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FILE - In this Sept. 13, 2012 file photo, a Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. Consulate, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya.

Mohammad Hannon, Associated Press - Ap

U.S. embassy security in Libya was geared to safer time

  • Article by: MICHAEL R. GORDON, ERIC SCHMITT and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
  • New York Times
  • October 30, 2012 - 6:20 AM

WASHINGTON - In the months leading to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. 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.

But 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 a warning that the diplomatic compound would be targeted and that was overlooked by administration officials.

In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, the circumstances surrounding the attack have emerged as a major political issue, as Republicans, led by Mitt Romney, have sought to lay blame for the attack on President Obama, who they argued had insufficiently protected U.S. lives there.

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 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, e-mailed his superiors in Washington in August alerting them to "a security vacuum" in the city.

A week before Stevens died, the U.S. Embassy warned that Libyan officials had declared a "state of maximum alert" in Benghazi.

It's clear 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.

In the early days after the fall of Gadhafi, the administration's plan was to deploy a modest U.S. security force and then increasingly rely on Libyan personnel to protect U.S. 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.

Questions at home

But the question on the minds of some lawmakers is why the declining security situation did not prompt a fundamental rethinking of the security needs by the State Department and the White House. Three congressional investigations and a State Department inquiry are examining the attack, which U.S. officials said included participants from Ansar al-Shariah, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.

"Given the large number of attacks that had occurred in Benghazi that were aimed at Western targets, it is inexplicable to me that security wasn't increased," said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, one of the panels holding inquiries.

Defending their preparations, State Department officials have asserted that there was no specific intelligence that warned of a large-scale attack. The department said it was careful to weigh security with diplomats' need to meet with Libyan officials and citizens.

"The lethality of an armed, masked attack by dozens of individuals is something greater than we've ever seen in Libya ...," Patrick F. Kennedy, the State Department's undersecretary for management, told reporters on 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."

A temporary stay

From the start, the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security advised the embassy's security officer, Eric A. 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.

The number of State Department security agents at the compound fluctuated, sometimes dipping to as few as two. Five U.S. security agents were at the compound on Sept. 11 -- three stationed there and two traveling with Stevens.

In addition to the Americans, there were several armed Libyans who served as a quick-reaction force. 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 Libyan guards stood watch at the gates and perimeter of the compound, but this group was unarmed and equipped with only whistles and batons.

The Americans were equipped with rifles and side arms. But Libya was rife with rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns, mortars and AK-47s.

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