On the eve of his death, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was ebullient as he returned for the first time in his new role to Benghazi...

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On the eve of his death, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was ebullient as he returned for the first time in his new role to Benghazi, the eastern Libyan city that embraced him as a savior during last year’s civil war.

But as Stevens met with Benghazi civic leaders, U.S. officials appear to have underestimated the threat facing the ambassador and other Americans.

They had not reinforced the U.S. mission to meet strict safety standards for government buildings overseas. Nor had they posted a U.S. Marine detachment, as at other missions in high-threat regions.

Instead, a small local guard force was hired by a British private-security firm as part of a contract worth less than half of what it costs to deploy a single U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for a year.

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The U.S. mission consisting of two compounds in which Stevens and three other Americans were killed Sept. 11 proved to be strikingly vulnerable in an era of barricaded embassies and multibillion security contracts in conflict zones.

Days before the ambassador’s visit, a Libyan security official had warned a U.S. diplomat that foreigners should keep a low profile in Benghazi. Other Westerners had fled and the British had closed their consulate.

Despite the warning, Stevens traveled to Benghazi to meet openly with local leaders. Eager to establish a diplomatic presence in the cradle of the rebellion against Moammar Gadhafi, the ousted leader, U.S. officials appear to have overlooked the signs that militancy was on the rise.

The attack marked the first violent death of a serving ambassador in a generation and has become a thorn in President Obama’s re-election bid. It also raised the prospect that a country U.S. officials assumed would become a staunch ally could turn into a haven for Islamic fundamentalists.

U.S. officials investigating the assault say their preliminary assessment indicates that members of Ansar al-Shariah, a fundamentalist Muslim group with deep roots in Benghazi, carried out the attack with the help of a few militants linked to al-Qaida’s offshoot in Africa.

When bullets and rocket-propelled grenades started raining on the main U.S. compound, the small guard force was quickly overrun and the building was set ablaze. That image, along with the now iconic photo of a dying Stevens being dragged by Libyans toward safety, could have hardly been further from the message Stevens had traveled to Benghazi to spread: America was there to stay.

Sean Smith, 34, an information-management officer, also died in the attack on the main compound.

A group of Americans escaped to a second compound about a mile away, according to a senior Libyan official and others with knowledge of the attack. Two former Navy SEALs working as private security contractors were killed in firefight there.

Once a nuclear threat and avowed nemesis of the West, oil-rich Libya appeared poised to become an ally in a region seething with anti-U.S. sentiment. After all, NATO airstrikes had helped save Benghazi and turn the tide against Gaddafi’s forces. Stevens was transfixed by the possibilities.

The Benghazi mission was an anomaly for U.S. diplomatic posts. It was not a formal consulate, but rather a liaison office established before Gadhafi’s ouster.

Instead of signing a costly security contract similar to those the government has for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department this summer awarded a contract to Blue Mountain, a small British security firm, to provide local guards at the Benghazi mission. The yearlong contract, which took effect in March, was worth $387,413, a minuscule sum for war-zone contracting. Blue Mountain and the State Department declined to comment.

Three days before the attack, a U.S. official in Benghazi met with security leaders to ask them about the threat level, a senior Libyan official in the east said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The American did not disclose the ambassador’s visit.

“They told him: ‘Look, if there’s going to be any foreign presence (in the city), it better be discreet,’ ” the Libyan official said.

Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli evacuated nonessential staff, citing security risks.

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