The Benghazi hearing — after the attack

Yesterday’s Benghazi hearing provided important information about the cover-up that occurred following the attack, and the leading role of Hillary Clinton in that cover-up.

We already knew that the talking points Susan Rice used on five Sunday talk shows had been changed to provide false information about the Benghazi attack. Gregory Hicks, the State Department’s number two man in Libya when the attack began, confirmed yesterday that there was no “protest” in Benghazi and that the video Rice blamed for the attack was a “non-event in Libya.”

We also knew that it was Clinton’s State Department that pushed back against the talking points produced by the intelligence community, and insisted that the event be cast as a protest sparked by the (non-event) video [correction: State's insistence during the talking points alteration process was that references to the involvement of the al-Qaeda affiliate in the attack and to CIA warnings be removed; also the video didn't make it into the talking points, although Rice emphasized them in her talk show appearances, as did Clinton when talking to the families of the Benghazi victims]. Hicks testified that no one at the State Department bothered to ask him whether there was a protest or whether the video played any role.

Plainly, the State Department wasn’t interested in facts. It was interested only in spinning Benghazi into something other than terrorism. Why? Because if this was terrorism, questions would be raised about State’s failure to respond to requests that security in Libya be beefed-up in light of the growing threat in and around Benghazi.

Hicks also testified that he spoke personally with Hillary Clinton on the night of the attack and told her what was happening. Although he wasn’t questioned carefully about that conversation, it’s clear that Hicks did not tell Clinton that this was a protest or that the video played a role. Hicks clearly believed neither of these propositions.

Hicks’ most revealing testimony pertained to attempts to discourage him from speaking up about the Clinton cover-up, and the retaliation he experienced for doing so. Intimidation and retaliation are hallmarks of the worst kind of cover-up.

Hicks testified that he was shocked by Susan Rice’s bogus account of the Benghazi attack and its cause. When he therefore asked Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones about Rice’s statements, Jones made it clear that she didn’t want to talk about the matter and didn’t want Hicks to pursue it.

After that, according to Hicks, Jones began mistreating him. She “counseled” Hicks, whose 20-plus career at State apparently is exemplary, about his “management style.” Eventually, the criticism culminated in a “blistering” attack by Jones. When the question of Hicks’ return to Libya arose — yes, he initially wanted to return to Libya — Jones questioned why the new ambassador would want him. This despite commendation Hicks had received from both Clinton and Obama before he was perceived as a whistleblower.

According to Hicks, State Department lawyers told him not to talk to congressional investigators. When Rep. Chaffetz traveled to Libya to talk with Hicks, a State Department lawyer was to attend the meeting. However, our bungling State Department failed to send along a lawyer with a proper security clearance. Thus, its lawyer was excluded.

It was after the Chaffetz visit that Assistant Secretary Jones’ mistreatment of Hicks reached its crescendo. In addition, Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s special assistant, gave a Hicks a talking-to.

Scott noted this morning that Mills is an old Clinton hand. “Adept in the arts of cover-up and scandal management,” Scott wrote, “she harks back to Monica and impeachment.”

As Hicks testified, it’s not a good thing when Cheryl Mills gives you a talking-to. And given her status as Hillary’s consigliere, there can be no doubt that when Mills talks to you, she does so directly on behalf of Hillary.

In sum, the perpetuation of the cover-up was a Hillary Clinton operation, pure and simple.

Finally, Hicks’ testimony explains that, in addition to obscuring the truth from the American people, Clinton’s cover-up had adverse consequences on the ground in Libya. The phony “protest in response to a video” narrative contradicted the statement of Libya’s president, who courageously called the attack terrorism.

Hicks says that Rice’s false statements angered the Libyan president. Consequently, his government failed to cooperate with U.S. efforts to secure the “crime scene” and bring in the FBI. It was two and a half weeks before the FBI could get in.

The Benghazi cover-up may not have been worse than “the crime” — namely the State Department’s scaling down of security when it should have been increased. But the cover-up is bad enough.

The presentation of knowingly false statements that overrode an honest intelligence assessment; retaliation against a highly respected career official for questioning the false statements; and adverse real world consequences in Libya. That’s bad enough even for government work.

And, like the “crime” itself, the cover-up is down to Hillary Clinton.

UPDATE: I should have noted Hicks’ testimony about his demotion to a less desirable, less prestigious job — from the number two man at an important foreign post to a mundane desk job. The State Department denies retaliation and notes that Hicks retains the same grade and salary as before.

This is a frequent defense in retaliation cases. When I practiced law, I asserted it on behalf of clients accused of retaliation.

However, the better view is that retaliatory demotion can occur without loss of rank or pay. Employees will pause before exercising their legal rights or acting as a whistleblower if they fear employer responses that make their life at work less desirable, even if the responses carry no loss of pay or title. This, then, should be the starting point for determining what is and what is not retaliation.

Trivial acts that make life less pleasant (a frown, for example) shouldn’t be considered actionable retaliation. But being assigned demonstrably less desirable, less prestigious work clearly should.

Mr. Hicks should have been able to question Beth Jones about the talking points and to speak candidly to Rep. Chaffetz without being assigned to a job beneath his position. Instead, the State Department appears to have punished him and made him an example for others who may contemplate “blowing the whistle.” That’s retaliation, and it’s wrong.

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