By Terence P. Jeffrey
The State Department’s second-ranking diplomat in Libya on the day that terrorists attacked the U.S. facilities in Benghazi and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods says a key lesson Americans should take from that event is that officials in Washington, D.C. have a responsibility to make sure Americans serving their country abroad have the ability to protect themselves.
“That did not happen in Benghazi,” says Gregory Hicks, who was the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli on Sept. 11, 2012.
“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,” Hicks said in an interview with CNSNews.com.
“Every day, we risk our lives out in some of the most dangerous environments and conditions imaginable,” he said. “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“Our security personnel that we needed to protect us in a very risky environment were withdrawn,” Hicks said.
“The law was not followed in terms of what kind of facilities we occupied,” he said. “And, so, we were vulnerable.”
On Aug. 7, 1998—fourteen years before the Benghazi attacks–al Qaida bombed the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. These terrorist attacks killed 220 people.
Afterward, the State Department convened an Accountability Review Board–just as it did after Benghazi. Congress followed up on that ARB’s report by enacting the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act (SECCA)—signed by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
Under SECCA, each newly acquired U.S. diplomatic facility must be setback at least one hundred feet from the perimeter of the property on which it is located and all U.S. government personnel serving in that area–except those under military command–must be located in the same facility.
If the State Department decides to occupy a new diplomatic facility that does not meet these requirements, according to the law, the Secretary of State must personally issue a waiver to the requirements—and notify the appropriate congressional committees of this waiver.
In Benghazi, as discussed in the report released by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January 2014, the CIA and the State Department were not located in the same facility.
Testifying along with Hicks in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in May 2013, Eric Nordstrom, who had been the regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, said the department had not followed this law in either Tripoli or Benghazi.
“No waivers of SECCA requirements or exceptions to the required OSPB [Overseas Security Policy Board] standards were prepared for either the Tripoli or Benghazi compounds,” Nordstrom told the committee.
“More importantly, senior decision makers in the Department, including the U/S [Undersecretary] for Management [Patrick Kennedy], determined that funding would not be provided in order to bring the facilities into compliance with the aforementioned standards,” said Nordstrom.
“Neither SECCA nor OSPB allows for blanket waivers or exceptions simply due to the temporary nature of the facilities,” he testified. “Furthermore, SECCA waiver requirements for buildings solely occupied by the U.S. government overseas must be approved by the Secretary of State and cannot be delegated. Since there is no SECCA waiver on file, the obvious question for both the committee and the ARB is if the Secretary of State did not waive these requirements, who did so by ordering occupancy of the facilities in Benghazi and Tripoli?”
The House Select Committee on Benghazi said in its final report published in July: “Federal regulation and State Department rules set out the security standards United States facilities located abroad are required to meet to keep Americans safe.”
“Senior State Department officials, nevertheless, made the decision to exclude ‘temporary facilities,’ such as Benghazi, from these security rules,” said the report. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, it said, “attempted to justify this exclusion:…
“In addition to the OSPB security standards,” Kennedy told the committee, according to the report, “the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act (SECCA), the applicable federal security law, provides among other things a diplomatic facility ensure: (1) all US 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,” Kennedy told the committee, “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.”
In his own testimony before the Oversight committee in 2013, Greg Hicks said Ambassador Stevens told him that Secretary Clinton had told Stevens in May 2012, when he was sworn in as ambassador, that she wanted him to make Benghazi a permanent U.S. mission. Hicks also testified that for budgetary reasons, Stevens needed to start taking action on this move before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2012–and also that Secretary Clinton was planning to visit Libya before the end of the year
“Chris told me that in his exit interview with the secretary after he was sworn in, the secretary said, ‘We need to make Benghazi a permanent post,’ and Chris said, ‘I’ll make it happen,’” Hicks told the committee.
“Timing for this decision was important,” Hicks testified. “Chris needed to report before September 30th, the end of the fiscal year, on the physical, the political and security environment in Benghazi to support an action memo to convert Benghazi from a temporary facility to a permanent facility.”
Hicks also testified: “And another factor was our understanding that Secretary Clinton intended to visit Tripoli in December.”
Hicks told CNSNews.com that he and Stevens saw the move to make Benghazi a permanent mission as an opportunity to fix the security problems with the U.S. facility there. Yet, even as they were moving to do so, the State Department was drawing down U.S. security assets in Libya.
“Chris was very excited,” Hicks said. “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 [with Secretary Clinton] 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,” Hicks said. “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.”
CNSNews.com asked: “So, Ambassador Stevens told you that Secretary Clinton had specifically requested that he seek to make it a permanent post in Benghazi. And you and Ambassador Stevens saw that also as an opportunity to correct the security problems with the State Department presence in Benghazi?”
“Correct,” said Hicks.
“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?” CNSNews.com asked.
“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,” said Hicks.
“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?” CNSNews.com asked.
“Exactly,” said Hicks.
Pointing to the report of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Hicks says he believes the military also was not prepared to deal with the situation unfolding in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012.
“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,” said Hicks. “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,” said Hicks, “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.”
Hicks, who has master’s degrees from the University of Michigan in applied economics and Modern Near Eastern and Northern Africa Studies, served in the State Department from 1991 until he retired this year. In addition to his service in Libya, he also served in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
“I lost a friend in the bombing in Nairobi, and another of my close friends is lucky to be alive today,” Hicks said. “And then I lost more friends in Benghazi. We need to make sure that those sacrifices are remembered going forward.”
Terence P. Jeffrey, started as editor in chief of CNSNews.com in September 2007. Prior to that, he served for more than a decade as editor of Human Events, where he is now an editor at large. Terry was born in San Francisco and raised in the Bay Area, the seventh of eleven children. Both his parents were doctors of medicine.