Armed groups have attacked the Ansar al-Sharia and other militias in Benghazi. The attacks appear to be in response to US wishes in the aftermath of the deaths of four American diplomatic personnel on September 11, 2012., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
U.S. security in Benghazi "a struggle": ex-security officer
By Susan Cornwell and Tabassum Zakaria
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Diplomatic security for the U.S. mission in Benghazi was "a struggle" and security teams in Libya were drawn down ahead of last month's fatal attack, the former head of a U.S. security team in Libya told lawmakers on Wednesday.
"The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there," Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee during Congress' first hearing on the assault that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
"The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there," he said.
Wood said that when he arrived in Libya in February there were three U.S. diplomatic special security teams in the country, but by August they had been withdrawn.
Republican charges that the United States was caught unprepared for the September 11 attack have put the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on the defensive ahead of the November 6 presidential election.
Partisan tension quickly spilled out at the hearing, with Republicans accusing the State Department of not being fully cooperative in providing information on security decisions before the attack. Democrats accused the majority Republicans of conducting a one-sided probe that excluded them.
Republicans continued their line of attack that the administration initially issued misleading comments saying the assault was a spontaneous event that sprang from a protest against an anti-Islam video.
Administration officials said those initial comments, including by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, resulted from the best information at that time.
"If any administration official including any career official were on television on Sunday, September 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said," Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management, told the hearing. "The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point."
However, Reuters reported last week that within hours of the attack, the Obama administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda were involved.
U.S. intelligence officials were the first to publicly say it was a terrorist attack that struck the compound.
In a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, State Department officials backed away from earlier assertions that the anti-Islam film had a role in the violence.
"We know that the tragedy in Benghazi ended as it did," Republican committee Chairman Darrell Issa said. "We now know that, in fact, it was caused by a terrorist attack that was reasonably predictable to eventually happen somewhere in the world, especially on September 11."
He said the safe-haven area of the compound where Stevens was found could not have been expected to offer adequate protection.
"The safe haven within the compound, which some State Department officials seem to think could protect the Benghazi compound's inhabitants, did not work and, in retrospect, could not be expected to work," Issa said.
In more partisan rancor, an argument erupted early in the hearing with Republicans objecting to a photograph displayed by the State Department of what appeared to be an aerial view of the Benghazi compound and the nearby area, saying it might reveal classified information.
A State Department official said the information was for public dissemination, and a Democratic lawmaker said: "You can Google it."
State Department officials testifying at the hearing defended security arrangements in Benghazi and said the compound was struck by what Charlene Lamb, a top official in the department's Diplomatic Security bureau, called "a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in size and intensity."
"We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon," Lamb told lawmakers.
Another former U.S. security officer in Libya, Eric Nordstrom, who testified at the hearing had earlier told the committee in a private interview that Lamb, deputy assistant secretary of state for international programs, wanted to keep the number of security personnel in Benghazi "artificially low."
Wood, who served as the Site Security Team commander in Libya from February 12 to August 14, said he came forward to the congressional committee after Stevens and the three other Americans were killed in the assault.
"The killing of a U.S. ambassador is a rare and extraordinary thing and requires our attention as a people," he said. "As a citizen I made the determination that this outweighs all other interests and will risk whatever circumstances may result from my testimony."
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Eric Beech)