(CNSNews.com) - In the weeks leading up to the terrorist attacks on the U.S. government facilities in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, the State Department deployed only three diplomatic security officers at its mission in that eastern Libyan city.
All three were on what the State Department calls “temporary duty.”
At the same time, State Department headquarters had been notified that al Qaeda and Islamist militias had ten training camps in that same city.
And contrary to the security requirements the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act made the secretary of state personally responsible for upholding, all non-military U.S. government personnel in Benghazi were not operating out of the same facility.
The State Department had one compound. The CIA had another.
Chris Stevens, who became the U.S. ambassador to Libya at the end of May 2012, and Greg Hicks, who became deputy chief of mission at the end of July, understood that the State Department facility in Benghazi was vulnerable—and were working to fix the situation.
On Aug. 15, 2012—less than a month before terrorists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi and killed Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty—State Department personnel in Libya held an Emergency Action Committee meeting to discuss the security situation in Benghazi.
The next day, Stevens sent a cable to State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., describing the discussion in this meeting. The cable expressly warned of the terrorists in Benghazi and the “limited manpower” available to defend the State Department mission against an attack.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence cited this cable and published quotes from it in an unclassified report the committee published in January 2014.
“A CIA officer,” said Stevens’s cable, according to the report, “‘briefed the EAC on the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi."
“The Regional Security Officer,” the cable said, according to the report, “‘expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound.’”
At the same time, the State Department was reducing its security assets in Libya.
Yet, also at the same time, Ambassador Stevens needed to move forward on the request made to him directly by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton--in an “exit interview” as he left Washington to become the ambassador in Tripoli--that he convert the State Department presence in Benghazi into a permanent consulate.
The money for this project needed to be re-purposed before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2012.
And Stevens and Hicks had been informed by the State Department secretariat that Clinton was planning to visit Libya in either October or December—after which, Clinton had already publicly stated, she did not intend to serve as secretary of state in an Obama second term.
In a Dec. 20, 2012 interview with the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that was cited and quoted in that committee’s unclassified 2014 report, the CIA Chief of Base in Benghazi confirmed that Stevens had been working on a plan to locate the State Department and CIA in the same facility in Benghazi before the end of 2012.
“The Chief of Base stated that there had been discussions with Ambassador Stevens about co-locating the Annex and the State Department compound at the same facility,” said he intelligence committee report.
"We had been actively looking," the CIA Chief of Base told the committee. "We had had our officers come out there to survey different locations in Benghazi to look for a location that we could co-locate with the State Department, and we were planning to do that before the end of this  calendar year. So there was absolutely a plan to do that.”
Greg Hicks testified as a whistleblower about Benghazi in 2013 in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
He is now retired from the State Department and recently gave an interview to CNSNews.com. Here is a video and transcript of that interview:
Terence Jeffrey: Our guest today is Greg Hicks.
Greg, who recently retired from the U.S. State Department, was the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Mission at the Embassy in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi and murdered four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Prior to that, Greg served the United Sates in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and The Gambia. He has two master’s degrees from the University of Michigan, one in applied economics and the other in Modern Near Eastern and North African Studies.
Greg, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. I greatly appreciate it.
Greg Hicks: Well, thank you very much, Terry. I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today.
Jeffrey: In one way, I think this story actually begins back in 1998, when Osama bin Laden’s terrorist group, al Qaida, simultaneously bombed two U.S. embassies--in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.
After that, the State Department empaneled an Accountability Review Board. They made recommendations, and Congress passed a law called the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act. It was sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith. President Bill Clinton signed it.
And that law, two of its provisions were that new U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas had to have a 100-foot setback from the street and that all U.S. government agencies that were not under the command of the U.S. military that were operating in the same city would need to be collocated at the same facility.
Now, when you testified along with Eric Nordstrom in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee back in 2013, Nordstrom who had been the Regional Security Officer in Tripoli up until July 26—I believe just before you got there? Is that correct?
Hicks: Yes, he left just before I arrived.
Jeffrey: Okay. So, Nordstrom said the following in his written testimony in the Oversight Committee, when you testified together with him. He said:
“SECCA establishes statutory security requirements for U.S. diplomatic facilities involving collocation and setback. Under SECCA, the State Department, in selecting a site for any new U.S. diplomatic facility abroad, must collocate all U.S. Government personnel at the post on the site. Each newly acquired U.S. diplomatic facility must be placed not less than 100 feet from the perimeter of the property. New U.S. chancery/consulate buildings, solely or substantially occupied by the U.S. Government, must meet collocation and 100-foot setback statutory requirements; otherwise, waivers to the statutory requirements must be granted by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, in accordance with 12 FAM 315.5, the Secretary of State must notify the appropriate congressional committees in writing of any waiver with respect to a chancery or consulate building and the reasons for the determination, not less than 15 days prior to implementing a statutory collocation or setback waiver.”
