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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.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday acknowledged that “there’s no question that the security was not enough to prevent that tragedy from happening.” He added, “There is no question that when four Americans are killed at a diplomatic facility that something went wrong.”
But Democrats on the Hill and administration officials also emphasized the size and sophistication of the assault, which included rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry used to storm the compound and light it on fire.
“The Department of State regularly assesses risk and allocation of resources for security; a process which involved the considered judgments of experienced professionals on the ground and in Washington,” Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy testified Wednesday. “The assault that occurred on the evening of Sept. 11, however, was an unprecedented attack by dozens of heavily armed men.”
Democrats also noted that House Republicans have proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to the State Department’s diplomatic security accounts in recent budgets. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, called for Republican leaders to consider a supplemental funding bill to restore support for embassy security, paid for by eliminating tax breaks to oil companies.
The hearing — called for last week by Issa and Chaffetz — featured a release of several diplomatic cables, including one from Stevens on the day of the attack.
The documents confirmed the requests to extend the Defense Department’s 16-person security team, as well as general concerns about the security situation in the area. Charlene R. Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary of State for international programs, acknowledged that she had told Nordstrom she would not approve the request.
Democrats quickly pointed out that the security team had been based in Tripoli, not Benghazi. And Nordstrom also said that the State Department did provide the minimum diplomatic security force that had been recommended for Benghazi.
Even the nature of the information that the committee and its witnesses could share at the hearing became the subject for squabbling.
Kennedy and Lamb refused to disclose details on certain intelligence reports they had received in the immediate days after the attack. Chaffetz, meanwhile, repeatedly objected to their public airing of details of the attack he said were classified.
That exchange prompted pushback from Democrats. “This whole hearing is responding to allegations that there were not enough people on the ground at the Benghazi facility, accusations that you made publicly,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (Mass.) said.
“Now I’m trying to get an answer about how many people were there, and now that’s off the record?” Lynch exclaimed. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.
Correction: Oct. 10, 2012
An earlier version of this story misattributed statements made at the hearing. The quotes were from Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), not Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.).