WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. security officer twice asked his State Department superiors for more security agents for the American mission in Benghazi months before an attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, but he got no response.
The officer, Eric Nordstrom, who was based in Tripoli until about two months before the September attack, said a State Department official, Charlene Lamb, wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi “artificially low,” according to a memo summarizing his comments to a congressional committee that was obtained by Reuters.
Nordstrom also argued for more U.S. security in Libya by citing a chronology of over 200 security incidents there from militia gunfights to bomb attacks between June 2011 and July 2012. Forty-eight of the incidents were in Benghazi.
A brief summary of Nordstrom’s October 1 interview with the Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was contained in a memo prepared by the committee’s minority Democratic staff.
Nordstrom’s actions and those of his superiors are likely to figure prominently in a House committee hearing on Wednesday that will be Congress’ first public examination of what went wrong at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi.
The State Department has defended security procedures in Libya and convened its own independent review board. A State Department official declined to comment on what Nordstrom told lawmakers in private, noting that Nordstrom would testify at the public hearing on Wednesday and “that’s something that will come out in the hearing.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the department’s “posture is to be as cooperative as we possibly can” at the Wednesday hearing. In addition to Nordstrom, it will feature testimony by Lamb, Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management, and Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood, who headed a security support team at the Tripoli embassy.
Debate over whether the Americans were caught unprepared for the assault by militants on the diplomatic mission in Libya’s relatively lawless eastern section has put the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on the defensive in the run-up to the November presidential election.
A leading Republican on the committee probing the attack, Representative Jason Chaffetz, told Reuters Tuesday he thought security decisions U.S. officials made for the Benghazi mission had turned out to be “deadly” ones.
The top U.S. intelligence authority, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, says the four Americans were killed in an organized terrorist assault, but the attackers have not been identified.
Separately, a U.S. official confirmed to Reuters that in addition to the four Americans who were killed in the Benghazi attacks on September 11, three more Americans were injured. Only one of those remains in hospital, the official said.
Nordstrom, a State Department regional security officer, told lawmakers that Kennedy issued a “decision memo” in December 2011 requiring that the Benghazi post be manned with five diplomatic security agents, but that it usually had only three or four.
“He (Nordstrom) stated that he sent two cables to State Department headquarters in March and July 2012 requesting additional Diplomatic Security Agents for Benghazi, but that he received no responses,” the memo said.
At some point, however, it appears Nordstrom learned the views of Lamb because he told the committee she “wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi artificially low,” the memo said.
“He said that Deputy Assistant Secretary (for international programs) Lamb believed the Benghazi post did not need any Diplomatic Security Special Agents because there was a residential safe haven to fall back to in an emergency, but that she thought the best course of action was to assign three agents,” the memo said.
It is unclear who made the final decision about how many agents were stationed in Benghazi.
“Sadly, that was a deadly decision,” Representative Chaffetz said of leaving the mission with just a few security agents.
“Look at the result — the first (U.S.) ambassador killed since the 1970s,” Chaffetz said in an interview.
The Oversight and Government Reform committee has been investigating the handling of security at the U.S. mission in Benghazi before the attack. The committee’s Republican Chairman Darrell Issa and Chaffetz, a subcommittee chairman, have led the probe.
Chaffetz said he suspects the devotion of so much effort and money to Iraq and Afghanistan has drained resources away from security for U.S. diplomatic efforts in other parts of the world. U.S. troops have withdrawn from Iraq but thousands of security contractors remain there, he said.
“We have 15,000 (security contractors) in Iraq, and we have a hard time having more than two dozen in Libya,” Chaffetz said. “It doesn’t seem to balance itself out right.”
Democrats counter that Republicans have pushed for cuts in the funding of the very embassy security that they now are charging is insufficient.
The Democratic staff memo that outlined Nordstrom’s pleas for more security also said that House Republicans voted to reduce embassy security funding by about half a billion dollars below the amount requested by the Obama administration since 2010. The Democratic-led Senate had been able to restore “a small portion” of these funds, the memo said.
Ambassador Chris Stevens died of smoke inhalation when he was trapped alone inside the burning building in Benghazi in an attack that began on the evening of September 11.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a conference in Florida on Tuesday that there was no advanced warning about the Libya attack.
He scoffed at media portrayals of him as “hapless and hopeless” for acknowledging on September 28 a shift in the intelligence assessment of the Benghazi assault, calling it a deliberate terrorist attack instead of an event stemming from spontaneous protest, as initially thought.
Clapper suggested it was unrealistic for anyone to expect the U.S. intelligence community to have a “a God’s eye, God’s ear certitude” right after an attack like the one in Libya.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Phil Stewart; Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman