Eugene Robinson's Friday Washington Post column that throws buckets of cold water on the Benghazi "cover-up" is well worth a read, but it touches only briefly on one aspect of the Benghazi story that emerged this week that merits further exploration: the degree to which "whistleblower" Gregory Hicks was "muzzled."
Since testifying at the House Oversight Committee hearing on May 8, a media narrative has emerged that Hicks, after speaking to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) in Libya following the attacks, faced intimidation at the hands of the State Department, beginning with a phone call from Cheryl Mills, the chief of staff to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Depending on which conservative media figure is talking, Mills is said to have "excoriated," "reprimanded," "punished," and even "demoted" Hicks right then and there. Going by Hicks' own testimony, none of that is true.
To recap: following the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Rep. Chaffetz traveled to Libya to interview witnesses and survivors. Hicks, who had become chief of mission following the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens, was one of the people Chaffetz sought to interview. Right-wingers like Guy Benson, writing at Townhall.com, have alleged "US Ambassador Chris Stevens' second in command, Gregory Hicks, was instructed not to speak with a Congressional investigator by Sec. Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills."
This is not true. Hicks testified that the State Department had instructed him not to speak to Chaffetz without a State attorney present -- a condition Hicks says was unusual, but which the State Department says is standard procedure. In any event, Hicks ended up speaking to Chaffetz without the attorney present because, according to his testimony, the lawyer lacked the proper security clearance. Also, Hicks testified that he spoke with Mills only after speaking with Chaffetz.
While being questioned by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) at the May 8 hearing, Hicks described the phone call he received from Mills following his interview with Chaffetz: [transcript from Nexis]
REP. JORDAN: Tell me about that phone call you had with Cheryl Mills.
HICKS: A phone call from that senior of a person is, generally speaking, not considered to be good news.
REP. JORDAN: And what did she have to say to you?
MR. HICKS: She demanded a report on the visit and --
REP. JORDAN: Was she upset by the fact that this lawyer was -- that this --
MR. HICKS: She was upset.
REP. JORDAN: -- baby-sitter, this spy, whatever you want to call it, was not allowed to be in that? First time it's ever happened, all the -- all the congressional delegations you've ever entertained, was not allowed to be in that classified briefing. Was she upset about that fact?
MR. HICKS: She was very upset.
Later in the hearing, while being questioned by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), Hicks elaborated on the phone call and made clear that he had received no direct criticism from Mills. It was only the "tone of the conversation," he testified, that led him to believe Mills was unhappy with him:
REP. MALONEY: I'd like to go back to Mr. Chaffetz's -- or other people's questioning about Cheryl Mills' phone call. And reading the transcripts of it, Mr. Hicks, you told our investigators that she did not seem happy when she heard that no other State Department official was in the classified briefing. Is that true?
MR. HICKS: She was unhappy that the lawyer that came with Congressman Chaffetz was not included in that meeting.
REP. MALONEY: Was she unhappy that no other State Department official was included, just that State Department official?
MR. HICKS: That State Department official.
REP. MALONEY: OK. And you also said that she never criticized you. And according to your interview transcript you said she never gave you any direct criticism. Do you stand by that statement today?
MR. HICKS: The statement was clearly no direct criticism, but the tone of the conversation -- and again, this is part of the Department of State culture -- the fact that she called me and the tone of her voice -- and we're trained to gauge tone and nuance in language -- indicated to me very strongly that she was unhappy. And just if I may --
REP. MALONEY: OK, my time is limited.
Yet here is how Fox News interpreted the exchange: Sean Hannity said on May 10 that "Hicks was excoriated by Hillary's chief of staff Cheryl Mills for daring to talk to Chaffetz without an attorney." That same day, on Fox News' Special Report, Chris Wallace said Mills was "the person who apparently reprimanded Gregory Hicks for saying what he said." Fox News' Andrea Tantaros took it to a whole other level, saying on The Five that Mills "punished Hicks and demoted him allegedly and wanted to muscle him."
That's completely wrong, and Hicks' own testimony doesn't back it up. So how did Hicks' interpretation of Mills' tone of voice turn into this grand act of intimidation? It can probably be traced back to the questioning Hicks faced from Congressional Republicans, who falsely framed the call as a threatening act, and left the conservative media to run with the implication.
For example, after Hicks finished describing his phone call with Mills, Rep. Jim Jordan immediately characterized it as an act of obstruction and retribution for not going along with the "cover-up."
REP. JORDAN: Mr. Chairman, here's a guy with 22 years of outstanding service to our country, 22 years outstanding service, praised by everybody who counts -- the president, the secretary, everyone above him -- and yet now they're obstructing -- because he won't -- he won't help them cover this up -- he's an honorable man here telling the truth, now is getting this kind of treatment from the very people who praised him before. This is why this hearing is so important, and I yield back.
Rep. Ronald DeSantis (R-FL) told Hicks at one point that "we need to know who actually gave the order to stand down. I'd like to know why you've been demoted, why they -- the secretary's chief of staff called you and spoke with you the way she did."
As for Hicks' "demotion," that allegation has also taken off in the conservative media, though Hicks himself said he made the move "voluntarily." While Hicks testified that he felt he had been "effectively demoted" after speaking to Chaffetz, he also testified that the decision to leave Libya was his, and the "overriding factor" behind that decision was that "my family really didn't want me to go back."
REP. SCOTT DESJARLAIS (R-TN): So when you came back to the United States, were you planning on going back to Libya?
MR. HICKS: I was. I fully intended to do so.
REP. DESJARLAIS: And what do you think happened?
MR. HICKS: Based on the criticism that I received, I felt that if I went back, I would never be comfortable working there. And in addition, my family really didn't want me to go back. We'd endured a year of separation when I was in Afghanistan 2006 and 2007. That was the overriding factor. So I voluntarily curtailed -- I accepted an offer of what's called a no-fault curtailment. That means that there's -- there would be no criticism of my departure of post, no negative repercussions. And in fact Ambassador Pope, when he made the offer to everyone in Tripoli when he arrived -- I mean Charge Pope -- when he arrived, he indicated that people could expect that they would get a good onward assignment out of that.
The Washington Post reported on May 8 that the State Department disputes the claim that Hicks was demoted. The Post quoted spokesman Patrick Ventrell saying "the Department worked with [Hicks] to find a suitable temporary assignment and succeeded." Ventrell also said Hicks retained the same salary and rank, and is currently under consideration for future assignments.