Nordstrom went on to testify in his written testimony that:
“At the time of the Benghazi attack, only a small number of the 264 overseas diplomatic posts were rated either HIGH or CRITICAL in threat categories related to political violence, terrorism, and crime. Our posts in Benghazi and Tripoli were among those posts and the only two facilities that met no OSPB or SECCA standards.”
That’s what he said. And then he went on to say that:
“No waivers of SECCA requirements or exceptions to the required OSPB standards were prepared for either the Tripoli or Benghazi compounds.”
Did you disagree in any way with Eric Nordstrom’s testimony about that?
Hicks: No, I would not disagree with Eric at all. He was the substantial, substantive matter expert on this issue. He was responsible for implementing our security programs in Libya, and to make sure that we were protected as best he could do given the resources he was provided.
Jeffrey: So, your understanding as an experienced State Department officer, particularly someone who had experience in Middle East, was that it was the responsibility of the Secretary of State to personally provide a waiver, if in fact--in this case Hillary Clinton—decided that the SECCA standards would not be met in terms of the U.S. facilities in Tripoli and Benghazi.
Hicks: That is my understanding of the law. That she cannot delegate that waiver issuance.
Jeffrey: And the facilities that the U.S. State Department had then in Tripoli and Benghazi, neither of them met the SECCA standards?
Hicks: The facility in Benghazi met the standards for setback but did not meet the standards for co-location. Likewise, the facility in Tripoli did not meet either standard.
Jeffrey: So, in Tripoli, neither of the SECCA standards. Benghazi met the setback standard but not the co-location standard. When the House Select Committee on Benghazi came out with its report it included a section that talked about why the State Department did not follow through on the SECCA standards with regard to Benghazi. And it cites Mr. Kennedy, who was the undersecretary for management—is that correct?
Hicks: He was the undersecretary for management. He was also the acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security in 1998 when Nairobi and Dar es Salaam occurred.
Jeffrey: So, he was there when that was happening?
Hicks: Yes, sir.
Jeffrey: Now, in the House Select Committee Report, it says “Kennedy attempted to justify this exclusion: ‘When we go into one of these temporary facilities, we take the Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards—OSPB is how we refer to them—we take the OSPB standards as our goals…We treat the temporary facilities as if we were heading towards interim by using the OSPB standards as our goal.
‘In addition to the OSPB security standards, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act (SECCA), the applicable federal security law, provides among other things a diplomatic facility ensure: (1) all U.S. Government personnel are located together in the new diplomatic facility; and (2) the diplomatic facility is located “not less than 100 feet from the perimeter of the property on which the facility is situated.” With regard to Benghazi, however, the State Department Office of the Legal Adviser determined: [T]his facility would not fit within the definition of a “diplomatic facility” under SECCA, which defines the term as an office that (1) is officially notified to the host government as diplomatic/consular premises or (2) houses USG personnel with an official status recognized by the host government. If the facility will not be notified to the host government then it will not be considered inviolable, and our personnel will not have any official status, then the facility would not meet the definition of a diplomatic facility under the statute.”
When you went to Tripoli to serve as the deputy chief of mission to the U.S. Embassy there, did you understand that the facility in Benghazi was not legally considered a diplomatic facility of the U.S. government?
Hicks: No, I did not. Every person assigned to Benghazi had diplomatic status and were reported to the Libyan government as diplomats assigned to our mission in Libya. So, I don’t understand the logic that was presented by the Office of Legal Counsel.
Jeffrey: Were you aware that the Office of Legal Counsel had arrived at this opinion?
Hicks: I was not actually aware. I was, again, not necessarily looking at the legal issues associated with our status in Libya from that standpoint. I was looking at practical matters such as: Do we have enough security personnel to protect us? Are our walls high enough? Do we have wires on our walls? Do we have cameras around our facilities so we can see what is going on? And, as the committee pointed out, and Rep. Mike Pompeo pointed out, we made over 600 requests for additional security personnel and infrastructure upgrades during the period preceding Sept. 11, 2012. And many of those, of course, did not go answered.
Jeffrey: In the Accountability Review Board report, one of the first investigations that came out, they noted that there were security issues at the Tibesti Hotel, which was the first place that then-Special Envoy Stevens stayed when he went into Benghazi and that he actually moved into the Annex for a period of time while he was special envoy.
