Gregory Hicks testifies at a congressional hearing on Benghazi on May 8. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas.)
The tired Benghazi circus staged by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this week did have one legitimately intriguing moment: Gregory Hicks, a senior diplomat at the State Department, claimed he was intimidated and then demoted for questioning the administration’s response to the September 2012 attacks.
This was a new bit of information, and fleshed out heretofore-anonymous claims in the right-wing media that Benghazi whistleblowers were being cajoled and silenced by federal authorities.
It appears, according to experts, that indeed Hicks not only fits the profile of a whistleblower but is also being unfairly retaliated against by his superiors. The unfortunate backdrop here is an administration with a troubling record of retribution against federal employees who speak out against official policy.
Hicks first testified that State Department officials would not allow him to speak with Republican members of Congress without a State Department lawyer present, which he said had never happened before when meeting with congressional delegations. He also said that Cheryl Mills, a top aide to then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, called him to voice displeasure that he had met with Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz without a lawyer anyhow:
REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): And didn’t you say—excuse me—didn’t you say, Mr. Hicks, in my first round, that this was the first and only time this had ever happened, where someone from the State Department accompanied a congressional visit, and you were instructed specifically by the State Department, “Do not talk to Congressman Chaffetz or anyone on the committee’s delegation who’s there without this lawyer being present?
HICKS: That’s correct.
JORDAN: And shortly after the one time when you did have a chance to interact with Mr. Chaffetz, and the lawyer was not president—was not present, you got a phone call from Cheryl Mills?
HICKS: That is correct.
JORDAN: And on that phone call, what did she say?
HICKS: She asked for a report on the visit, which I provided. The tone of the report—the tone of her voice was unhappy, as I recall it. But I faithfully reported exactly how the visit transpired.
Hicks also testified that he received an excessively negative performance review once he began speaking out:
HICKS: Prior to the visit [with Chaffetz], Assistant Secretary Jones had visited and she pulled me aside and again, said I need to improve my management style and indicated that people were upset. I’d had no indication that my staff was upset at all other than with the conditions that we were facing.
Following my return to the United States, I attended Chris’s funeral in San Francisco and then I came back to Washington. Assistant Secretary Jones summoned me to her office and she delivered a—a blistering critique of my management style, and she even said, I exclaimed, “I don’t know why Larry Pope would want you to come back,” and she said, she didn’t even understand why anyone at Tripoli would want me to come back.
Finally, Hicks testified he received an effective demotion once he voluntarily left Libya—a decision he made based, in part, on the vitriol he had received from his superior:
HICKS: Based on 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 had endured a year of separation when I was in Afghanistan in 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, (inaudible) he indicated that people could expect that they would get a good onward assignment out of that.
The job that I have right now the between my curtailment and my finding of this job that I have now, I had no meaningful employment. I was in a status called Near Eastern Affairs Over-complement. And the job now is a significant—it’s a demotion. Foreign affairs officer is a designation that is given to our civil service colleagues who are desk officers. So I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer.
The pushback to Hicks’s claims has been swift. The State Department told The New York Times that it’s simply standard policy to have lawyers present for any congressional investigation. Democratic Representative Elijah Cummings also pointed out that Hicks himself said in pre-hearing testimony that the lawyer’s only instructions for Hicks were to withhold any classified details of the ongoing FBI investigation, and nothing else.
On the matter of retaliation, the State Department asserted that after Hicks’s admittedly voluntary withdrawal from Libya, his number simply didn’t come up for a more plum assignment—a common problem. “Since foreign service officer assignments work on annual cycles, by shortening his assignment Mr. Hicks was in the position of finding an ‘off-cycle assignment’. In such situations, it is not uncommon to have difficulty finding a suitable assignment for some time,” Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy press secretary for the State Department, told The Guardian. “The department has not and will not retaliate against Mr. Hicks.”
Other anonymous State Department officials have since come forward and told reporters that Hicks’s incompetence, not deliberate retaliation, is the reason he’s having trouble getting a good assignment. A State Department employee told Hayes Brown of ThinkProgress that “[Hicks] was removed from here because he was a disaster as a manager…. [it had] nothing to do with him being a whistleblower, it had everything to do with his management capacity or lack thereof.” Another anonymous official told Foreign Policy’s Gordon Lubold that Hicks is a “classic case of underachiever who whines when big breaks don’t come his way.”
Moreover, what may be causing many people to overlook Hicks’s complaints are that the thrust of his testimony was just off—he is strongly critical of Susan Rice’s post-attack characterization that a YouTube video was responsible for motivating the assault, and also critical of high-level commands during the attacks to hold back response teams that wanted to go to Benghazi.
Those two issues have been extensively litigated for months, and there just isn’t much there. Rice was acting on incomplete information, and nothing even resembling concrete evidence has surfaced to prove some sort of cover-up. The rescue teams weren’t deployed simply because Pentagon officials didn’t believe they would reach Benghazi in time—which they probably wouldn’t have. The worst-case scenario here is incompetence, not the world-historical screw-up that Republicans are desperately trying to depict.
But that doesn’t matter, according to whistleblower experts—at all. “Hicks’s whistleblower status is not dependent on whether or not his disclosures are factually correct,” Jesselyn Radack, the Government Accountability Project’s national security and human rights director, told The Nation. “In terms of whistleblower calculus, he fits—he had a reasonable belief that he could get help there in time to at least minimize the damage.”
Radack has represented numerous federal whistleblowers, including many from the State Department. She said that not only is Hicks unquestionably a whistleblower but that his immediate poor performance review and subsequent inability to get a good assignment easily categorize as improper retaliation.
“Those are two of the most classic, beginning ways to start the retaliation,” she said.
Maybe Hicks is a bad manager, and maybe he isn’t—but Radack strongly cautioned against anonymous sources trashing his character, something she has repeatedly seen in other whistleblower cases. “This is very typical of the kinds of attacks and baseless caricatures that whistleblowers get painted about them as soon as they blow the whistle,” she said. “The kind of smears I’m hearing are pretty much in keeping with the smears I hear of other whistleblowers, including other State Department whistleblowers I have.”
Radack also noted that while it may be State Department policy to have a lawyer present at all staff meetings with Congress, it isn’t a good one. “My organization sees that as really just a whistleblower deterrent, because if you’re going to Congress over something that your agency is doing, then obviously the lawyer is going to stop you. These are impediments that are being put up, in my opinion, that work against whistleblowers,” she said.
“The whistleblower has a First Amendment right to petition Congress for a redress of grievances, and under that prong, I think they should—do not pass go, go directly to Congress,” Radack continued.
The important context here is that the administration has a initiated an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers—it has employed the Espionage Act a record six times to prosecute government officials suspected of leaking classified information. A former CIA officer, for example, is currently in federal prison for identifying an intelligence operative involved in illegal torture. (That operative is not in jail.)
That makes the apparent retaliation against Hicks all the more troubling—even if the larger Benghazi drama being pumped up by Republicans is essentially a partisan sham.
In fact, that’s hurting the cause of whistleblowers, too, according to Radack. “The fact that [the GOP is] dramatically claiming that the hearing’s revelations would be every bit as damaging as Watergate, and that this has been so politicized, is unfortunate,” she said. “Obviously whistleblowers get smeared enough. But if they’re put in the middle of a political firestorm like this, they are even more likely to be caricatured with all the bad things that are said about whistleblowers.”
Earlier this week, Congress heard another compelling bit of testimony: Yemeni rights activist Baraa Shiban’s explanation of why drone strikes endanger the United States and its interests, George Zornick writes.