Daily Beast National Security Correspondent Eli Lake On The Benghazi Hearing Wednesday
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HH: Joined now by Eli Lake, one of the key foreign policy correspondents who works for The Daily Beast. Eli’s been covering the hearings. Eli, what’s the most significant thing we’ve learned today?
EL: I think the most significant thing we’ve learned today is the top diplomat in Libya was gobsmacked that Susan Rice had told the American people and the world that the attack stemmed from a demonstration when he was saying this was a terrorist attack from the get-go. And then, I’d say, right after that is that when he began asking about why Susan Rice said what she said, he was getting an enormous amount of pressure from his superiors at the State Department beginning to try to, what appears to be, politically go after him and make his life difficult in his job then as the highest ranking diplomat in Libya.
HH: Let me play for you three clips and for the audience, Eli Lake, that I took away from this. First is Mr. Hicks talking about Hillary’s first phone call with him at 2am:
GH: I think at about 2pm, 2am, sorry, the Secretary called, Secretary of State Clinton called me, and along with her senior staff, were all on the phone. And she asked me what was going on, and I briefed her on the developments. Most of the conversation was about the search for Ambassador Stevens. It was also about what we were going to do with our personnel in Benghazi. And I told her that we would need to evacuate. And she said that was the right thing to do.
HH: All right, second one is when he’s asked about the lieutenant colonel getting out of the car and not going to the airport.
JC: How did the personnel react to being told to stand down?
GH: They were furious. I can only say, well, I will quote Lt. Col. Gibson. He said this is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.
HH: And the last exchange is about his phone call from Cheryl Mills, Congressman Jim Jordan asking the questions.
JJ: You had another conversation on the phone with Cheryl Mill. Tell me who is Cheryl Mills.
GH: She is counselor for the Department of State, and chief of staff to Secretary Clinton.
JJ: That’s a pretty important position?
GH: Yes, sir.
JJ: When she calls, you take the phone call?
JJ: Yeah, she is the fixer for the Secretary of State. She is as close as you can get to Secretary Clinton. Is that accurate?
GH: Yes, sir.
JJ: And tell me about that phone call you had with Cheryl Mills.
GH: That phone call from that person is generally speaking not considered to be good news.
JJ: And what did she have to say to you?
GH: She demanded a report on the visit.
JJ: Was she upset by the fact that this lawyer, this…
GH: She was upset.
JJ: …babysitter, this spy, whatever you want to call him, was not allowed to be in that, first time it’s ever happened, all the Congressional delegations you’ve ever entertained, was not allowed to be in that classified briefing. Was she upset about that fact?
GH: She was very upset.
JJ: So this goes right…
HH: So Eli Lake, we’ve got the Secretary of State on the phone at 2am agreeing to evacuate, and knowing the ambassador is dead, we’ve got a lieutenant colonel saying to the diplomat I’ve been stood down, and we have Cheryl Mills calling, berating the diplomat. First of all, do you think there’s a tape of that 2am phone call in the archives of the NSA or the State Department?
HH: You think it’s been subpoenaed, yet?
HH: Should it be?
HH: How about that lieutenant colonel? Do we know who told him to get out of the car?
EL: I don’t have his name off the top of my head, but that has been out there. I think it’s Lt. Col. Woods, and I think it reflected a view, because remember, what Hicks also said was that he was asking why can’t we get F-16 jets from Aviano just to scramble over Benghazi to send a message to the attackers that we’re willing to take them out from the air. And he said under oath that he believed that that may have dissuaded the second attack. I’m not entirely sure of that. I think you could see it a couple of different ways. But nonetheless, I think that that is also very significant that you had our top diplomat after Chris Stevens dies in Tripoli doing whatever he can to get this reaction. It really does contradict almost everything that we heard about efforts to try to send more military assets at the time. Remember, I mean, General Dempsey, Leon Panetta, the White House, everyone has said at one point or another that they had all the assets that could, and if they would have sent more, it would not have made a difference. And here, we’re getting a very different story.
HH: All right, the Cheryl Mills call strikes me as obstruction of a Congressional investigation at a minimum, and quite possibly violative of federal whistleblowing protection as well. Was that news to you that she had so intervened and had berated Hicks?
EL: Almost everything on this was news. I was one of the reporters who got a sneak preview of elements of what he going to say. We knew from Sunday in Darrell Issa’s appearance on the CBS show that this was coming. The details, I mean, this conversation with Beth Jones, being berated and feeling that he was getting all these performance reviews, and was being told he shouldn’t go back to the embassy in Tripoli, all of this stuff that came out today shows that there was a lot of pressure and a lot of weight that was coming down on the shoulders of one Gregory Hicks.