And the House Select Committee, talking about that period—they don’t call it the Annex, the ARB calls it the Annex—they say that he “temporarily collocated” with other U.S. government personnel.
So, when there was a real threat to Stevens the first time he was over there, is it true that they temporarily abided by one of the SECCA standards by having Stevens move into the more secure Annex facility?
Hicks: I believe that is a correct reading of the historical record, yes.
Jeffrey: And then he moved out to a new facility that eventually became the Temporary Mission Compound?
Hicks: Right, because the Temporary Mission Compound was more advantageous for diplomatic activity at the time.
Jeffrey: But they were no longer co-locating, so at that point as you were moving forward that would not be in compliance with SECCA? The fact that there were two separate facilities?
Hicks: Correct. I don’t believe so. But also keep in mind that the diplomatic security team assigned to protect then-Special Representative Stevens was much larger than the team that was with him on the night of September 11.
Jeffrey: Right, some of the reports say he had ten, some say he had nine, but he had significantly more.
Hicks: Yes. And I’ve seen actual anecdotal reports that he may have had as many as thirteen diplomatic security agents with him.
Jeffrey: And then when he left the country they significantly cut back on the U.S. State Department personnel that were there.
Hicks: Yes, we cut back to five people—two diplomats and three DS agents.
Jeffrey: August 22, which was at the time when the rebels were in fact over-running Tripoli and the Qaddafi regime was falling, Jacob Sullivan, who was a senior aide to then-Secretary of State Clinton, wrote an email that the committee refers to as the “Tick Tock email.”
And he says that Hillary Clinton had essentially ownership—she had quote “leadership/ownership/stewardship of this country’s Libya policy from start to finish.” That’s what Sullivan was writing in a memo that was forwarded to Secretary Clinton at that time. Does that strike you as the sort of memo that a senior State Department official would be sending to the secretary of state in a moment like that?
Hicks: I would not expect a senior career officer to write a note like that, but it is something that a political appointee might write.
Jeffrey: And he was a political appointee.
Jeffrey: You think he was looking at it in a political framework rather than a U.S.-interest framework?
Hicks: I believe so, yes.
Jeffrey: Now, not more than a month after that on Oct. 18, 2011, Secretary Clinton made a visit to Tripoli and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in their annual report, this is what they said:
“One of the most complex security challenges presented to the secretary’s diplomatic security detail was her equally and historic and groundbreaking trip to Libya in October, after the fall of the Qaddafi regime.” It goes on to say: “The transitional operating government in Tripoli was turbulent and unpredictable. DS advance team agents engaged in delicate negotiations with local militia and quickly coordinated a diverse security team of quick reaction forces, a tactical operations center, casualty evacuation planners, and DOD assets pre-positioned off the coast of Tripoli.”
Do you think it was prudent and wise for the Department of Defense and the State Department to arrange for Defense Department assets to be positioned off the coast of Tripoli when Secretary Clinton visited there in October of 2011?
Jeffrey: That was a wise move?
Hicks: Absolutely, a wise move. Libya was a country that had effectively no central government. It was at the time being run by militias.
And it was still being run by militias a year later. And these militias were all heavily armed. They had all raided the stockpiles and arsenals of the Libyan army, and if you read about Qaddafi’s army you know that he had one of the widest array, and heaviest sets, of armaments in the world. Much, much larger than a country of five million people actually needed in order to maintain its own internal security and be a common partner in the world of nations.
Jeffrey: Given the close attention to detail of Secretary Clinton’s security when she visited Tripoli and the understanding of the threat, do you find it extraordinary that there was so little attention paid to the messages they were getting about the threat in Libya the next year?
Hicks: That is one of the greatest mysteries, I think, that still remains to be told. How could all this stream of reporting coming out of the embassy, coming out of other sources, coming from Sidney Blumenthal, about the gradual disintegration of public order in Libya and the growth of extremist militias in that country, how that translated into security personnel being withdrawn from our mission in Libya.
Jeffrey: Actually withdrawn. Not augmented, withdrawn?
Hicks: That’s right. Withdrawn from 34 at the beginning of August to 6 in Tripoli on the night of September 11. And as the report says we had so few people in Tripoli that only two DS security agents could be spared to go with Ambassador Stevens to Benghazi on his trip, leaving four people to protect 28 diplomats in Tripoli.
Jeffrey: Greg, when you testified in the Oversight Committee three years ago, you talked about Ambassador Stevens talking to you about the exit interview he had with Secretary Clinton before he departed to become the ambassador in Tripoli. Can you tell us about what Ambassador Stevens told you that Secretary Clinton wanted him to do?
