They summoned a whistle-blower to Capitol Hill, but instead they got a virtuoso storyteller. Gregory Hicks, the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Libya the night Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, was to be the star witness for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the man leading the probe of the Obama administration’s handling of the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.
But despite Issa’s incautious promise that the hearing’s revelations would be “damaging” to Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hicks didn’t lay a glove on the former secretary of state Wednesday. He spoke of watching TV at his residence in Tripoli when a security officer “ran into my villa yelling, ‘Greg! Greg! The consulate’s under attack.'” He described his brief final phone conversation with Stevens, 600 miles away: “He said, ‘Greg, we’re under attack. … And I said, ‘OK,’ and the line cut.”
Hicks had his grievances with how events in Benghazi were handled, but his gripes were about bureaucratic squabbles rather than political scandal. And this whistleblower spent a good bit of time tooting his own horn. “I earned a reputation for being an innovative policymaker who got the job done. I was promoted quickly and received numerous awards,” Hicks informed the lawmakers. “I have two master’s degrees. … I speak fluent Arabic. … Incoming charge Larry Pope told me personally that my performance was near-heroic.”
Issa and his Republican colleagues encouraged this cult of personality in their own statements, evidently anticipating an effort by Democrats to discredit Hicks. But it turned out there was no need.
Hicks said his “jaw dropped” when he heard U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice falsely claim on TV that there had been a protest at the Benghazi consulate, but he declined an invitation to challenge the veracity of the director of national intelligence, who said the statement reflected “our collective best judgment at the time.”
Hicks was of little use to Republicans in their efforts to connect the lapses in the Benghazi response to Clinton or to the Obama White House. He said that he spoke to Clinton by phone at 2 a.m. that night and that she supported his actions. He undermined one of Issa’s claims — that Clinton had rejected an increase in security for the Libya facilities — when he agreed that the secretary of state’s name appears on all cables, even if she doesn’t write them.
Instead of hearing a tale of political shenanigans, those in the audience heard a far better story of confusion and desperation on the ground — such as Hicks’ attempt the morning after the fighting to send a four-member Special Forces team from Tripoli to Benghazi for reinforcement. When military higher-ups rejected the request, the team leader, a lieutenant colonel, was “furious,” Hicks recounted. “He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.'”
That’s not much use to Issa, but it will be a great line in the movie.
DANA MILBANK is a political reporter for The Washington Post and has authored two books on national political campaigns and the national political parties.