State Department officials admitted Wednesday that Foggy Bottom rejected a request to keep a team of Defense Department security agents in Libya this summer, months before Islamist militants attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, killing four Americans. But one former senior security official at the embassy in Tripoli also suggested that maintaining such a force, while preferable, was unlikely to have prevented the lethal Sept. 11 assault.
Those and other revelations at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s unusual recess hearing provided fodder for election-year finger-pointing on both sides. Republicans accused the White House of negligence, while some Democrats called for a supplemental funding measure to bolster diplomatic security and make up for cuts driven by Republicans in the House.
“What’s infuriating is that we have hundreds of terrorist types of activities, our consulate is bombed twice, the British ambassador has an assassination attempt, and you’re over here arguing about whether the number [of security personnel on the ground] was five ... or three,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told the State Department’s witnesses. Meanwhile, “the security experts who had actually been in Libya didn’t get the resources that they asked for.” Chaffetz chairs the Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations.
With lawmakers focused mostly on security-related decision-making in the weeks and months before the attacks, the hearing did little to clarify how the United States should move forward to prevent similar episodes in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Eric Nordstrom, who served as the State Department’s regional security officer in the capital of Tripoli through July, told lawmakers that “the ferocity and intensity of the attack” that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other State Department employees “was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service.”
“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,” Nordstrom said in his prepared remarks.
That assessment is at the heart of the debate over how well the Obama administration secured its diplomats in Libya after the fall of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year, as well as the way it has responded to the attack in the weeks since.
Republicans zeroed in on accusations that State Department officials refused to properly secure the compound, despite growing indications of the threat.
“Accounts from security officials who were on the ground and documents indicate that they repeatedly warned Washington officials about the dangerous situation in Libya,” House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in his opening statement. “Instead, however, of moving swiftly to respond to these concerns, Washington officials seemed preoccupied with the concept of ‘normalization,’” effectively downplaying security concerns.