WASHINGTON — A veteran diplomat gave a riveting minute-by-minute account on Wednesday of the lethal terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 and described its contentious aftermath in nearly five hours of testimony at a charged congressional hearing that reflected the weighty political stakes perceived by both parties.
During a chaotic night at the US Embassy in Tripoli, 600 miles away, the diplomat, Gregory Hicks, got what he called ‘‘the saddest phone call I’ve ever had in my life’’ informing him that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was dead and that he was now the highest-ranking American in Libya. For his leadership that night when four Americans were killed, Hicks said, he subsequently received calls from both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama.
But after Hicks raised questions about the account by Susan E. Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, describing that night in Benghazi, he felt a distinct chill from State Department superiors.
“The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,’’ said Hicks, who has been a Foreign Service officer for 22 years.
He was soon given a scathing review of his management style, he said, and was later ‘‘effectively demoted’’ to desk officer at headquarters, in what he believes was retaliation for speaking up.
House Republican leaders made the hearing the day’s top priority, postponing votes so the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform could continue without interruption. The Obama administration appeared focused on the testimony, with senior officials at the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon responding throughout the day to Republican accusations of incompetence and coverup in campaign war room style.
In the balance, in the view of both Democrats and Republicans, is not just the reputation of Obama but also potentially the prospects for the 2016 presidential election as well, since Clinton, who stepped down in February, is the Democratic Party’s leading prospect. If the testimony did not fundamentally challenge the existing facts and timeline of the Benghazi attack and the administration’s response to it, it vividly illustrated the anxiety of top State Department officials about how the events would be publicly portrayed.
Hicks offered an unbecoming view of political supervision and intimidation inside the Obama administration. When Representative Jason Chaffetz, Republican of Utah, visited Libya after the attack, Hicks said his bosses told him not to talk to the congressman. When he did anyway, and a State Department lawyer was excluded from one meeting because he lacked the necessary security clearance, Hicks said he received an angry phone call from Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills.
‘‘So this goes right to the person next to Secretary of State Clinton. Is that accurate?’’ asked Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio. Hicks responded, ‘‘Yes, sir.’’
In a statement late Wednesday, a State Department spokesman, Patrick H. Ventrell, said the department had not and would not retaliate against Hicks. Ventrell noted that Hicks ‘‘testified that he decided to shorten his assignment in Libya following the attacks, due to understandable family reasons.’’ The spokesman said that Hicks’s current job was ‘‘a suitable temporary assignment’’ at the same salary and that he had submitted his preferences for his next job.
The accounts from Hicks and two other officials, Mark I. Thompson, former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security who had testified before, added some detail to accounts of the night of Sept. 11 in Benghazi, where armed militants penetrated the diplomatic compound, starting the fire that killed Stevens and an aide, and later killed two security officers, including Winchester, Mass., native Glen Doherty, in a mortar attack; in Tripoli, where frantic diplomats fearing a similar invasion used an ax to destroy classified hard drives; and in Washington, where officials struggled to keep up with events.
The hearing offered a compelling, often emotional view from the ground, where officials were desperate for a rescue mission. Hicks, for instance, described his exchange with the furious leader of a four-member Special Operations team that wanted to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi to help but was ordered not to. Thompson wanted to see his Foreign Emergency Support Team dispatched to the scene and could not understand why his superiors did not agree.
But from the more detached standpoint of officials in Washington — offered in statements from the Defense Department and the State Department — neither unit could have reached Benghazi before the attacks were over. The team in Tripoli worked much of the night on moving US Embassy personnel to a secure annex and were not ready to leave for Benghazi until the early morning.
“None of us should ever experience what we went through in Tripoli and Benghazi,’’ Hicks said.
The three witnesses challenged both the Obama administration’s initial version of events — long ago withdrawn — and its claim to have exhaustively investigated the attacks.
When Rice suggested on Sunday talk shows days after the attack that it had begun with protests against a crude anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube, Hicks said, ‘‘I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed.’’
Her remarks angered the president of Libya’s National Assembly, Mohamed el-Magariaf, who had said on one of the TV programs that the attack was the ‘‘preplanned’’ act of militants, including some from Al Qaeda, Hicks said. He asserted that Magariaf’s fury at being undercut caused Libyan officials to drag their feet on cooperating with FBI investigators.
The witnesses also said they felt that the administration’s own official investigation, led by a veteran retired diplomat, Thomas R. Pickering, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was inadequate.
‘‘They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,’’ Nordstrom said.