Hicks: Chris was very excited. We had a lunch meeting after the swearing-in ceremony and before he went to Tripoli. And he told me that one of the outcomes of that conversation was a request from the secretary to make Benghazi a permanent diplomatic post, a consulate. And that to him was an exciting opportunity. To me, it was an exciting opportunity. And, I think, to both us we saw it as a way to correct the security flaws in our position there. We understood the political importance of a presence in Benghazi. The American flag needed to be there. Eastern Libya was the cockpit of the revolution. It was the heart of the Libyan culture and Libyan society. But it was also the center of the Islamist extremist presence in the country. And, so, we needed to have a post there not only to show our commitment to Libyan democracy but also to keep an eye on the extremists.
Jeffrey: So, Ambassador Stevens told you that Secretary Clinton had specifically requested that he seek to make it a permanent post in Benghazi.
Jeffrey: And you and Ambassador Stevens saw that also as an opportunity to correct the security problems with the State Department presence in Benghazi?
Jeffrey: Was it your understanding that Secretary Clinton also understood the security problems with the State Department presence in Benghazi and thought that making it a permanent post would correct those?
Hicks: I don’t believe that was part of the conversation with her at all and given the strange bifurcation between security--what withdrawal, at a time when the threat environment was increasing--I can’t imagine that Mrs. Clinton actually thought about security at all.
Jeffrey: So, the State Department is withdrawing security assets from Libya at the same time she is telling Ambassador Stevens, who is about to go, I would like you to go over there and make Benghazi a permanent mission.
Jeffrey: So, you arrived in Libya as the deputy chief of mission at the end of July?
Jeffrey: And, in the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which was put out in January 2014, they talk about an Emergency Action Committee meeting that took place on August 16, 2012. This is from their public report that is out there, and from a cable that Ambassador Stevens sent back to Washington. [The EAC meeting took place on August 15, 2012 and the cable was dated Aug. 16 ,2016.]
And one of the quotes they have from that cable, they say:
“The cable summarizing this EAC included the following points: (1) The Principal Officer ‘remarked that the security situation in Benghazi was “trending negatively” and "that this daily pattern of violence would be the 'new normal' for the foreseeable future, particularly given the minimal capabilities of organizations such as the Supreme Security Council and local police."
Point two in the cable was: “A CIA officer ‘briefed the EAC on the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi.’”
And then the third point was: “The Principal Officer and a CIA officer ‘expressed concerns with the lack of host nation security to support the U.S. Mission [facility].’”
And quote number four is: “A CIA officer ‘expressed concerns with Post’s relationship with the [redacted] [local militia], particularly in light of some of the actions taken by the brigade's subsidiary members.’”
And then five: “The Regional Security Officer ‘expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound.’”
By the way, are you familiar with that cable?
Hicks: Absolutely. I was in that meeting.
Jeffrey: You were in that Emergency Action Committee meeting?
Hicks: Yes, I was.
Jeffrey: Did you chair that meeting, by the way? Would that be the job of the deputy chief of mission?
Hicks: Yes, I did.
Jeffrey: Okay, so it is August 16. It is three weeks before Ambassador Stevens is going to go to Benghazi, or he ended up going to Benghazi. You are chairing this Emergency Action Committee, and, according to what was published by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA “briefed the EAC on the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi.” Now, I take it that the intelligence committee report is correct about that? Right?
Hicks: I believe it is. Yes, that is correct to the best of my memory.
Jeffrey: So, the understanding of the U.S. government at that time, and the CIA, was that there were ten Islamist militias and al Qaeda training camps within Benghazi?
Hicks: That’s correct.
Jeffrey: And at that time, Greg. Go ahead, I am sorry.
Hicks: That we knew of.
Jeffrey: So, Greg, in this Emergency Action Committee meeting that you are chairing, as reported by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the CIA officer said that there are ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi. This is what they were telling you?
Hicks: Right, that’s what we knew of.
Jeffrey: These were locations that were being used by al Qaida and Islamist militias that were actually pinpointed and known about—they know this is al Qaeda, for example—operating in Benghazi?
Hicks: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Jeffrey: Now, I think to the average person, to me, this just sounds extraordinary. You are talking about a city in eastern Libya, you have this State Department facility, where at the time how many people were sitting in that facility on August 16? The Temporary Mission?
Jeffrey: There are five people. There’s a principal officer, is that correct?
Jeffrey: And he’s on temporary duty. He’s come in from someplace else for what a month?
Hicks: He arrived about the same time I arrived and left at the end of August.
