House hearing: ‘weak’ security drawn down further before Benghazi attack

The State Department had refused to extend a 16-member ‘site security team’ in Libya, a security officer told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Witnesses are sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, prior to testifying before House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing onthe attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

“Weak” US diplomatic security in Libya was drawn down further in the weeks before the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans including the ambassador to Libya, a congressional committee hearing revealed Wednesday.

And the attack that led to Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s death was not a case of a mob demonstration that turned into a violent assault by opportunistic extremists, as originally thought, State Department officials said. Instead, it was a well-planned attack carried out by a group of heavily armed men.

The attackers are now thought to have been organized by a Libyan Islamist extremist group loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The politically charged hearing – called by the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform at the height of a presidential campaign in which the Benghazi tragedy looms increasingly large – included testimony from the State Department’s top security officials.

Also appearing was an officer from the Utah National Guard who was the security officer of the Tripoli embassy from February to August. Lt. Col. Andrew Wood told the committee in a prepared statement that the State Department had refused to extend the 16-member “site security team” he led over his months in Libya and that by September, the “weak” security situation in Benghazi was worsening.

A top State Department security official confirmed to the committee that his request for the team to be extended into October was denied – but he cautioned the committee against concluding that merely extending the team would have made a difference in Benghazi.

“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,” the security official, Eric Nordstrom, told the committee in a prepared statement. He said that “an extra half-dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault.”

Wednesday’s hearing took on a political hue in part because it was called even though Congress is on recess in the run-up to the November general election. The committee chairman, Darrell Issa (R) of California, also initiated the House investigation into the Justice Department’s Fast and Furious gun-tracking program that went awry and resulted in US guns falling into the hands of Mexican criminals. Representative Issa spearheaded a drive to have Attorney General Eric Holder be found “in contempt of Congress.”

But Issa sounded less partisan in opening Wednesday’s hearing on Benghazi. Emphasizing what he said is the apolitical purpose of his committee’s inquiry, he said the hearing would serve “to identify things that clearly went wrong and what the benefit of hindsight will be” as the government works to enhance the security of America’s diplomats. Issa also praised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton – formerly a senator from New York – for extending her department’s full cooperation to Congress.

Issa did grill another testifier, Charlene Lamb – a deputy assistant secretary of State for security – telling her that her statement about the Benghazi security profile on Sept. 11 being deemed adequate “somehow does not ring true.”

Democrats countered that the hearing was blatantly political, and they charged that if Republicans were sincere about their security concerns, they should first restore recent cuts to the State Department’s security budget. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland, told the hearing it was Republicans who had cut hundreds of millions of dollars from security budgets for US overseas missions.

A few conservative critics have called for Secretary Clinton to resign over the Benghazi attack, saying the State Department was lax and unprepared in an environment of high instability. But most ire has been reserved for President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. Ambassador Susan Rice said in a series of television appearances just days after the Benghazi attack that the information available suggested that a mob demonstrating over an anti-Islam video had been used by armed extremists to mount their assault.

Republicans called that depiction deceptive after additional information revealed that no demonstration took place that night outside the consulate.

In his prepared remarks, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, Patrick Kennedy, said Ambassador Rice had described the attack as information gathered as of Sept. 16 had painted it.

“The information [Rice] had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We have always made clear that we are giving the best information we have at the time. And that information has evolved.”

Kennedy said that the security in Libya, as for all US embassies, was based on “the considered judgments of experienced professionals on the ground and in Washington, using the best information available.”

“The assault that occurred on the evening of Sept. 11,” he added, “was an unprecedented attack by dozens of heavily armed men.”

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