By GERRY SHIELDS & GEOFF EARLE
WASHINGTON — The US diplomat who was second in command in Libya during the fatal attack on the Benghazi consulate fought back tears yesterday when he told lawmakers about his colleagues’ final moments — and said he was “stunned” by administration claims it was sparked by a spontaneous protest.
Gregory Hicks, the first person to testify to Congress who was on the ground in Libya during the fateful night of the Sept. 11, 2012 siege, told a House committee that he was incredulous just five days later when UN Ambassador Susan Rice said on Sunday talk shows that the assault was not a terrorist attack.
“My jaw dropped,” Hicks said. “I was embarrassed.”
Hicks riveted the audience in a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing room as he recalled the night.
“Shortly after we arrived at the annex, the mortars came in,” Hicks said. “The first was long. It landed actually among the Libyans that escorted our people. They took casualties for us that night.”
“The next three landed on the roof, killing Glen [Doherty] and Tyrone [Woods],” Hicks said, referring to the security operators who died in the attack. “They didn’t know whether any more mortars were going to come in, the accuracy was terribly precise.”
A career State Department diplomat, Hicks also told the panel yesterday that he was warned by upper agency officials not to talk to a congressman investigating the consulate assault — fueling GOP charges that politics were behind the administration’s response.
The order came after he began questioning Obama administration claims that the incident was not a terrorist attack, he said. Hicks got a call from Beth Jones, an acting assistant secretary to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to stop questioning Washington’s stance that the attack was spurred by a protest, he said.
“I asked her why the ambassador said there was a demonstration when the embassy reported there was an attack,” Hicks said. “The sense I got is that I needed to stop my line of questioning.”
Hicks received another call from Clinton’s counselor and chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, angry that he met with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). Mills asked for a full report.
“She was very upset with me,” said Hicks, who said he was eventually demoted after the controversy.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) called Hicks’ testimony evidence that Clinton was involved in trying to suppress information.
“This goes right to the person next to Secretary Clinton,” Jordan said.
Former State Department spokesman Philippe Reines yesterday called the allegation untrue.
“Nobody was told to keep Chaffetz from speaking with anyone,” Reines told NBC News.
“That’s completely at odds with the cooperative approach the department has taken with Congress.”
Hicks was one of the last people Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed, talked to in a call reporting the attack. Hicks somberly recalled learning about Stevens’ death.
“It was the saddest phone call I’ve ever received in my life,” Hicks said, pausing to hold back his emotions.
Hicks joined Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, in telling lawmakers that efforts to get military help to the consulate were rebuffed. Special forces in Tripoli wanting to help were furious, Hicks said.
Democrats ripped into the witnesses, accusing committee Republicans of conducting a “highly partisan” political attack on the Obama administration.
“There is no place or no time that the American military wouldn’t be there to protect American lives if they possibly could get there,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said.
Eric Nordstrom, the third whistle-blower to testify, was the diplomatic security officer and former regional security office in Libya. He blamed the administration for ignoring calls for more security in the country.
“It matters to the American public for whom we served and most importantly, it matters to the friends and family of Ambassador Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, Tyrone Wood, who were murdered on Sept. 11,” Nordstrom said.