've learned that there were actually two short duration attacks that occurred some six hours apart. And again, there was no specific intelligence that indicated that a second attack would occur at the annex which was located some two miles away.”
Panetta said, “the bottom line is this, that we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault, which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response, very simply, although we had forces deployed to the region. Time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response. Despite the uncertainty at the time, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to do everything we could to try to save American lives. Before, during, and after the attack, every request the Department of Defense received we did, we accomplished.”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hear from Hicks and others in a Wednesday hearing on the Benghazi tragedy, which ended in the deaths of four Americans – US Ambassador Chris Stevens, information officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the committee, tells CNN that “military personnel were ready, willing, and able, and within proximity, but the Pentagon told them they had no authority and to stand down.”
Officials from the Obama administration have testified that the military assets were not in place to conduct a rescue of the besieged U.S. officials in Benghazi.
“This is not 9/11,” Panetta said in a February interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “You cannot just simply call and expect within two minutes to have a team in place. It takes time. That’s the nature of it. Our people are there, they’re in position to move, but we’ve got to have good intelligence that gives us a heads up that something’s going to happen.”
At approximately 10 p.m. in Tripoli on the night of the first attack, Hicks – who was at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli - said he was talking to State Department officials in Washington, D.C., regional security officer John Martinec at the U.S. Embassy, defense attaché Lieutenant Colonel Keith Phillips and others. Phillips was reaching out to officials with the Libyan Ministry of Defense and to the chief of staff of the Libyan Armed Forces, as well as officials with the Joint Staff and the United States Africa Command.
Hicks recalled asking Phillips, "Is there anything coming?"
Phillips replied “that the nearest fighter planes were Aviano” – Aviano Air Base, in Italy – “that he had been told that it would take 2 to 3 hours to get them airborne, but that there were no tanker assets near enough to support a flight from Aviano,” Hicks recalled.
One team headed from Tripoli to Benghazi, arriving at around 1:15 am. Phillips, Hicks recalled “worked assiduously all night long to try to get the Libyan military to respond in some way.” The Libyan Prime Minister called Hicks and told him that the U.S. Ambassador had been killed, after which “the Libyan military agreed to fly their C-130 to Benghazi and carry additional personnel to Benghazi as reinforcements.”
Hicks said that four U.S. Special Forces troops in Tripoli, led by Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, planned to hitch a ride on the Libyan plan to travel to Benghazi to help.
“We fully intended for those guys to go, because we had already essentially stripped ourselves of our security presence, or our security capability to the bare minimum,” Hicks recalled.
But the four were informed by someone with United States Africa Command – SOCAFRICA - that they didn’t have the authority to do so, Hicks said.
“So Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, who is the SOCAFRICA commander, his team, you know, they were on their way to the vehicles to go to the airport to get on the C 130 when he got a phone call from SOCAFRICA which said, ‘you can't go now, you don't have authority to go now,’" Hicks said. “And so they missed the flight.”
“They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it,” Hicks said. “I still remember Colonel Gibson, he said, ‘I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military.’ A nice compliment.”
Hicks recalled asking Phillips again if any military help was coming? “The answer, again, was the same as before,” Hicks recalled. “It's too far away, there are no tankers ... there is nothing that could respond.”
The C-130 left between 6 and 6:30 a.m., so the four Special Forces troops would not have arrived in time to fend off the 5:15 a.m. attack on the CIA annex in Benghazi.
“I guess they just didn't have the right authority from the right level,” Hicks recalled.