Jeffrey: So, the person who was the principal officer at the Temporary Mission Compound had come in at the end of July. He’d been there two weeks. And along with him is an information management officer?
Jeffrey: Was that Sean Smith at the time?
Hicks: No, it was a different officer. Sean came in, I think, toward the end of August.
Jeffrey: So, the information management officer was also someone who had been sent there on temporary duty from someplace else?
Jeffrey: And had been in Benghazi for a very short time?
Jeffrey: Do you know whether that person had any experience in the Middle East or in Libya?
Hicks: I doubt it. Our information management people basically keep us operating. His job was to make sure that the communications were connected. That the facility had the supplies that it needed to keep running and he could keep the principal officer doing his or her jobs.
Jeffrey: And the folks who were rotated through that position, they might never have been in the Middle East before?
Hicks: It’s quite likely. Yes.
Jeffrey: And, then, there were three diplomatic security officers that were deployed at the Temporary Mission Compound at that time?
Jeffrey: The ARB report and some of the other reports say that many of the diplomatic security officers that were rotated through that facility who were also on temporary duty were relatively inexperienced. Some of them, in fact, had not had overseas experience. Is that your recollection.
Hicks: Yes. I think that is an accurate description of the circumstances.
Jeffrey: Do you know at the time whether the three diplomatic security agents who were on the ground in August of 2012, whether they were like that, they were new folks who had not been overseas, any of them?
Hicks: I believe two of the three survivors of the attack were there at the time on August 16th.
Jeffrey: Were there then. So, looking at this, you have temporary duty people brought from other places in the world, diplomatic security agents who might not have much experience, may not even have overseas experience, who are sitting in this unsecured compound, in a place where the CIA officer there, who knows what he’s talking about, says to you and Ambassador Stevens that, quote, that there were “ten Islamist…and AQ training camps” within that city.
Jeffrey: That was the lay of the land three weeks before Sept. 11, 2012?
Hicks: Yes. That was the lay of the land pertaining to the State Department facility.
Jeffrey: The State Department facility. And down the road, you are not co-locating with the Annex.
Jeffrey: But the Annex was much more secure?
Hicks: Yes. But we’re not--We can’t talk about that.
Hicks: But it was much better situated.
Jeffrey: Right. And had--prior to this moment--the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act protocols been followed, that Eric Nordstrom thought should have been followed, then the State Department and the CIA personnel in Benghazi would have been co-located within one facility.
Hicks: Correct. And that would have been a much, much better circumstance.
Jeffrey: Because you would have had better physical security and more numerous and more experienced security personnel.
Jeffrey: But because the State Department people were separated out, put in this Temporary Mission Facility, and you had people rotated through on a short term, they were put in an extremely vulnerable situation in a city where there were ten Islamist militia and al Qaeda training camps.
Hicks: That’s right.
Jeffrey: And that is part of what you and Ambassador Chris Stevens were trying to remedy by converting the U.S. presence in Benghazi, the State Department presence, into a permanent facility?
Hicks: Exactly. So, we would then bring all of our personnel together into one facility, and then the next step would be to build a permanent facility there that would have been based on Inman standards. And those standards are pretty strong. I went through attacks on Inman buildings in Bahrain and in Afghanistan.
Jeffrey: You were in them when they came under attack?
Hicks: I was not in the building in Bahrain. But I was in Bahrain when it was attacked.
Jeffrey: And the building withstood the attack and people were safe inside?
Hicks: That’s correct.
Jeffrey: So, those standards work?
Hicks: They absolutely work.
Jeffrey: So, SECCA is a good law?
Hicks: It’s an excellent law when it is followed properly.
Jeffrey: By the senior people at the State Department.
Jeffrey: So, you and Ambassador Stevens were aware of the fact that these standards weren’t being met.
Jeffrey: You came out of this Emergency Action Committee meeting, for example, with an understanding this better get done.
Hicks: We knew we had to get it done and we knew we had to do it fast, because we were also looking at the money that we needed to make this happen disappearing on September 30th.
Jeffrey: Okay. You also testified about that in the Oversight Committee. Tell us about that. So, this is August 16, this is what you are hearing from the CIA on the ground. You just explained the security situation there. So, where is that money coming from and why do you need it in the next six weeks?
Hicks: Right. It’s coming from the Overseas Contingency Operations Budget for DOD. But some of that money can be reallocated for diplomatic security use in high threat environments and we knew there was money available but it would expire on September 30. So we were pushing very fast to get an approval and an obligation so that we would be able move forward on the construction project.
Jeffrey: And use those moneys from fiscal 2012 to pay for the improvement to the permanent site.
