THREAT LEVEL

10.04.12

Despite Threats, U.S. Cut Security in Libya Before Attacks

Even as American outposts in Benghazi appeared to be at risk, the State Department trimmed the number of security guards on the ground. Eli Lake reports on the latest allegations.

In the six months leading up to the assault on the United States consulate in Benghazi, the State Department reduced the number of trained Americans guarding U.S. facilities in Libya, according to a leading House Republican investigating the Sept. 11 anniversary attacks. The reduction in U.S. security personnel increased America’s reliance on local Libyan guards for the protection of its diplomats.  

This is the latest charge from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican leading a House investigation on the Benghazi attacks, regarding alleged security defects in Benghazi. Chaffetz said the information comes from whistleblowers who have approached the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The State Department on Wednesday didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, a senior State Department official said an independent review panel was examining the charge. This official said it was routine to reduce the number of U.S. personnel serving in new diplomatic posts such as Benghazi over time. When the U.S. established its official presence in Benghazi in 2011, it was the middle of a war, and even routine jobs such as drivers were handled by U.S. personnel, this official said.

The allegation from Chaffetz, who is the chairman of the oversight committee’s subcommittee that handles national security, is important in light of recent reports that some Libyans who provided security for U.S. missions were working with insurgents and, in one case, allegedly attacked the consulate in Benghazi in April with a homemade explosive. 

On Tuesday, Chaffetz and the oversight committee’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), disclosed in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton details of an alleged April 6 bombing at the consulate. The letter detailed how in the run-up to the 9-11 assault there was an escalation of military-style attacks on Western targets in Libya’s second-largest city. The letter also said U.S. security personnel had requested, and were denied, additional security for the U.S. embassy in Tripoli and the consulate in Benghazi.

Chaffetz went further Wednesday, saying in an interview that the number of American diplomatic security officers serving in Libya had been reduced in the six months prior to the attacks. "The fully trained Americans who can deal with a volatile situation were reduced in the six months leading up to the attacks," he said. "When you combine that with the lack of commitment to fortifying the physical facilities, you see a pattern.”

The oversight committee’s investigation is looking at whether there was adequate security for Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in the attacks that day. It’s one of the many questions about the Benghazi attacks that are beginning to circle around the White House, and especially Secretary of State  Clinton, as she completes her tenure.

“The fully trained Americans who can deal with a volatile situation were reduced in the six months leading up to the attacks.”

On Tuesday, Clinton wrote in a letter to Chaffetz and Issa that she intended to cooperate with the House committee’s investigation. But in the letter she did not promise to turn over all of the cables and documents requested by Chaffetz, saying she had empowered her own accountability review board to find out what had happened in Benghazi. “Nobody will hold this department more accountable than we hold ourselves,” she wrote.

The senior State Department official told The Daily Beast that on 9-11 there were five Americans serving as diplomatic security to protect Ambassador  Stevens at the consulate. But this official stressed that a group of former Navy SEALs and others with military training who were stationed less than half a mile away at a nearby annex factored into the security plan for the consulate. This official referred to this team as a “quick reaction force,” but also acknowledged that their job was not to provide protection for the ambassador.

David Tafuri, a partner at Patton Boggs law firm in Washington and a counsel to the Libyan government, said there was a “tension between the need to allow America’s diplomats to engage with Libyans free from restrictive security controls and the need to protect the diplomats in a dynamic environment.” 

Tafuri added, “From September 2011 to September 2012, Libya generally got safer. We had an excellent diplomat in Chris Stevens, who in order to do his job needed to be able to be on the street meeting with Libyans.”