(CNSNews.com) – A senior U.S. diplomat in Libya was instructed by State Department lawyers – for the first time in his 22-year foreign service career – not to speak to a visiting lawmaker who was investigating last September’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, a congressional panel heard Wednesday.
“I was instructed not to allow the RSO [regional security officer], the acting deputy chief of mission and myself to be personally interviewed by Congressman Chaffetz,” Gregory Hicks, who was the number two official at the embassy in Libya at the time of the attack, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who chairs the committee’s subcommittee on national security, homeland defense and foreign operations, visited Libya to investigate the Sept. 11 attack in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed.
“So, the people at State told you, ‘Don’t talk to the guy who’s coming to investigate’?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked Hicks during Wednesday’s hearing.
“Yes, sir,” Hicks replied.
“Have you ever had anyone tell you, ‘Don’t talk with the people from Congress coming to find out what took place’?”
“Never,” Jordan continued. “And you’ve had dozens and dozens of congressional delegations that you’ve been a part of.”
“First time it’s ever happened.”
Hicks confirmed in response to further questioning that, when Chaffetz arrived in Libya a State Department lawyer had sought to be present at every meeting with the congressman.
But during one classified briefing with Chaffetz, Hicks said, “the lawyer was excluded from the meeting because his clearance was not high enough.”
Hicks had then received a heated call from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
“A phone call from that senior person is, generally speaking, not considered to be good news,” he said with a wry smile. “She demanded a report on the visit.”
“She was very upset” that the lawyer had not been allowed to be present during the meeting, Hicks added.
In response to earlier questioning by Jordan, Hicks confirmed that following the attack he had received praise from top administration officials, including President Obama and Secretary Clinton, for his efforts.
But after ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice during Sunday television talk shows on Sept. 16 cited a spontaneous demonstration against a video clip denigrating Mohammed, Hicks had raised questions.
In a phone conversation with Beth Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for the Near East, he had asked why Rice in the TV interviews “had said there was a demonstration, when the embassy had reported only an attack.”
Jones had replied, “I don’t know,” Hicks told the panel, adding, “The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning.”
Some Republican critics have contended that administration officials wanted to downplay the role of terrorists in an attack on an American diplomatic mission on the anniversary of 9/11, because it would not play well in the closing stages of the general election campaign.
The administration has consistently denied this, noting that Rice had conditioned her TV comments about the protest demonstration on the best information available at the time, and portraying the GOP criticism as politically-motivated.