WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At a partisan and at times rancorous congressional hearing on events leading to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, security officers on Wednesday described uphill bureaucratic battles for resources to protect U.S. personnel and facilities.
At the same hearing, senior State Department officials said that as long as the United States sent diplomats into danger zones such as Benghazi, there would be no fail-safe protection.
Diplomatic security was the centerpiece of the first congressional hearing to examine publicly events leading up to the September 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer in Libya, said he became frustrated at the infighting for resources and that a meeting in February on staffing requests left him feeling they would never receive what was needed.
“It was abundantly clear we were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident,” he said. “And the question that we would ask is, again, how thin does the ice have to get before someone falls through?”
Republican charges that the United States was caught unprepared for the attack have put the administration of President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on the defensive ahead of the November 6 presidential election.
Partisan tension quickly spilled out at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, with Republicans accusing the State Department of not being fully cooperative in providing information on security decisions before the attack. The panel’s Democrats accused the majority Republicans of conducting a one-sided probe that excluded them.
Two State Department officials who testified at the crowded hearing defended their agency against accusations of inadequately responding to security needs, while not disputing inaction on requests for more security resources in Libya.
“In the end, this is an inherently risky operation. We cannot withdraw always to fortresses,” Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management, told the hearing.
“But an attack of that kind of lethality ... we’re never going to have enough guns,” he said. “We are a diplomatic service ... we are not an armed camp ready to fight it out as the U.S. military does if there was an attack on a U.S. military facility in Afghanistan.”
Charlene Lamb, an official of the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said the Benghazi compound was hit by “a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in size and intensity.”
“We had the correct number of (security) assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon,” she told lawmakers.
Republicans continued their line of attack that the administration initially issued misleading comments saying the Benghazi assault was a spontaneous event that sprang from a protest against an anti-Islam video.
Administration officials said those initial comments, including by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, resulted from the best information at that time.
“The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” Kennedy said.
Reuters reported last week that within hours of the attack, the Obama administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda were involved.
Intelligence officials were the first in the U.S. government to publicly say it was a terrorist attack.
Another former security team leader said that when he arrived in Libya in February there were three U.S. diplomatic “mobile” security teams there, but by August they had been withdrawn.
“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood told the committee.
“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,” he said.
The committee released several reports sent to the State Department by Libya-based U.S. officials related to threats, security conditions, and requests for beefed up security.
One report, sent by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to Washington only hours before the attack was a weekly summary of notable political, economic and social developments in Benghazi.
The document opens by describing how the local government council in Benghazi had welcomed Stevens to the city and a mood there of gratitude for U.S. assistance, but also of frustration at the slow pace of governmental reforms.
In hindsight, the State Department report also contained ominous portents of potential violence, talking about “expanding Islamist influence” in Derna, a town near Benghazi, where a militia later implicated in the September 11 attack is based.
In a briefing for reporters on Tuesday, State Department officials backed away from earlier suggestions that the attacks were triggered by protests over an anti-Muslim video made in California that insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
“We know that the tragedy in Benghazi ended as it did,” Republican committee Chairman Darrell Issa said. “We now know that, in fact, it was caused by a terrorist attack that was reasonably predictable to eventually happen somewhere in the world, especially on September 11.”
He said the safe-haven area of the compound where Stevens was found “did not work and, in retrospect, could not be expected to work.”
In more partisan rancor, an argument erupted early in the hearing with Republicans objecting to a photograph displayed by the State Department of what appeared to be an aerial view of the Benghazi compound and the nearby area, saying it might reveal classified information.
A State Department official said the information was for public dissemination, and a Democratic lawmaker said: “You can Google it.”
Wood, who served as the Site Security Team commander in Libya from February 12 to August 14, said he came forward to the congressional committee after Stevens and the three other Americans were killed in the assault.
“We were fighting a losing battle. We couldn’t even keep what we had. We were not even allowed to keep what we had,” he said.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn, Mark Hosenball and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Eric Beech and David Brunnstrom