The handling of requests for more diplomatic security in Libya has now been caught up in a sharply partisan debate over whether President Obama's administration underestimated the terrorist threat there.
WASHINGTON — In the weeks leading up to the attack last month on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, diplomats on the ground sounded increasingly urgent alarms.
In a stream of diplomatic cables, embassy security officers warned their superiors at the State Department of a worsening threat from Islamic extremists and requested the teams of military personnel and State Department security guards who were already on duty be kept in service.
The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away. And State Department officials testified this week during a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that extending the tour of additional guards — a 16-member military security team — through mid-September would not have changed the bloody outcome because they were based in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
The handling of these requests has now been caught up in a sharply partisan debate over whether President Obama’s administration underestimated the terrorist threat in Libya. In a debate with Rep. Paul Ryan on Thursday night, Vice President Joe Biden said White House officials were not told about requests for any additional security.
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“We weren’t told they wanted more security again,” Biden said.
Mitt Romney’s campaign Friday pounced on the conflicting statements, accusing Biden of continuing to deny the nature of the attack. The White House scrambled to explain the apparent contradiction between Biden’s statement and the testimony from State Department officials at the House hearing.
The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Friday that security issues related to diplomatic posts in Libya and other countries were dealt with at the State Department, not the White House.
Based on interviews with administration officials, as well as in diplomatic cables, and congressional testimony, those security decisions appear to have been made largely by midlevel State Department security officials, and did not involve Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or her top aides.
While it is unclear what impact a handful of highly trained additional guards might have had in Benghazi, were they able to deploy there, some State Department officials said it would probably not have made any difference in blunting the Sept. 11 assault from several dozen heavily armed extremists.
“An attack of that kind of lethality, we’re never going to have enough guns,” Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We are not an armed camp ready to fight it out.”
Security in Benghazi had been a growing concern for U.S. diplomats this year. In April, the convoy of the United Nations special envoy for Libya was attacked there. In early June, a two-vehicle convoy carrying the British ambassador came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Extremists struck the U.S. mission with a homemade bomb, but no one was hurt. In late June, the Red Cross was attacked and the organization pulled out.
“We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi,” Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who was deployed in Tripoli as the leader of the U.S. military security unit, told the House committee.
At U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas, the host nation is primarily responsible for providing security outside the compound’s walls. Inside the compound, the State Department is in charge, relying on a mix of diplomatic security officers, local contract guards and Marines. The Marines are responsible for guarding classified documents, which they are instructed to destroy if there is a breach of the compound. Senior diplomats are protected by diplomatic security officers, not a detachment of Marines, as Ryan asserted in Thursday night’s debate.
In deciding whether to extend a military security team, the State Department often faces a difficult financial decision at a time when its security budget is under severe pressure. The department must reimburse the Pentagon for the cost of these soldiers, an expense that can quickly run into the millions of dollars. For that reason, the State Department typically pushes to make the transition to local contractors, who are much cheaper.
In their debate, Biden responded to Ryan’s attacks by accusing him and his fellow Republicans of cutting the administration’s request for embassy security and construction. House Republicans this year voted to cut back the administration’s request but still approved more than was spent last year.
In an agreement between the Pentagon and the State Department, the military team was extended twice — December 2011 and March 2012 — but when it came to a third extension, Eric Nordstrom, the former chief security officer in Libya, said he was told he could not request another extension beyond August.
Charlene Lamb, a deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said at the hearing that a request from Nordstrom to extend the military team was only a recommendation and that the State Department had been right not to heed it. Lamb also testified that budget considerations played no part in considering additional security. Decisions on diplomatic security went no higher than Lamb and, in limited cases, Kennedy, officials said.
The broader strategy, Lamb said, was to phase out the U.S. military team and rely more on the Libyan militiamen who were protecting the compound along with a small number of U.S. security officers. Lamb said this model of relying on locally hired guards had worked at the U.S. Embassy in Yemen.
In a July 9 cable signed by Stevens, the embassy requested that the State Department extend the tours for a minimum of three security personnel in Benghazi. The department had earlier approved a request for five guards for the mission, which was still in effect at the time of the July 9 cable.
Five U.S. security agents were at the compound at the time of the assault, Lamb said, though it was later noted that only three were based at the compound and that two had accompanied Stevens from Tripoli. She said there were also three members of a Libyan militia who were helping to protect the compound.