In the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration received intelligence...
In the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration received intelligence reports that Islamic extremist groups were operating training camps in the mountains near the Libyan city and that some of the fighters were “al-Qaida-leaning,” according to U.S. and European officials.
The warning about the camps was part of a stream of diplomatic and intelligence reports that indicated that the security situation throughout the country, and particularly in eastern Libya, had deteriorated sharply since the United States reopened its embassy in Tripoli after the fall of Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s government in September 2011.
By June, Benghazi had experienced a string of assassinations as well as attacks on the Red Cross and a British envoy’s motorcade. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the September attack, emailed his superiors in Washington in August alerting them to “a security vacuum” in the city. A week before Stevens died, the American Embassy warned that Libyan officials had declared a “state of maximum alert” in Benghazi after a car bombing and thwarted bank robbery.
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In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, Republicans, led by their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, have claimed President Obama had insufficiently protected American lives there.
Interviews with U.S. officials and an examination of State Department documents do not reveal the kind of smoking gun Republicans have suggested would emerge in the attack’s aftermath, such as administration officials had overlooked a warning that the diplomatic compound would be targeted.
What is clear is that even as the State Department responded to the June attacks, crowning the Benghazi compound walls with concertina wire and setting up concrete barriers to thwart car bombs, it remained committed to a security strategy formulated in a very different environment a year earlier.
After the fall of Gadhafi, the administration’s plan was to deploy a modest U.S. security force and then increasingly rely on trained Libyan personnel to protect American diplomats — a policy that reflected White House apprehensions about putting combat troops on the ground as well as Libyan sensitivities about an obtrusive U.S. security presence.
In the following months, the State Department proceeded with this plan. In one instance, State Department security officials replaced the U.S. military team in Tripoli with trained Libyan bodyguards, while it also maintained the number of State Department security personnel members at the Benghazi compound around the minimum recommended level.
Three congressional investigations and a State Department inquiry are now examining the attack, which U.S. officials said included participants from extremist groups Ansar al-Shariah, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, based in Egypt.
State Department officials have asserted that there was no specific intelligence that warned of a large-scale attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which they asserted was unprecedented. “The lethality of an armed, masked attack by dozens of individuals is something greater than we’ve ever seen in Libya over the last period that we’ve been there,” Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, said at a news conference Oct. 10.
But David Oliveira, a State Department security officer who was stationed in Benghazi from June 2 to July 5, said he told members and staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he recalled thinking that if 100 or more assailants sought to breach the mission’s walls, “there was nothing that we could do about it because we just didn’t have the manpower, we just didn’t have the facilities.”
After Gadhafi’s fall, Obama cautiously approved a plan to send to Tripoli a 16-member Site Security Team, a military unit that included explosive-ordnance personnel, medics and other specialists. “Day-to-day diplomatic security decisions were managed by career State Department professional staff,” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
From the start, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security advised the embassy’s security officer, Eric Nordstrom, that he needed to develop an “exit strategy” so that the Tripoli-based team could be replaced by Libyan guards and U.S. civilian officials.
Charlene Lamb, one of the department’s senior diplomatic security officials, told members of the House oversight committee last month that by June, one of her aides and Nordstrom had identified a need for 21 security positions and that 16 of them were to be filled by Libyan bodyguards. Americans were to fill the remaining slots, and two assistant regional security officers were also to be sent.
Housed in a rented compound, the mission and a nearby annex used by the Central Intelligence Agency enabled the United States to interact with Libyans in the eastern part of the country from a city that had been the cradle of their revolution.
But eastern Libya also had another face. Though the region had been a wellspring for the uprising against Gadhafi’s government, it was also known as one of the major sources of extremists who traveled to Iraq in 2007 to join the main terrorist group there, al-Qaida in Iraq.
The number of State Department security agents at the compound in Benghazi fluctuated, sometimes dipping to as few as two. Five U.S. security agents were at the compound Sept. 11 — three stationed there and two traveling with Stevens.
The Americans were also able to call on the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, a militia supportive of the Libyan government. Yet another small group of unarmed Libyan guards stood watch at the gates.
When it came to weapons, the U.S. security team was outgunned. The Americans were equipped with M4 rifles and side arms. But Libya was rife with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, mortars and AK-47s.
Much of the security depended on maintaining a low profile. At one point, Nordstrom, the regional security officer, proposed establishing guard towers, but the State Department rejected that on the grounds that it would make the compound more conspicuous.
There was no doubt, however, that there were many in Benghazi who knew the compound’s location. On June 6, a bomb was planted near the American Mission’s outer wall, blowing out a 12-foot-wide hole. No one was injured.
On June 11, the lead vehicle of the British ambassador’s convoy was hit by an armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenade, wounding a British medic and driver. The British envoy left Benghazi the next day, and the British post in the city was closed June 17.
About the same time, the Red Cross pulled out after it was attacked a second time. “When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi; we were the last thing on their target list to remove,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, the head of the military security team in Tripoli.
In the event of a significant attack, Oliveira noted, the Americans were counting on the February 17th Brigade to rush to their aid, as it had during the June 6 bombing. The embassy had also established a series of “trip wires,” classified benchmarks about intelligence on attack preparations or escalating unrest that would prompt the United States to evacuate the Benghazi compound. But the trip wires were not set off.
New security cameras with night-vision capability were shipped to the Benghazi compound but were still sitting in crates when the September attack occurred.
U.S. intelligence agencies had provided the administration with reports for much of the past year warning that the Libyan government was weakening and had little control over the militias, including Ansar al-Shariah.
By early September, some Libyan officials in Benghazi were echoing the same security warnings as Stevens was relaying to Washington.
U.S. officials continue to investigate the extremists who carried out the attack. A Tunisian, who was apprehended by Turkish officials on a flight from Benghazi to Turkey and repatriated to Tunisia, was also involved, U.S. officials said. It is not yet clear if the attackers were trained in the camps.