WASHINGTON – In the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, the Obama administration received intelligence reports that Islamic extremist groups were operating training camps in the mountains near the Libyan city and that some of the fighters were “al-Qaida-leaning,” U.S. and European officials said.
The warning about the camps was part of a stream of diplomatic and intelligence reports that indicated that the security situation throughout the country, and particularly in eastern Libya, had deteriorated sharply since the United States reopened its embassy in Tripoli after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s government in September 2011.
By June, Benghazi had experienced a string of assassinations as well as attacks on the Red Cross and a British envoy’s motorcade. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the September attack, emailed his superiors in Washington in August alerting them to “a security vacuum” in the city. A week before Stevens died, the U.S. Embassy warned that Libyan officials had declared a “state of maximum alert” in Benghazi after a car bombing and thwarted bank robbery.
In the closing weeks of the presidential campaign, the circumstances surrounding the attack on the Benghazi compound have emerged as a major political issue, as Republicans, led by their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, have sought to lay blame for the attack on President Barack Obama, who they argued had insufficiently protected U.S. lives there.
But interviews with U.S. officials and an examination of State Department documents do not reveal the kind of smoking gun Republicans have suggested would emerge in the attack’s aftermath, such as a warning that the diplomatic compound would be targeted and that was overlooked by administration officials.
What is clear is that even as the State Department responded to the June attacks, crowning the Benghazi compound walls with concertina wire and setting up concrete barriers to thwart car bombs, it remained committed to a security strategy formulated in a very different environment a year earlier.
In the heady early days after the fall of Gadhafi’s government, the administration’s plan was to deploy a modest U.S. security force and then increasingly rely on trained Libyan personnel to protect U.S. diplomats – a policy that reflected White House apprehensions about putting combat troops on the ground as well as Libyan sensitivities about an obtrusive U.S. security presence.
In the following months, the State Department proceeded with this plan. In one instance, State Department security officials replaced the U.S. military team with trained Libyan bodyguards, while it also maintained the number of State Department security personnel members at the Benghazi compound around the minimum recommended level.
But the question on the minds of some lawmakers is why the declining security situation did not prompt a fundamental rethinking of the security needs by the State Department and the White House.
Three congressional investigations and a State Department inquiry are examining the attack, which U.S. officials said included participants from Ansar al-Shariah, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.
“Given the large number of attacks that had occurred in Benghazi that were aimed at Western targets, it is inexplicable to me that security wasn’t increased,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, the senior Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, one of the panels holding inquiries.
Defending their preparations, State Department officials have asserted that there was no specific intelligence that warned of a large-scale attack on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which they asserted was unprecedented. The department said it was careful to weigh security with diplomats’ need to meet with Libyan officials and citizens.
“The lethality of an armed, masked attack by dozens of individuals is something greater than we’ve ever seen in Libya over the last period that we’ve been there,” Patrick F. Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, told reporters at a news conference Oct. 10.
But David Oliveira, a State Department security officer who was stationed in Benghazi from June 2 to July 5, said he told members and staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he recalled thinking that if 100 or more assailants sought to breach the mission’s walls, “there was nothing that we could do about it because we just didn’t have the manpower, we just didn’t have the facilities.”