The U.S. State Department said there was no reduction in diplomatic security in Libya in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
The department, commenting yesterday in an e-mailed statement, rebutted a claim made in television interviews by the former head of a U.S. security team in Libya. Utah Army National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood said the State Department removed as many as 34 security personnel from the country in the six months before the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Wood, who headed a security team based at the embassy in Tripoli, told CBS News that his 16-member team wasn’t allowed to extend its deployment past its scheduled departure in August, about a month before the Benghazi attack.
“We tried to illustrate” how “dangerous and how volatile and just unpredictable that whole environment was over there,” said Wood, who is scheduled to testify tomorrow when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee conducts a hearing on the Benghazi attack. “So to decrease security in the face of that” is “just unbelievable.”
When Wood’s team left Libya at the end of its deployment, “Diplomatic Security Special Agents were deployed and maintained a constant level of security capability,” the department, which also will have representatives testifying, said in the statement. “So their departure had no impact whatsoever on the total number of fully trained American security personnel in Libya generally, or in Benghazi specifically.”
The Republican-controlled House committee will use this week’s hearing to quiz Wood and State Department officials on what they knew of the security threat in Benghazi in the weeks leading up to the attack and why more security wasn’t provided to the consulate.
The State Department said Wood’s team initially was sent to Libya “to support the re-opening of Embassy Tripoli, to help ensure we had the security necessary as our diplomatic presence grew.” It said his team was based in Tripoli “and operated almost exclusively there.”
Wood said in the CBS interview that some of his team would have traveled to Benghazi to accompany Stevens if they had remained in the country. He declined to say whether he thought his team’s presence there would have made any difference on the day of the attack, according to a separate interview he gave to ABC News.
“That’s way speculative,” Wood said. “I don’t even know the facts of what happened” during the attack, he said.
‘How This Happened’
Republicans have sought to use the Benghazi attack as evidence that the Obama administration hasn’t been vigilant enough in guarding against terrorism.
“As the dust settles, as the murdered are buried, Americans are asking how this happened, how the threats we face have grown so much worse and what this calls on America to do,” Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said yesterday in a speech to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.
The House committee will also hear from Eric Nordstrom, a State Department regional security officer in Libya, and Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for international programs, who reviews security requests, according to Ali Ahmad, a committee spokesman.
The State Department has appointed an independent panel known as the Accountability Review Board, headed by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, to investigate the attack.