Higher walls and a half-dozen extra guards couldn’t have stopped the Sept. 11 assault by scores of attackers on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead, the State Department’s former security chief for Libya told Congress Wednesday at a hearing surcharged with election-year politics.
Partisan sparring and angry questioning of witnesses underscored how the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, a State Department computer expert and two U.S. security contractors – and the Obama administration’s response to them – have become issues in presidential and congressional races four weeks before the elections.
Republicans and Democrats jousted over alleged security failures, the administration’s fluctuating accounts of what happened, and the State Department rejection of U.S. Embassy requests to extend the tours of security personnel even as the danger of being in Libya grew.
Democrats alleged that they were denied access to witnesses and information, while Republicans sought to tar the administration with the U.S. fatalities.
“I believe, personally, with more assets, more resources, just meeting the minimum standards, we could have and should have saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other people who were there,” asserted Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is helping lead the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigation into the attack.
Democrats retorted by pointing out that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has been slashing proposed budgets for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which protects 275 U.S. diplomatic missions, many of them in conflict zones.
“The fact is that since 2011, the House has cut embassy security by hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, who cited a bipartisan estimate that ending tax breaks for oil companies could save $2.5 billion annually. “We could fully replenish these embassy security accounts with just a fraction of that.”
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney’s campaign weighed in after the hearing, accusing President Barack Obama of misleading the nation about what happened. But it also said that Romney had agreed to stop telling the story of Glen Doherty, one of two former Navy SEALs who died, after his mother complained to a Boston TV station that it was “wrong” for the former Massachusetts governor to “make my son’s death part of his political agenda.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney conceded that in hindsight "there is no question that the security was not enough to prevent that tragedy from happening."
But Eric Allan Nordstrom, who served as the chief security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli from September 2011 until July, testified that the “ferocity and intensity” of the attack on the rented Benghazi compound that served as a temporary consulate exceeded any violence that he’d seen in Libya or elsewhere.
“Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half-dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault,” he said, adding that it “will signal a new security reality” for U.S. diplomatic missions.
Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department computer specialist, suffocated from smoke from fires set by the estimated 120 suspected Islamist militants who stormed the compound around 9:40 p.m. on the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks on the United States.
Doherty and Tyrone Woods, another former Navy SEAL serving as a security officer, died in a subsequent assault on a nearby CIA safe house.
Much of the hearing focused on denials by State Department officials in Washington of Nordstrom’s repeated requests to extend the tours of three State Department security teams and a U.S. special forces squad commanded by Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, the commander of the military unit from February to August.
Nordstrom and Wood testified that security had worsened since the fall of the government of Moammar Gadhafi in September 2011. They said Libya’s interim government had failed to disarm Gadhafi loyalists, Islamist extremists and local militias, and that shootings and bombings had become troublingly frequent.
At one point, Wood acknowledged that al Qaida had a larger presence in Libya now than it had before Gadhafi’s fall, which came about in large part because of a NATO air campaign in support of rebels.
Wood was especially critical that his 16-member Site Security Team was pulled out after suspected militant Islamists on June 6 blew a hole in the wall of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and unknown assailants on June 8 attack the British ambassador’s convoy with rocket-propelled grenades, prompting the closing of the British mission. The International Red Cross also pulled out of the city after its offices were attacked.
“When that happened it was pretty apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi,” he said. “We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi.”
Two State Department officials who testified defended the decision to withdraw the diplomatic and military security teams, saying that their places were filled by U.S.-trained Libyan security guards.
Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security, said that there were five American security guards – the number recommended by Nordstrom – along with Libyans in Benghazi when the attack took place.
“We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11,” she said, and she asserted that extending Wood’s team wouldn’t have made a difference since it was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
“The Department of State regularly assesses risk and allocation of resources for security, a process which involves the considered judgments of experienced professionals on the ground and in Washington,” said Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy. “The assault, however . . . was an unprecedented attack.”
Lamb provided previously undisclosed details about the attack, including listing numerous security improvements that had been made to the consulate compound as well as to an annex nearby where U.S. personnel sought shelter after the assault began.
She said five State Department security agents and three Libyan security guards were in the consulate compound at the time and a U.S. “quick reaction security team” was at the annex, which housed the local offices of the CIA.
Dozens of attackers forced their way through a pedestrian gate to the compound, set fire to the Libyan security guards’ barracks and charged toward the main building. Lamb said she was able to follow what happened “in almost real time” from a command center in Washington.
An American security officer hustled Stevens and Smith into a special safe room in the main building, but when the other guards tried to reach them they were blocked by assailants, who then set the main building on fire.
The diplomatic security officer began leading Stevens and Smith toward an “emergency escape window,” and he crawled out but became separated from the other two, she said. He re-entered the building and searched for them but finally, “suffering from severe smoke inhalation and barely able to breath or speak, exited to the roof.”
Other agents driving an armored vehicle retrieved him and searched for Stevens and Smith but could not find them.
Asked by Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., if she was responsible for rejecting Nordstrom’s requests, Lamb replied, “Yes sir, I said personally I would not support it.” She explained that just as with embassies in other insecure countries, they were being replaced by local security guards.
Nordstrom said that the extensions were requested even though Lamb had told him that they’d be denied, and he complained that there was no long-term planning to cope with the deteriorating security situation in Libya.
“There was no plan and it was hoped that it would get better,” he said.
Democrats sought to defend the administration’s initial accounts – first detailed by Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice five days after the attacks – that the assault was a spontaneous outgrowth of a protest outside the consulate over an online video denigrating the Prophet Mohammad, the founder of Islam.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic representative of the nation’s capital in Congress, noted that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had issued a statement saying that “it had been the source of the ambassador’s statement.”