Jeffrey: So you knew that the September 11 anniversary was coming up. You knew the security situation. But that’s one thing providing the urgency. In your testimony, you also talked about the fact that Secretary Clinton was planning to make a trip to Libya later that year.
Hicks: Right. We understood from the secretary’s staff—not her personal staff, but the secretariat, a foreign service office that supports her travel and her operation--that she was looking at a trip to Tripoli in either October or December. And we had that directly from one of the senior officials on that team. And we now know from the report by the majority of the Benghazi Committee that she was in fact planning an October trip to Tripoli. And, so, knowing that she was coming, we wanted to not only solve the security problem, or begin the process of solving the security problem in Benghazi, but we also wanted Mrs. Clinton to be able to announce that we were going to be doing this.
Jeffrey: That Benghazi was going to become a permanent State Department mission.
Hicks: Exactly. I need to add just one other thing: The people in eastern Libya had been contacting us constantly asking for the establishment of a consulate out there as well.
Jeffrey: They wanted one.
Hicks: They wanted a consulate. They wanted us there. At least the majority, the vast majority, of Libyans in eastern Libya wanted us there.
Jeffrey: So, making it permanent would have solved the security problem, it would have complied with SECCA, it would have fulfilled the wish that Secretary Clinton had directly stated to Ambassador Stevens in his exit interview, and also it would have given a quote-unquote “deliverable” for when Secretary Clinton visited Tripoli possibly the next month in October of 2012.
Jeffrey: And that was the hope to get all those things done. And were folks aware, obviously aware at that time, that Secretary Clinton was preparing to leave office as secretary of state and that she would not be serving in a second Obama term if the president was reelected.
Hicks: For most of us who have been in the service for over 20 years we understood that she would be leaving office at the end of 2012. Absolutely.
Jeffrey: So, coming to Libya and announcing that Benghazi was a permanent mission would be one of the last major things she did as secretary of state.
Hicks: Yes, it would have been, absolutely.
Jeffrey: But nonetheless, at this same time, they are not in any way augmenting the security situation in Benghazi or in Libya generally.
Hicks: Right. The reverse was taking place.
Jeffrey: They were actually drawing people out.
Jeffrey: Explain to me a little bit about how they drew down security between that August 16 EAC meeting that we talked about and September 10, when Ambassador Stevens actually headed over to Benghazi.
Hicks: So, after that meeting—you know, of course, having read all the reports about the SITE security team, the military personnel that had been sent to Libya to provide security for the mission and to enable our diplomats to travel safely in this highly high risk environment. And that team had been converted to a counter-terrorism training team at the beginning of August, and so they were no longer providing security.
And, then, due to a series of security incidents in Tripoli, including an attack on members of that team, the majority of those individuals were withdrawn immediately after the August 16 meeting.
In addition, the last diplomatic security mobile security detachment, or Mobil Security Detail team, was also withdrawn from Tripoli. Now, MSD teams are our special protective details that we send to hot spots around the world. Originally, when the embassy was opened in Tripoli, we had three such teams. And then the first of those teams was withdrawn in the beginning of 2012.
The second team was withdrawn after Chris Stevens wrote his famous cable asking for 13 professional American security personnel to be assigned to Embassy Tripoli in order for him or other American diplomats to travel safely within the country. And then the final team was pulled out after this August 16th cable.
Jeffrey: Let me make sure I understand one part of that: The SITE security team—those are military personnel that were deployed in Tripoli initially to be security for State Department personnel operating in Tripoli?
Jeffrey: And sometimes they would go to Benghazi to help with security there?
Hicks: They were in Benghazi, if I recall correctly, in June; and they were doing an advance preparation site visit in order to prepare for an Ambassador Stevens visit to Benghazi later in June. However, he cancelled that visit because of the assassination attempt on the British ambassador. And our SITE security team personnel who were there were instrumental in rescuing the British ambassador and in saving a British security agent’s life and in also treating the British ambassador’s own injuries in the attack.
Jeffrey: All right, so that military security team, in June when they went, you say they were actually doing advance for a trip that Ambassador Stevens would have taken that month.
Jeffrey: So, at that point, just three months before he actually ended up going over there, then he would have been in part protected by a military security team?
Jeffrey: And, between that time in June, when they decided we’re not going to take this trip because of the security situation—the British ambassador has just been attacked, it is not a good time to go to Benghazi—between then and when Ambassador Stevens eventually did go on September 10, that military security team, part of it was actually pulled out of the country?
Jeffrey: Because of the attack in Benghazi?
