The US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi was a sitting target with weak security as requests for extra staffing were denied despite a rising al-Qaeda threat, US lawmakers were told on Wednesday.
In a testy and heated hearing, US Republican lawmakers grilled three top US State Department officials and the former leader of a security team into what went wrong in a Sept. 11 attack on the mission, in which four Americans died.
Two officials testified that requests for extra support for US posts in Tripoli and Benghazi had been refused, and the regional security officer said he was frustrated by a “total absence of planning” for future security.
“It was abundantly clear: We were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident,” regional security officer Eric Nordstrom told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, which lasted over four hours.
Nordstrom said he sought to bolster security by asking for 12 more agents, but was told by a State Department regional director that he was asking for the “sun, moon and the stars.”
The fierce and sustained attack by dozens of militants bearing heavy weapons who torched and bombarded the mission and a nearby annex has thrust US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy to the forefront of the bitter White House race.
Among those killed was ambassador Chris Stevens — the first diplomatic envoy to be killed on duty since 1979 — and three other diplomatic personnel.
Obama pledged to “fix” any security flaws that needed to be fixed, adding in an interview with ABC television that his administration had put out information on the Benghazi attack as it became available and was updated.
Lawmakers had also railed against the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who initially said the assault was triggered by a “spontaneous” protest over an Internet video that denigrates Islam.
Nordstrom blamed US Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb, responsible for security at some 275 US diplomatic facilities around the world, for refusing their calls for extra manpower.
She was repeatedly pummeled by lawmakers in the acrimonious and highly partisan hearing, and admitted she had not supported those requests, saying they were training local Libyan staff to take on some of those duties.
However, Lamb added that the final decision was made by her superiors.
The State Department believed “we had the correct number of assets” on the ground, she said, noting: “I made the best decisions I could with the information I had.”
Wood, a former special forces soldier, said he had recommended the closure of the Benghazi mission as most other Western nations withdrew from the city.
“When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi; we were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi,” he said.
The hearing was told there were 230 security-related incidents over 13 months in Libya, and in June, there was a direct threat against Stevens on Facebook.
Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy also hit back at charges that US officials, including Rice, had changed their account of what happened in Benghazi, saying that the “information has evolved” since the attack.
He also pleaded for more funds, saying he would be able to upgrade security and build new missions.
Speaking to reporters later, Kennedy said: “We’re reassessing whether or not and when we could return to Benghazi. We still regard it as a very, very critical location in our overall engagement with the government of Libya.”