Republicans on a U.S. House panel confronted State Department officials over the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, saying they failed to provide enough security beforehand and then joined in blaming the incident on an anti-Islam Internet video.
At a politically charged hearing four weeks before the Nov. 6 elections, State Department officials defended their actions yesterday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. They said they relied on the best intelligence they had, provided adequate security and couldn’t have anticipated the Sept. 11 assault by armed intruders that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
“We regularly assess risk and resource allocation, a process involving the considered judgments of experienced professionals on the ground and in Washington, using the best available information,” Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, testified. “The assault that occurred on the evening of September 11, however, was an unprecedented assault by dozens of heavily armed men.”
Republicans said President Barack Obama’s administration downplayed terrorist warnings and incidents in Libya and rebuffed requests from security officers on the scene to maintain elevated levels of U.S. security agents in a country gripped by violence since the defeat of longtime dictator Muammar Qadaffi.
“The security experts who actually had been to Libya didn’t get the resources they asked for,” said Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican.
‘This Thing Smells’
Republicans also grilled the officials through a four-hour hearing about why the administration stood by a claim for days after the attack that the incident grew out of a protest over the video ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, rather than being a terrorist assault.
Kennedy told the committee that officials needed time to sort out conflicting reports in the chaotic days following the attack. “There were reports coming out saying there were protests” over the video, Kennedy said. “I will not go any further than that.”
State Department officials made clear they knew the attack was large, well-organized and violent -- complete with grenades and mortars -- almost as soon as it began.
“Under that kind of lethality, we’re never going to have enough guns,” Kennedy said. “We’re a diplomatic service. We are not an armed camp.”
Lawmakers and State Department officials debated whether requests for additional security were denied.
“It was abundantly clear we were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident,” said Eric Nordstrom, who served as a regional security officer in Tripoli until July. Nordstrom said he was turned down when he requested that a 16-member security support team that was scheduled to leave Libya in August be extended.
Describing his frustration with officials at the State Department in Washington, he said he told a regional security director, “The Taliban is on the inside of the building.”
Utah National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood, a former military security officer in Libya, echoed Nordstrom’s view that requests for security weren’t met.
“We were fighting a losing battle,” Wood said. “We couldn’t even keep what we had.”
Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for international programs in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security who evaluated Nordstrom’s request, said the special team was stationed in Tripoli, not Benghazi, and that other diplomatic security agents were available to do the job along with Libyans who had been trained to take over.
“We were training local Libyans and army men” to help protect American facilities in Libya, Lamb said, a policy she said is applied worldwide. Issa replied that turnover among the trainees was as great as 30 percent.
Republicans didn’t further pursue the State Department’s decision to hire members of a local militia, the Feb. 17 Brigade, to help provide security in Benghazi.
One question the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a State Department-sponsored independent inquiry will look into is whether any of the militiamen the U.S. trained may have helped plan or carry out the attack or had ties to extremist groups, according to an official with knowledge of the investigations who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11,” Lamb said. If the security team based in Tripoli had remained in the country on the night of the Benghazi attack, Lamb said, “It would not have made any difference.”
Nordstrom acknowledged as much in prepared testimony that was reviewed by the State Department. “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.
Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican chairman of the committee, said requests for additional security weren’t taken seriously enough by State Department officials in Washington who “seemed preoccupied with the concept of normalization” in Libya after the rebellion that ousted Qaddafi.
Democrats on the committee said Republicans were conducting a partisan investigation, preventing them from interviewing Wood in advance and obtaining documents.
“We should not be about the business of drawing conclusions and then looking for the facts,” said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s most senior Democrat.
Democrats also said the Republican-led House was at fault for cutting funding for embassy security by hundreds of millions of dollars from the levels requested by Obama over the last two fiscal years. Issa said Democrats supported the funding cuts.
State Department officials sought yesterday to defuse a potential conflict within the administration over the initial assessment, voiced by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and others, that the Benghazi attack grew out of a spontaneous protest over the anti-Islamic video.
At a briefing for reporters the night before the hearing, a State Department official who declined to be identified said the department never reached such a conclusion.
Yesterday, Kennedy said of Rice, “The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point. As time went on, additional information became available.”
Elaborating on that briefing, Lamb testified that she stayed in almost constant phone contact with the consulate as the Benghazi attack unfolded through a danger-notification system that was activated.
Intruders forced their way through the consulate compound’s main gate and used diesel fuel to set fire to a barracks building that housed Libyan security guards, she said.
One security agent guarded Stevens and Sean Smith, an information-management officer, in a “safe haven” in one of the buildings in the consulate compound. When attackers set that building on fire and it filled with smoke, the agent escaped through a window and returned repeatedly to try to find Stevens and Smith without success.
After security reinforcements arrived, Smith was found dead and the ambassador was still missing. Agents took heavy fire as they rode to an annex building by armored car. After coming under mortar fire at the annex, where two security agents were killed, they evacuated to the airport.
During an interview that aired last night on ABC News, Obama said his administration didn’t seek to cover up what happened in Benghazi.
“As information came in, information was put out,” the president said. “The information may not have always been right the first time. And as soon as it turns out that we have a fuller picture of what happened, then that was disclosed.”
Republicans leaders in the House said yesterday’s hearing will be followed by other investigations. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, issued a statement calling the hearing “a portion of the oversight into the failures of intelligence, security and commonsense that have embodied the Obama administration’s handling of this tragedy.”