Hicks: No, because its status was converted from a security team to a counterterrorism training team, and because there was a security incident in Tripoli in which members of that team were attacked on the way to their job. And, so, those teams, once their status changed from diplomatic security to counterterrorism, they lost their diplomatic immunity. So, we did not want to have a situation in which American service members were forced into a position where they had to defend themselves and would not be also protected by diplomatic immunity.
Jeffrey: Who made the decision that these military personnel who had been helping to secure Ambassador Stevens and other State Department people in Libya would have their status changed like that and would no longer be able to defend State Department people?
Hicks: That was the secretary of defense.
Jeffrey: The secretary of defense made that decision.
Jeffrey: And, so, when you get to September 10, those folks are no longer available to help defend Ambassador Stevens when he goes to Benghazi. And what about the diplomatic security personnel: How many total diplomatic security people did you have on the ground in Libya at that moment?
Hicks: On September 10, we had nine.
Jeffrey: In the whole country?
Hicks: In the whole country: Three in Benghazi and six in Tripoli.
Jeffrey: And how many went with the ambassador to Benghazi?
Jeffrey: So that left how many with you and the rest of the State Department people in Tripoli?
Hicks: We had four protecting 28 diplomats.
Jeffrey: So, you had four in Tripoli and you had five with the ambassador in Benghazi?
Jeffrey: And the State Department under the direction of Hillary Clinton is trying to make Benghazi a permanent post at this moment, with the possibility that she might be showing up a month later to make a final visit to this country before she leaves as secretary of state.
Jeffrey: And was your understanding and Ambassador Stevens’ understanding that this was an extraordinarily perilous circumstance?
Hicks: We understood that it was a high-risk moment, but on the other hand we counterbalanced that with the fact that the flag still needed to be shown. And we also--It was not clear to us exactly what was happening in eastern Libya. And Chris Stevens was the only person in our mission who had the trust of senior Libyans around the country, and so when he went to Benghazi a major part of his mission was to sit down with Libyan leaders in that part of the country and ask them: What is going on in your neck of the woods? So that we would have the most accurate up-to-date picture of that part of the country and what it meant for Libya’s future down the road.
Jeffrey: So, in other words, when the State Department was rotating through people on temporary duty, who didn’t necessarily have a lot of experience in the Middle East let alone Libya, they weren’t getting the kind of information that was really necessary to make a serious judgment about what was going on there--like Ambassador Stevens could.
Hicks: Exactly. That is a huge difference. And quite often our people in Benghazi were confined to post. If situations escalated, then we held them in the compound until circumstances would allow them to travel safely within the city again.
Jeffrey: And they couldn’t really talk to anybody.
Hicks: Unless they came to the compound, at which time the Libyan labeled himself in the eyes of those who were also watching our compound.
Jeffrey: Now, obviously, there’s been a lot of discussion about what actually went on when the ambassador was there and the terrorist attack on September 11. But as it unfolded, and you were the person on the ground at the Embassy in Tripoli, you were in constant contact with people back in Washington, D.C., were you not?
Hicks: I was. I recall calling in every twenty minutes, fifteen minutes to give them situation reports.
Jeffrey: And did you ever tell anybody there was a protest in Benghazi before the terrorist attack?
Jeffrey: Did anybody ever tell you that who was on the ground?
Hicks: No. In fact, we monitored Benghazi and Tripoli all day for exactly that kind of behavior and there was nothing that our social media monitors, our press monitors, showed as having a demonstration anywhere in Benghazi.
Jeffrey: And that was the information that was going back between you and the main State Department when you were making your communications that night?
Hicks: They never really asked me if there was a protest in Benghazi that night. I was talking to them about an attack. I never referred to it as anything other than an attack. And we were constantly working on how we were going to rescue our people who had been attacked.
Jeffrey: And as the House Select Committee has pointed out, Secretary Clinton had a conversation that night with the president of Libya and she discussed it with him as if it had been an attack and Ansar al Sharia had taken credit.
Hicks: Yes, that’s correct. And that was, again, based on our reporting of the Ansar al Sharia claim.
Jeffrey: And then she sent an email to her daughter saying that an al Qaida-type group had carried it out.
Hicks: That’s what we learned from the report.
Jeffrey: Do you think that Secretary Clinton’s understanding of things that evening was essentially correct?
Hicks: I think so. When I spoke to her, I talked about an attack and never talked about any phantom protest that did not exist.
Jeffrey: What time did you talk to Secretary Clinton that evening?
Hicks: I believe it was around 2:00 a.m. Libyan time.
Jeffrey: So, that was before the final attack on the Annex.
Hicks: Yes, it was.
