TEL AVIV – Mystery continues to swirl around the dramatic events that transpired at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, 400 miles away, the night of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on the U.S. special mission and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya.
In largely ignored previous testimony, Gregory Hicks, the former U.S. deputy chief of mission in Libya, recounted an astonishing scene in Tripoli in the minutes and hours after the initial attack in Benghazi.
Fearing the embassy might also come under attack, Hicks said staffers in Tripoli smashed hard drives with an ax and dismantled classified communications equipment. One female office manager was seen carrying ammunition and loading gun magazines as staff prepared to depart for a safe house.
Yet none of that was mentioned by either Hillary Clinton or her legislative questioners during last Thursday’s Benghazi hearing, even though the response by the Tripoli embassy was discussed.
The evacuate-and-destroy incident in Tripoli was also not mentioned in the State Department’s probe of the Benghazi attack. Nor was it previously reported in news accounts of the attack, which the Obama administration first claimed was a result of popular protests against an anti-Muhammad video.
The U.S. facility in Tripoli was upgraded to embassy status in 2006, and the U.S. maintained an embassy there until Clinton temporarily shut it down during the 2011 revolution that toppled Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. In September 2011, after Gadhafi fell, Clinton re-opened the Tripoli embassy.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., asked Clinton about security concerns at the embassy in Tripoli the night of the Benghazi attack.
Sanchez inquired: “Your chief of staff also explained to this committee that you were concerned the night of the attacks, not only for the safety of your team in Benghazi, but also about your teams in Tripoli and elsewhere.
“She said this about you. Quote: ‘She was very concerned. She was also very determined that whatever needed to be done was done and she was worried. She was worried not only about our team on the ground in Benghazi, but worried about our teams that were on the ground in Libya and our teams on the ground in a number of places given what we had seen unfold in Egypt.’
“Can you explain some of the context of the evening and why you were concerned, not just about what was happening in Benghazi, but the risks that Americans were in elsewhere?”
Clinton’s response did not mention the Tripoli evacuation.
“Well, that’s exactly right,” she replied. “I was quite concerned about Tripoli because we didn’t know if there would be coordinated attacks. We were still trying to gather information about who was behind what happened in Benghazi. We – in the course of the conversations with our team on the ground in Tripoli began to explore whether they should move from where they were in the place that was operating as our embassy at that time to a more secure location. There were lots of considerations about what to do to keep our team in Tripoli safe.
“And then, as I’ve testified earlier, we were very concerned about the impact of the video sparking unrest, attacks, violence in a wide swathe of countries. It turned out that that was well-founded concern, as we saw the attacks and protests across the region, all the way to India and Indonesia.
“So there was a lot of effort being put into not only doing the immediate tasks before us in Benghazi, and doing whatever we needed to do to keep our people in Tripoli safe, but beginning to talk through and prepare for what might happen elsewhere.”
In testimony before Congress in May 2013, Hicks, who was the No. 2 at the Tripoli embassy the night of the attacks, described the frantic scene in the embassy.
In his testimony, Hicks said that about three hours after the attack began on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, the embassy staff in Tripoli noticed Twitter feeds asserting that the terror group Ansar al-Sharia was responsible. Hicks said there was also a call on the social media platform for an attack on the embassy in Tripoli.
“We had always thought that we were … under threat, that we now have to take care of ourselves, and we began planning to evacuate our facility,” he said.
“When I say our facility, I mean the State Department residential compound in Tripoli, and to consolidate all of our personnel … at the annex in Tripoli.”
Hicks said he “immediately telephoned Washington that news afterward and began accelerating our effort to withdraw from the Villas compound and move to the annex.”
He recalled how his team “responded with amazing discipline and courage in Tripoli in organizing withdrawal.”
Continued Hicks: “I have vivid memories of that. I think the most telling, though, was of our communications staff dismantling our communications equipment to take with us to the annex and destroying the classified communications capability.
“Our office manager, Amber Pickens, was everywhere that night just throwing herself into some task that had to be done. First she was taking a log of what we were doing,” he said.
“Then she was loading magazines, carrying ammunition to the – carrying our ammunition supply to … our vehicles, and then she was smashing hard drives with an ax.”
The vivid scene, however, was not reported in the State Department’s description of the Tripoli embassy’s response the night of the Benghazi attack.
The section of the State Department probe titled “Embassy Tripoli Response” simply says that upon notification of the attack in Benghazi, the U.S. Embassy set up a command center and notified Washington.
A later section in the State Department probe describes how a seven-person response team from Tripoli arrived in Benghazi to lend support but could not get to the Benghazi facility due to a lack of transportation.
The section also says the Tripoli embassy worked with the Libyan government to have a Libyan Air Force C-130 take the remaining U.S. government personnel from Benghazi to Tripoli.
With additional research by Joshua Klein.