The star witness for Republicans at Wednesday’s hearing on the assault on the consulate in Benghazi said he twice urged the State Department to keep an elite diplomatic security team in Libya, but was denied each time. The team, a group of soldiers attached to the national guard, left the country in August.
In his testimony, Eric Nordstrom, the top U.S. diplomatic security official in Libya until the end of June, was at times harshly critical of his superiors at State. His tone differed from his prepared remarks, which appeared more measured, and which he said were written with the help of guidelines from the State Department. In those remarks, he said the vast majority of his requests for security resources were “considered seriously and fastidiously.”
But under questioning by Republicans, Nordstrom detailed two phone calls he had with Charlene Lamb, a deputy assistant secretary of state working in the diplomatic security bureau. "In those conversations I recall I was specifically told you cannot request an extension of the SST," Nordstrom said, referring to the so-called Site Security Team, made up of former U.S. military personnel. “In the first case in February, we felt strongly about the need for that and requested it anyway."
The SST at the time was led by Andy Wood, a former Green Beret and another witness at the committee hearing. Wood said security in Benghazi was “a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there.” He added, “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. The RSO struggled to obtain additional personnel there but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with."
Lamb acknowledged under questioning that she had urged Nordstrom not to request more security personnel. “Personally I would not support it,” said Lamb. “We had been training local Libyans for a year.” She added, “With due respect, they were in Tripoli they were not in Benghazi, it would not have made any difference in Benghazi.”
Though the SST was based in Tripoli, its mission was to support U.S. diplomats throughout Libya. In some ways, the team served as reserve of highly trained security personnel that could be deployed to hot spots. Sometimes, the team would travel with a high-ranking diplomat to provide extra security. On two occasions, members of the SST traveled to Benghazi to "bolster security at that location," said Wood in his testimony.
Regardless, Lamb’s statement gets to the heart of a key criticism of the State Department in the run up to the Benghazi attack, which is that it relied too heavily on trained Libyans to provide diplomatic security.
During the questioning, Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the committee, said that documents turned over to the committee stated a 30 percent turnover rate for Libyans receiving U.S. security training.
At the packed hearing, some reporters joked beforehand that Ms. Lamb’s middle name was “sacrificial,” as she would be forced to defend her department’s decisions to reject requests for more personnel. Under questioning, Lamb said, for example, “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi on 9/11 for what had been agreed upon.”
Indeed, Nordstrom said that “the ferocity and intensity of the attack was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service.” He added, “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.”
Tuesday night, two senior State Department officials held a last-minute briefing with some journalists in which they provided new details about the night of the attack. These officials also stressed the assault was unprecedented and that diplomatic security had not prepared for this kind of military-style assault. Almost from the beginning, said the officials, the diplomatic security personnel and a nearby team of former special operations soldiers were outgunned. Efforts to protect the ambassador were foiled when the attackers set the building with the safe room ablaze with cans of diesel fuel.
These officials also said that at no point did the diplomatic security officers see any evidence of a protest outside the consulate as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, had told Sunday talk shows on Sept. 16.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary of State for management, defended Rice. He said, "if any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, Sept. 16th, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point. As time went on, additional information became available."