Officials say strong Libyan response to earlier bombing could have lulled U.S. into false sense of security.
WASHINGTON - A speedy and effective response by newly trained Libyan security guards to a roadside bombing outside the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi in June may have resulted in underestimating the security threat to the U.S. personnel stationed there, according to counterterrorism and State Department officials, even as threat warnings escalated in the weeks before the attack last month that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The Libyan guards' aggressive action in June came after the mission's defenses and training were strengthened at the recommendation of a small team of Special Forces soldiers, who augmented the mission's security force for several weeks in April while also assessing the compound's vulnerabilities, U.S. officials said.
"That the local security did so well back in June probably gave us a false sense of security," said one U.S. official who has served in Libya. "We may have fooled ourselves."
The presence of the Special Forces team and the conclusions reached about the role of the Libyan guards offer new insight into the kind of security concerns U.S. officials had before the attack on Sept. 11.
Security at the mission has become a major issue as the Obama administration struggles to explain what happened during the attack, who was responsible and how the ambassador ended up alone. Republicans and Democrats in recent days have demanded more detailed explanations from the White House and the State Department on possible security lapses.
"There were warnings," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on CNN's "State of the Union" program Sunday.
Just how much U.S. and Libyan officials misread the threat has become even more evident as they analyze the skill with which the mortar attack at the annex a half-mile away was carried out. That assault, nearly three hours after the initial attack, killed two former Navy SEALs who were defending the compound.
With as few as four armed Americans and three armed Libyans guarding the mission as the attack began, Stevens' own bodyguard was so far away that he needed to sprint across the compound under gunfire to reach the building where the ambassador was working at the time. Stevens died of smoke inhalation.
And even after eight additional security officers arrived, the roughly 30 Americans were surprised and outgunned again in the second attack, dependent on an ad hoc collection of Libyan militiamen to protect their retreat, Libyan officials said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials and Libyans on the scene say the mortar attack was likely carried out by the same group of assailants who attacked the mission and then followed the convoy of U.S. survivors retreating to what they thought was a safe house.
The first mortar shell fell short, but the next two hit their mark in rapid succession with deadly precision, according to an account that David Ubben, one of Stevens' security guards, told his father, Rex Ubben, an account supported by other U.S. and Libyan officials.
"There are three villas inside and the walls are high, and the only house that got hit was the house we were in," said Fathi el-Obeidi, a Libyan militia commander who came to help evacuate the Americans.
This indicated that many of the assailants were practiced at aiming their mortars, skills they learned in fighting Moammar Gadhafi's army.
Violence had been escalating
The Sept. 11 attack culminated several weeks of growing violence against Western and other diplomatic posts in Benghazi. State Department officials said they knew of the worsening climate and took precautions. One U.S. official who worked in the mission said the Americans there were able to get around with "appropriate prudence."
A U.S. official who said he traded e-mails with Stevens three days before his death said the ambassador did not mention any heightened security concerns. CNN, however, has reported that Stevens noted such concerns in a diary that one of the network's correspondents found at the ransacked mission.
But security had been a concern for months. After an attack in early April on the convoy of the U.N. special envoy for Libya, Ian Martin, the top regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Eric Nordstrom, sent about four Special Forces soldiers to Benghazi to augment security and conduct the security assessment, the U.S. official said.
As a result of the military assessment, the mission increased the number of sandbagged defensive positions and gave the Libyan security guards more training.