WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- The No. 2 diplomat in Libya during the Benghazi attack testified Wednesday that he and many others knew the Sept. 11 assault was terrorism from the moment it happened, and he was shocked when the Obama administration said otherwise.
"I was stunned," said Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya. "My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed."
Hicks was referring to statements by his own State Department and the White House, which insisted for days afterward that the attack emerged from a spontaneous mob angry over an anti-Islam video.
Hicks was the first person who was in Libya during the attack to testify publicly before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is investigating the Obama's administration's handling of security in Libya and response to the attack.
Hicks said he felt he was subject to retaliation for criticizing U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's appearances on talk shows five days later in which she insisted the attack emerged from a protest against an anti-Islam video gone awry. Several days later, the State Department acknowledged there was no protest and it was a terrorist attack.
Undersecretary of State Elizabeth Jones "told me I had to improve my management style and that some people were upset," Hicks testified.
When Hicks returned to Washington for the funeral of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died with three other Americans in the attack, Jones "gave me a blistering critique of my management style," he said.
Hicks, who now works as a State foreign affairs officer for government affairs, says he has been "effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer."
"I am a career public servant," Hicks said. "Until the aftermath of Benghazi, I loved every day of my job."
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the families of the victims "deserve answers." But Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., top Democrat on the oversight committee, accused Republicans of using the witnesses for "political purposes."
He challenged some of their claims, such as that the U.S. military could have responded sooner to the attack.
"Our top military commanders have already testified they did everything in their power, they did the best in their capacity," Cummings said.
The testimony included an emotional retelling by Hicks of the night of the attack. Hicks had to halt his testimony mid-sentence when discussing the death of Stevens. As soon as he heard of trouble in Benghazi he called back a previous incoming call on his phone he did not recognize. Stevens answered and told him, "We are under attack."
Hicks never heard from the ambassador again.
Another witness, Eric Nordstrom, the former regional security officer in Libya, said he came forward to get the truth out.
"It matters to me personally and it matters to my colleagues at the Department of State," he said. "It matters to the American public for whom we serve, and most importantly it matters to the friends, the family" of those killed.
Hicks said he called the State Department in Washington at 10 p.m. to tell them what was happening and that diplomatic security agents were trying to mount a rescue.
Hicks, who was Stevens' second-in-command in Libya and was left in charge after Stevens' death, testified about a night of chaos while he and other embassy staff tried to rescue, locate and extract the missing ambassador and to defend and evacuate all U.S. personnel from Benghazi.
Hicks quickly learned that the consulate had been breached and there were at least 20 armed men in the compound. The person in charge of a second U.S. compound in Benghazi, known as the annex, said he was putting together a response team to go to the compound and repel the attack.
A series of phone calls followed to seek help from Libyan politicians and military officials, and to the State Department in Washington to inform officials there of what was going on.
"I also spoke to the annex chief about organizing a Tripoli response team and we agreed to charter a flight to send a response team from Tripoli to bring reinforcements," Hicks said.
Before long, embassy workers learned that "the ambassador was in a hospital controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, the group whose Twitter feed said it was leading the attack on the consulate," Hicks said.
Hicks said he received several phone calls about the ambassador saying "you can come get the ambassador, we know where he is," but Hicks was worried about "wading into a trap." Then he said they saw on the same Twitter feed as before that Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group, "was calling on an attack on our embassy in Tripoli."
Embassy personnel in Tripoli started making preparations to protect themselves, he said.
Hicks told committee staffers prior to Wednesday's hearing that he pushed for a stronger military response to an attack. He said he was rebuffed by Washington, according to excerpts of interview transcripts provided by the House oversight committee.
Hicks said he asked twice whether an F-16 or some other "fast-mover" aircraft could fly over the battlefield with hopes it would scatter the attackers.
"I talked with the defense attache, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and I asked him, 'Is there anything coming?' "
According to Hicks' account, Phillips said the nearest fighter planes were in Aviano, Italy, and it would take two to three hours to get them airborne, and there were no tanker assets close enough to support them. Hicks said when he asked again, before the 5:15 a.m. mortar attack that killed State Department security personnel former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. But the answer was no again. Also killed was State Department employee Sean Smith.
A four-man team of military special operations forces was in Tripoli was organized, geared up and about to drive to a C-130 aircraft, to help those in Benghazi when its commander was ordered to stop by his superiors, Hicks said.
"He got a phone call from SOCAFRICA (Special Operations Command Africa) which said, you can't go now, you don't have authority to go now," Hicks said. "They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it."
Hicks said the commander told him: "I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military."
Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday there was never any kind of stand-down order. Firman later said the military is trying to assess the incident Hicks is referring to, but the aircraft in question wound up evacuating a second wave of Americans from Benghazi to Tripoli, not transporting rescuers to a firefight.
The Department of Defense "responded in every way it could as quickly as it could and we were coordinating with the Department of State every step of the way," he said.
The State Department said allegations that it did not respond well to the attack are refuted by the report of an Administrative Review Board appointed by then-secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to investigate the attack and its aftermath.
"The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," according to a statement released by State, citing the report. "Senior-level interagency discussions were underway soon after Washington received initial word of the attacks and continued through the night."
Issa said parts of the ARB investigation were "incomplete or just wrong," and faulted it for not laying blame above the mid-level management at the State Department. Issa said he wants the ARB's primary authors, former ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Navy admiral Mike Mullen, to appear before the committee and said to whistle-blowers and witnesses who want to come forward: "Now is the time to do so."
"This hearing is closed; the investigation is not over," Issa said.