Jeffrey: And you were talking to Secretary Clinton and you told her it was an attack?
Hicks: I did.
Jeffrey: And she didn’t question that at all?
Jeffrey: And what did she tell you to do at that point?
Hicks: Well, she was more—She wanted to know my plan of action and at the time I basically was pretty clear that we would have to evacuate our compound in Tripoli and move to the Annex there to consolidate our position. We did not have the capability of protecting our people in Tripoli with four DS agents and a kilometer-long perimeter wall that was at the time unfinished, and we had no CCTV coverage outside that wall to speak of, except on the front gate. So we would have to withdraw to the Annex and we would not be able to stay there unless we had an influx of security personnel to protect us.
Jeffrey: And what did she say to that?
Hicks: She said they were making arrangements for military personnel to augment our security situation in Tripoli.
Jeffrey: So, she wasn’t accepting an evacuation at that point?
Hicks: No, not from Libya. Not at all.
Jeffrey: Now, later, when you heard people in the administration, including, of course, Susan Rice, saying that there had been a protest outside the Benghazi facility before the attack, what was your reaction to that and what do you think about that?
Hicks: I was stunned. I think I said my jaw dropped, in the testimony. I could not believe that a senior official was mischaracterizing what happened that night--especially after the president of Libya, President Magariaf had described the attack as a planned attack by extremists. And, so, the effect on President Magariaf’s reputation within Libya and internationally was terrible. He had just been called a liar by the ambassador to the United Nations. And immediately, if you recall, the network cut him out of the conversation completely and focused directly on Ambassador Rice.
Jeffrey: And during those days after the attack, when there is this message coming out of officials in Washington, D.C., that there was a protest related to inflammatory material posted on the Internet, that prior to the attack on the mission in Benghazi, what was the sense among your folks on the ground in Tripoli about that in terms of dealing with folks in Libya?
Hicks: Well, it concerned us in the sense that we were worried that it might actually inflame Libyans to attack us.
And that is why you see the email from the public affairs officer asking that no one conflate what happened in Benghazi with the video within Libya. We were concerned that people in Libya would become angry like we saw in Cairo, like we saw in Tunis, like we saw in Khartoum, and attack us in Tripoli.
Jeffrey: So, in other words, people in Libya at that point weren’t that aware of the video and it wasn’t a significant an issue in Libya at that point.
Hicks: We had no evidence that anyone paid any attention to the video. I think I reported back to Washington that it was a non-event.
Jeffrey: And, so, the administration’s focus on it and rhetoric about it actually could have backfired and made it an issue in Libya when it had not been?
Hicks: That’s right.
Jeffrey: Greg, four years have passed since this event. You’ve had a lot of time to think about it. At this point, what do you want the American people to take as the lessons from what unfolded and the way our government reacted in the aftermath of this. What would you like people to know and think about.
Hicks: I think first that I hope that the American people will appreciate the risks that diplomats and intelligence officers and our military personnel take to protect and preserve our democracy and our way of life.
Every day, we risk our lives out in some of the most dangerous environments and conditions imaginable. And our officials in Washington have a responsibility--they have a responsibility to ensure that we have the ability to protect ourselves, to be protected, when we are risking our lives for our country. That did not happen in Benghazi.
Our security personnel that we needed to protect us in a very risky environment were withdrawn. The law was not followed in terms of what kind of facilities we occupied. And, so, we were vulnerable.
I think the record is also pretty clear that we were unprepared on September 11 from a military standpoint to respond to the attacks that we endured on that day and in subsequent days. We have to be better than that. And our military personnel, I hope, read this select Benghazi report—the majority report—and take it to heart. One of my comments to a friend was: Our Russian and Chinese and Iranian and North Korean competitors who have read that report must be emboldened to know that the United States can be surprised so badly.
On the other hand, the American people need to understand that their fellow citizens who go out to risk their lives are incredibly resourceful and incredibly gallant and heroic. The fact that the security detail from the Annex went to the State compound in Benghazi and chased ten times their number of terrorists out of that compound and saved five lives is a tribute to that heroism. The fact that seven other personnel in Tripoli volunteered to get on an airplane and fly to Benghazi, not knowing what they would find, when they got to Benghazi is also testament. And because they were in Benghazi at the time of the mortar attack, 30 American lives are still with us today.
You started this in 1998. I lost a friend in the bombing in Nairobi, and another of my close friends is lucky to be alive today. And then I lost more friends in Benghazi. We need to make sure that those sacrifices are remembered going forward.
Jeffrey: Greg Hicks, thank you very much.
Hicks: Thank you, Terry. I appreciate it.