Prior to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the State Department and the Marines Corps had been discussing deploying Marines to guard the U.S. Embassy in the Libyan capital Tripoli "sometime in the next five years," according to the Marine Corps.
The issue of security at U.S. diplomatic outposts in Libya has been front and center as Congress and others begin to investigate whether or not those facilities were sufficiently protected before the attacks that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
The State Department won't discuss the specifics of its security posture in Libya before the attack, but the Marine Corps has briefed congressional staffers on the issue, for example in a Sept. 13 email obtained by The Cable.
"Typically, when a new embassy is established, it takes time to grow a new [Marine Corps Embassy Security Group] detachment," wrote Col. Harold Van Opdorp, director of the Marine Senate Liaison office, in the e-mail. "[In conjunction with] the State Department, there is discussion about establishing a detachment in Tripoli sometime in the next five years."
The State Department did not respond to questions about how high the discussion of deploying Marines to Libya reached, whether that discussion amounted to a recognition that Marines were needed there, or why it might take five years to set it up. A Marine Corps FAST team was deployed to protect the embassy on Sept. 12 after the attack and could stay there indefinitely.
According to the Marines, out of the 285-plus U.S. diplomatic security facilities worldwide, 152 have Marine Corps detachments, primarily to protect the facilities and the classified information they contain.
"Overall, the plan is to grow the number of MCESG detachments worldwide to 173. It is also important to note the detachments are charged with protection of the chancery. Perimeter security is the responsibility of the HN [host nation] police/security forces," Van Opdorp wrote.
Many on Capitol Hill are pressing the State Department for details about the exact security arrangements at the Benghazi consulate, contesting the State Department's repeated assertion that there was a "strong" security presence protecting the facility.
One congressional aide told The Cable that the State Department initially reported to Congress that the security personnel at the embassy consisted of an unarmed local security force and six armed Libyan government personnel.
The Washington Guardian reported Wednesday that the two former Navy SEALs who were killed in the attack were not part of the ambassador's security detail but had unspecified security responsibilities related to the consulate and engaged the attackers after the firefight began.
Lawmakers are still trying to get details about the State Department's security posture in Libya and the heads of the Senate Homeland Security Committee have already called on the department to investigate the security failures surrounding the Benghazi attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is set to brief Congress on the issue Thursday afternoon. Earlier this week, she defended the security presence in Benghazi, saying, "Let me assure you that our security in Benghazi included a unit of host government security forces, as well as a local guard force of the kind that we rely on in many places around the world."
Late Wednesday, Pentagon officials briefed House Armed Services Committee members on the Libya attacks, after which Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) said that he was increasingly concerned about the lack of security at U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya.
McKeon said it was "inconceivable" that that there were no military personnel stationed in Benghazi, despite a June bomb attack on the consulate, and he said he was "really concerned about the lack of support that the ambassador had, the lack of protection."