10.09.12

Top Security Chief to Testify on Libya Missteps

They needed more protection—and they didn’t get it. That’s what Eric Nordstrom will tell a House oversight committee tomorrow about U.S. diplomats in Benghazi in the months before the 9-11 attacks. Eli Lake gets a sneak peek.

The former top U.S. diplomatic security official in Libya will tell Congress Wednesday that the State Department reduced security personnel for Libya over his objections.

Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer for the U.S. embassy in Tripoli from September 2011 to June 2012, is slated to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where he will discuss publicly for the first time a 51-page report he prepared this summer on security incidents in Libya since June 2011.

“The incidents paint a clear picture that the environment in Libya was fragile at best and could degrade quickly,” Nordstrom wrote in an Oct. 1 letter to the committee. “Certainly not an environment where post should be directed to ‘normalize’ operations and reduce security resources in accordance with an artificial timetable.”

Nordstrom will testify along with Andy Wood, a former Green Beret who, until August, was the head of a special site security team based in Tripoli. These are the first oversight hearings on the 9-11 anniversary assaults in Benghazi.

Nordstrom’s report paints a vivid picture of a Libyan government straining to control local militias accused of torture and other crimes that often targeted Westerners. “Diplomatic personnel and expatriates are increasingly being detained by poorly trained militias,” writes Nordstrom.

The report also says the risk of U.S. diplomats, businessmen and private citizens “encountering an isolated event as a result of militia or political violence is HIGH.”

And it says there were clear signs that jihadists had the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in their sights, saying that a group called the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman Brigade allegedly claimed credit for a June 6 bombing at the consulate’s outer gate. Abdul Rahman, also known as the “blind sheik,” was indicted for plotting attacks on New York City landmarks in 1995 and remains in a U.S. federal prison to this day.

House Republicans hope the testimony of the two security officers will be the sharpest dagger yet aimed at the Obama administration, whose senior officials have said there was no precise warnings about the assault on the consulate and claimed at first the attack was spontaneous.

Testifying on behalf of the State Department Wednesday will be Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy and Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs Charlene Lamb. A senior Obama administration official said State Department officials are expected to counter that Republicans in the House sought to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the broader budgets that provide diplomatic security, forcing the State Department to do more with less.

House Republicans hope the testimony of the two security officers will be the sharpest dagger yet aimed at the Obama administration.

A memo prepared by committee staff for House Democrats doesn’t dispute the charges from Nordstrom or Wood, who spoke Monday to CBS News about his special operations team charged with site security in Tripoli. It does, however, make the point about funding cuts for diplomatic security and embassy construction. “Since gaining the majority in 2011, House Republicans have voted to reduce embassy security funding by approximately half a billion dollars below the amounts requested by the Obama administration,” the staff memo said.

Democrats also say that the investigation led by the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the committee’s subcommittee that deals with national security, is partisan. The Democrats say they weren’t given access to Wood or some of the documents the State Department has turned over to the committee. The memo also says Democrats were only given 24 hours notice of a fact-finding mission over the weekend to Libya conducted by Chaffetz. As a result, no Democratic House members of staffers were able to accompany Chaffetz to Tripoli.

“I only had about 24 hours notice,” Chaffetz said in an interview. “When the military told me they could get me into Libya, I dropped and did it. Too bad the Democrats didn’t do the same.” Regarding access to the documents, he said, “I think Chairman Issa has done a good job of keeping the ranking member up to speed on every step of the investigation.”