WASHINGTON -- In potentially explosive testimony on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, the No. 2 diplomat under Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya said he and others knew the assault was terrorism from the moment it happened.
The view of Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya, was contradicted 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, who was in the Libyan capital at the time, said that 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 Stevens again.
Hicks, the first person who was in Libya during the attack to testify publicly, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday he was informed by State Department officials in Benghazi that armed men were in the consulate compound. He 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.
"I am a career public servant," Hicks said. "Until the aftermath of Benghazi, I loved every day of my job."
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.
Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., 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" and 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.
Hicks, who was Stevens' second in-command in Libya and was left in charge after Stevens' death, testified about a night of chaos and confusion 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. "We're getting these reports as the group we'd sent from Tripoli had arrived at the airport."
While trying to get the Libyan government to send vehicles and a security escort to the evacuation team at the Benghazi airport, Hicks was trying to assess the nature of the attack, he said.
"At this point it looks like a hostage situation, where we'll have to get the ambassador from a hospital under enemy control," he 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 terror group, "was calling on an attack on our embassy in Tripoli."
Embassy personnel in Tripoli started making preparations to protect themselves, he said.
The State Department whistle-blowers were expected to testify that requests for a military rescue were turned down in the Benghazi terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans, Republican lawmakers said in advance.
Committee member Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said witnesses will show how the country was mislead by the Obama administration about the events leading up to the attack in Libya and the handling of it afterward.
"Hopefully we'll get closer to the truth," Chaffetz said Wednesday.
The State Department said the allegations 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."
A Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) that has been activated in past threats to diplomats was not done in the case of Benghazi. Chaffetz suggests it was not activated because the Obama administration did not want to publicly acknowledge that the U.S. consulate was under attack by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.
The attack happened just weeks before the re-election bid of President Obama, whose campaign had been making the claim that al-Qaeda had been largely defeated. Killed were Ambassador Stevens, State Department employee Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The State Department statement released Wednesday says the FEST was not activated because it would not have arrived in Libya in time to make any difference.
The team can deploy within four hours of a decision to do so, usually after a catastrophic bombing, hostage situation or mass casualty incident, according to State. It restores secure communication lines and provides other capabilities as needed, but it is not a fighting force.
In Benghazi, all U.S. personnel were evacuated within 12 hours of the beginning of the attack, "with no presence remaining," the fact-check document says. "By the time the FEST would have arrived in Benghazi, all (government) personnel were gone from there and the facility closed."
Documents released by various congressional committees and excerpts of interviews provided by the House oversight committee contradict descriptions of the Sept. 11 event as provided by the Pentagon, the White House and Clinton.
• The U.S. military refused to send jets over a raging battlefield in Benghazi in an attempt to scatter the attackers.
• The Pentagon's Africa command refused to let a Special Forces team in Tripoli fly the short distance to Benghazi in an attempt to rescue U.S. personnel.
• The CIA told the White House the attack on the U.S. Consulate was a coordinated assault by al-Qaeda-linked terrorists, but the White House and State Department publicly blamed the attack on a spontaneous mob angered over an anti-Islam video and claimed the reports of terrorists was not learned until later.
• The State Department never activated a Foreign Emergency Response Team that assists diplomats under attack. A State official will testify this was done to avoid the appearance that a terrorist attack had happened.
"These witnesses have information that has not previously come forward because the administration has tried to suppress it," said Frederick Hill, spokesman for the oversight committee. "The testimony of the former deputy chief of mission directly contradicts statements made by high-ranking officials."
Issa has taken in further, saying the American people "were lied to."
"I challenge the administration to explain what they were protecting other than their own backsides," he told Fox News.
The witnesses have told investigators U.S. officials rejected a suggestion to send jets to fly over a raging battlefield in Benghazi while diplomats were pinned down and surrounded, and ordered a team of special operators not to fly to the city to join the fighting, according to excerpts of interviews provided by the House oversight committee.
While it was clear from the start that terrorists were involved, that information was scrubbed from talking points memos distributed by the White House, according to the witnesses and investigations conducted by various Republican-led committees in the House.
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 Doherty and Woods, "the answer, again, was the same as before."
Hicks said he believes the Libyan government would have approved the flyover and that it would have been effective because the militias "were under no illusions that American and NATO air power won that war for them," he said.
"If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split," according to Hicks' excerpts.
"The Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them."
A four-man team of military special operations forces was told not to board a Libyan military flight from Tripoli to Benghazi to reinforce troops sent to defend U.S. diplomatic personnel, Hicks said.
A previous team had already arrived at Benghazi at 1:15 a.m., Hicks said. Less than two hours later, Hicks received a phone call from then-prime minister of Libya Mohammed Magarief reporting that Stevens had died. His death meant Hicks was then in charge of the U.S. mission in Libya.
A second Special Forces team was organized, geared up and about to drive to a C-130 aircraft, when its commander, Lt. Col. Gibson, 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 Gibson told him: "I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military."
Hicks said he believed the military stopped the trip because "they just didn't have the right authority from the right level."
Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said there was never any kind of stand-down order. Firman said Tuesday that 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.
Hicks testified Wednesday that the U.S. military's special forces detachment in Tripoli was reduced in August in the face of violence. He said that on Aug. 6, two members of the 14-member team were subjected to a car-jacking attempt and had to use their weapons to repel it.
After that incident, Gen. Carter Ham, former commander of U.S. Africa Command, decided to drew down that team to four individuals, Hicks said.
When questioned Wednesday about the Pentagon's claim that no troops were told to stand down the night of the attack, Hicks repeated that the troops "were told not to get on that airplane" to Benghazi.
"My reaction was OK, we're going to have to pull this off with the resources we had available," Hicks said.