HH: It was also emotional, and I’m arguing that other than Oliver North’s testimony and Alexander Butterfield’s in 1973, I don’t think there has ever been as significant a day. CNN stayed in a Cleveland parking lot. What do you make of that, Eli Lake?
EL: I can tell you that I was sitting there with the other print journalists, and a print journalist who is by no means a conservative, turned to me and said I haven’t seen testimony like this in years. And this is a veteran correspondent. I think the Hicks stuff was absolutely extraordinary. The one thing I will say, though, is that it’s hard to make the case that the Special Operations team from Tripoli, because it was going to leave at 6am, would have done anything about the second wave of attacks that killed Tyrone Woods and Glen Dougherty. And I would say that I’ve talked to military experts, and it’s unclear whether the scrambling of the jets would have dissuaded the second round of attacks. So in that respect, I’m not so sure that you could say what he was calling for would have had a direct correlation on the attacks at the time, but the pressure that came down on him, the fact that he was saying that nobody in Libya from the U.S. was saying there was a demonstration, when everything we’ve heard up to now from the administration says this was the best intelligence estimate that we had? I mean, also, Jim Clapper was defending that this was our best analysis. How come he didn’t talk to Gregory Hicks? I mean, why didn’t he check this out with people who were on the ground at the time? It’s amazing. Where did this story of the demonstration come from?
HH: Stick around, Eli, for the quick break. I want to come back and ask you about the Aviano air assets that were not scrambled.
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HH: Eli, I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to read the recent book by Rorke Denver, the retired Navy SEAL called Damn Few. Serendipitously, there is an account in there, has nothing to do with Benghazi, but there’s an account of him in a tough situation with this SEALs in Iraq, and they called in an F-18 Super Hornet with no ordinance, simply to do a flyby, and it worked, because it’s such a disturbing display of force. And so if the jets from Aviano, which were A-16’s, not F-18’s, could have gotten to Benghazi and then landed somewhere else, will that be a significant fact?
EL: Well, as I said, Hicks is saying it is a very significant fact, and he’s basing that on his conversations at the time with ex-Libyan revolutionaries who he said were well aware of U.S. air capabilities. The reason I’m bringing it up is because I have not finished reporting, I don’t feel comfortable saying it, but I think that there may have been other factors that led to the second wave of attacks later in the evening.
EL: And so the question is, you have the attack underway, it’s two to three hours for the jets from Aviano to get there. By that point, most of that attack and the rescue had happened. Then, there’s a second wave of attacks. Do you continue to scramble them throughout the evening until 5:15, when you see the mortar attacks? And it does come fairly quickly. There are four mortar strikes. There were two very precise shots, and at that point, would you have scrambled them for hours at a time? And I’ve talked to some people about this, and that’s a little unclear.
HH: Eli Lake, tonight, I am hoping John Boehner comes out and announces a select committee will be stood up. I’m not hopeful, but I’m hoping. Do you think a select committee is necessary? Kelly Ayotte called for one on this show yesterday, as did Trey Gowdy and many of the other people on this Committee.
EL: Well, I think it would be helpful to have some kind of unifying committee like a select committee, if only because you do now have some contradicting reports. The interim Republican report on Benghazi from last month said that there wasn’t, it basically takes the opposite view of Mr. Hicks, saying that there was no effort to try to stand down any other kind of force. And now we get this incredible testimony. So it would be good to just sort of have one clear committee that looks at everything, and then makes these assessments. You have now the Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committee, the Oversight Committee, and it gets very, very confusing, even for a reporter like myself who covers it closely.
HH: Last question, less than a minute, do you think we know now, based upon all that could possibly be known about why the ambassador went to Benghazi, is there a covert story here that we don’t know about yet?
EL: I don’t feel comfortable talking about it, because I haven’t confirmed anything, yet. I have heard a lot of rumors, and I’ve heard a lot of the stories, and I see Rand Paul’s asked questions about this before. And my feeling is I’d like to, before I put it out there, I’d like to know it for sure, and I don’t have that, yet.
HH: Do you think you’ll be continuing to dig into that?
EL: Yeah, I’m actually, I think you’re going to see more and more people. I think this may have actually also kind of unleashed a new flood of people, potentially, because it was very brave for Hicks to come out and say that, and kind of talk about those internal conversations. And in that respect, we may see more whistleblowers. I mean, I think this might be a tipping point.
HH: Eli Lake, thank you for reporting so well on this.
End of interview.