In an often heated congressional hearing Wednesday, lawmakers and witnesses alike pointed to State Department official Charlene Lamb as the person most directly responsible for rejecting multiple requests for increased security at the U.S. diplomatic missions in Libya prior to the Sept. 11 attack.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) excoriated the State Department for rejecting requests from the U.S. Embassy in Libya for an extension of temporary security forces that were withdrawn in the months prior to the attack that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
One cable, written by then Amb. Gene Cretz, noted that three Mobile Security Detachments [MSD], consisting of 18 personnel, and the Site Security Team [SST], consisting of 16 personnel, were about to leave their temporary assignments. He said that the Libya mission needed both an extension of those forces and an increase in the number of permanent security officials in Libya.
The SST is a team of U.S. military personnel that was deployed to assist the embassy staff on a temporary basis for 60 days and then extended for another 60 days, but not extended for a third 60-day tour.
During the hearing, the top regional security officer in Libya over the summer, Eric Nordstrom, and Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a Utah National Guardsman who was leading a security team in Libya until August, placed the blame squarely on Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international programs, whom they said was the official who denied those requests.
"All of us at post were in sync that we wanted these resources," Nordstrom testified, adding that Lamb had directly told him over the phone not to make the requests, but that Cretz decided to do it anyway.
"In those conversations, I was specifically told [by Lamb] ‘You cannot request an SST extension.' I determined I was told that because there would be too much political cost. We went ahead and requested it anyway," Nordstrom said.
Nordstrom, who said in his opening statement that he understood the balance needed to manage risk at high-threat posts to allow diplomats to do their work, criticized the State Department for failing to plan for security in Libya after the team's departure.
"Once the first team of [temporary personnel] expired, there was a complete and total lack of planning for what was going to happen next," he said. "There was no plan, there was just hope that everything would get better."
Nordstrom also said that he received a danger pay increase after the U.S. security teams left because the official assessment of the danger for U.S. personnel in Libya had increased.
Lamb defended her decision not to extend the missions of the MSD and SST teams, arguing that the mission of those teams had changed and that in any case they were replaced by local Libyan security personnel. The post had agreed that having only three diplomatic security agents in Benghazi was sufficient, she claimed.
""We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi on the night of 9/11," Lamb testified.
"That doesn't ring true to the American people," Issa responded.
Nordstrom said that Lamb never responded to the Tripoli embassy's request for continued security resources in what he considered a rejection, even if Lamb never issued a written objection. Lamb said that the U.S. mission in Libya had not been specific enough in its requests for forces, but Nordstrom pointed to the cables as evidence that was simply not true.
Lamb said that the specialized skills contained in the forces were being acquired by Libyan forces.
"We had been training local Libyans and arming them for almost a year," Lamb said. She also said that the extension of the SST in Tripoli "would not have made any difference in Benghazi."
Wood pointed out that the SST had traveled to Benghazi at least twice to help protect the top U.S. official at that mission, dismissing the idea that local Libya forces could have the same specialized skills as by the U.S. security personnel that were removed.
"We felt great frustration that those requests were ignored or just never met," Wood testified.
Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy said he disagreed with Lamb and was inclined to support an extension of the SST mission in Libya -- before he was cut off by Issa because time had expired.
Kennedy and Lamb were also pressed several times to explain why senior officials including U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice made statements in the days after the attack describing it as a reaction to an anti-Islam video, considering that the State Department was monitoring the events that night in real time.
Kennedy suggested that another government agency was to blame.
"There were reports that we received that there were protests, and I would not go any further than that," Kennedy said, citing a reluctance to go into detail in open session. Other officials, including Rice, have said that they based their comments on the intelligence community's initial, albeit caveated, assessment.
But Wood testified that there was no way anyone who was following the events in real time could conclude the attacks were anything but a terrorist attack.
"It was instantly recognizable as a terrorist attack. We almost expected the attack to come. It was a matter of time," Wood said. "[Al Qaeda's] presence grows there every day. They are certainly more established there than we are."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.