The New York Times reports: In the weeks leading up to the attack last month on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, diplomats on the ground sounded increasingly urgent alarms. In a stream of diplomatic cables, embassy security officers warned their superiors at the State Department of a worsening threat from Islamic extremists, and requested that the teams of military personnel and State Department security guards who were already on duty be kept in service.
The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away. And State Department officials testified this week during a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that extending the tour of additional guards — a 16-member military security team — through mid-September would not have changed the bloody outcome because they were based in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
The handling of these requests has now been caught up in a sharply partisan debate over whether the Obama administration underestimated the terrorist threat in Libya. In a debate with Representative Paul D. Ryan on Thursday night, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said White House officials were not told about requests for any additional security. “We weren’t told they wanted more security again,” Mr. Biden said.
The Romney campaign on Friday pounced on the conflicting statements, accusing Mr. Biden of continuing to deny the nature of the attack. The White House scrambled to explain the apparent contradiction between Mr. Biden’s statement and the testimony from State Department officials at the House hearing.
The White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said Friday that security issues related to diplomatic posts in Libya and other countries were dealt with at the State Department, not the White House. Based on interviews with administration officials, as well as in diplomatic cables, and Congressional testimony, those security decisions appear to have been made largely by midlevel State Department security officials, and did not involve Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or her top aides.
While it is unclear what impact a handful of highly trained additional guards might have had in Benghazi were they able to deploy there, some State Department officials said it would probably not have made any difference in blunting the Sept. 11 assault from several dozen heavily armed militants.
“An attack of that kind of lethality, we’re never going to have enough guns,” Patrick F. Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, said at Wednesday’s hearing. “We are not an armed camp ready to fight it out.”
A senior administration official said that the military team, which was authorized by a directive from Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, was never intended to have an open-ended or Libya-wide mission.
“This was not a SWAT team with a DC-3 on alert to jet them off to other cities in Libya to respond to security issues,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
Security in Benghazi had been a growing concern for American diplomats this year. In April, the convoy of the United Nations special envoy for Libya was attacked there. In early June, a two-vehicle convoy carrying the British ambassador came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Militants struck the American mission with a homemade bomb, but no one was hurt. In late June, the Red Cross was attacked and the organization pulled out.
“We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi,” Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who was deployed in Tripoli as the leader of the American military security unit, told the House committee.
But friends and colleagues of Ambassador Stevens said he was adamant about maintaining an American presence in Benghazi, the heart of the opposition to the Qaddafi government. [Continue reading…]