A number of media sources have fresh looks at the Obama administration’s handling of security in the weeks before the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi drove us out of eastern Libya and killed four Americans, including US Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens. First, Fox News reported yesterday that the State Department decided to stick to its schedule of rotating out a 16-man Special Ops team assigned to diplomatic security in Benghazi, just weeks before the attack in August. They were joined in their exit by a six-man security team from the State Department itself:
ABC News follows this up with a report this morning that Stevens himself wanted the special forces team to stay in Libya, but apparently were overruled:
U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens wanted a Security Support Team, made up of 16 special operations soldiers, to stay with him in Libya after their deployment was scheduled to end in August, the commander of that security team told ABC News.
The embassy staff’s “first choice was for us to stay,” Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, 55, told ABC News in an interview. “That would have been the choice of the embassy people in Tripoli.” …
Asked for comment to the memo and Wood’s comments, a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee told ABC News: “Diplomats working in Libya viewed security provided by highly trained Americans as critical to their safety and mission. The Oversight Committee’s investigation continues to seek answers about why — even as threats against Americans increased — senior State Department officials erroneously decided such security was no longer needed.”
Investigators are exploring whether anyone at the State Department told the Embassy specifically not to request another extension.
The State Department responded this morning by claiming that Stevens had requested a specific level of security which matched what he already had. However, Eli Lake’s report from the Daily Beast today underscores just how fragile those security arrangements were. Thanks to Obama administration efforts in Libya, Stevens sent a cable the morning of the attack warning State that their support of a Libyan candidate for Prime Minister threatened to alienate the militias that protected the Benghazi consulate:
Just two days before the 9/11 anniversary attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, two leaders of the Libyan militias responsible for keeping order in the city threatened to withdraw their men.
The brinksmanship is detailed in a cable approved by Ambassador Chris Stevens and sent on the day he died in the attack, the worst assault on a U.S. diplomatic mission since the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. The dispatch, which was marked “sensitive” but not “classified,” contained a number of other updates on the chaotic situation on the ground in post-Gaddafi Libya.
The cable, reviewed by The Daily Beast, recounts how the two militia leaders, Wissam bin Ahmed and Muhammad al-Gharabi, accused the United States of supporting Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the Libyan transitional government, to be the country’s first elected prime minister. Jibril’s centrist National Forces Alliance won the popular vote in Libyan elections in July, but he lost the prime minister vote in the country’s Parliament on Sept. 12 by 94 to 92. Had he won, bin Ahmed and al-Gharabi warned they “would not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi, a critical function they asserted they were currently providing,” the cable reads. The man who beat Jibril, Mustafa Abushagur, lost a vote of no-confidence Sunday, throwing Libyan politics back into further uncertainty.
The threat from the militias underscores the dangers of relying on local Libyan forces for security in the run-up to the 9/11 military-style assault. The U.S. consulate in Benghazi employed a militia called the “February 17 Martyrs Brigade” for security of the four-building compound. In addition, there were five Americans serving as diplomatic security and a group of former special operations forces that acted as a quick reaction force on the day of the 9/11 attack. Members of the militias led by bin-Ahmed and al-Gharabi overlapped with the February 17 militia, the cable says.
Lake notes that the overall tone of the cable was positive about improving security in Libya. However, it’s also rather interesting that the cable makes no mention at all of the 14-minute YouTube video that the White House insisted for more than a week was the reason for the assault on the consulate. Instead, Stevens notified Washington of a rise in Islamist forces in the region, including morality brigades enforcing sharia law at the local university. Less than 24 hours later, Stevens would be murdered while the militias turned out to be ineffective at best in the coordinated terrorist attack on the consulate.
The House Oversight Committee hearing on the attack begins on Wednesday. Will the White House story change yet again between then and now?