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Washington • Despite two explosions and dozens of other security threats, U.S. officials in Washington turned down repeated pleas from American diplomats in Libya to increase security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi where the U.S. ambassador was killed, Republican leaders of a House committee asserted Tuesday.
In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chairman Darrell Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee said their information came from "individuals with direct knowledge of events in Libya."
Among the incidents cited in the Issa-Chaffetz letter
» Just weeks before the attacks, the unarmed Libyan guards at the consulate, employed by British contractor Blue Mountain Group, were warned by family members to quit their jobs because there were rumors of an impending attack.
» In April, a gun battle erupted about two miles from the consulate between an unidentified armed group and forces loyal to the transitional government.
» In June, a posting on a Facebook page mentioned Stevens’ early morning runs around Tripoli along with members of his security detail. The page contained a threat against Stevens and a stock photo of him. Stevens stopped the runs for about a week, but then resumed.
Issa, R-Calif. and Chaffetz, R-Utah said the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans was the latest in a long line of attacks on Western diplomats and officials in Libya in the months before Sept. 11.
The letter listed 13 incidents, but Chaffetz said in an interview there were more than 50. Two of them involved explosive devices: a June 6 blast that blew a hole in the security perimeter. The explosion was described to the committee as "big enough for forty men to go through"; and an April 6 incident where two Libyans who were fired by a security contactor threw a small explosive device over the consulate fence.
"A number of people felt helpless in pushing back" against the decision not to increase security and "were pleading with them to reconsider," Chaffetz said. He added that frustrated whistleblowers were so upset with the decision that they were anxious to speak with the committee.
The lawmakers said they plan a hearing on Oct. 10. They asked Clinton whether the State Department was aware of the previous incidents, and whether the level of security that was provided to the U.S. mission met the security threat, and how the department responded to requests for more security.
The State Department has declined to answer questions about whether extra security was sought by officials in Benghazi ahead of the Sept. 11 attack.
Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that Clinton has received the letter and will reply Tuesday.
Nuland refused to answer questions on whether requests for extra security in Benghazi were denied — but insisted that the department intends to cooperate fully with Congress.
"We share the same goal," Nuland told reporters. "We want to get to the bottom of precisely what happened and learn any lessons that we need to learn from it. We’re taking this very, very seriously."
Referring to the Sept. 11 attack, the letter said, "It was clearly never, as administration officials once insisted, the result of a popular protest."
In the days immediately after the attack, the Obama administration said it believed it was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video. Since then, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and White House press secretary Jay Carney have called the incident a terrorist attack. President Barack Obama has not used those precise words, though he has referred to the attack in the context of "acts of terror."
Republicans have lashed out at Obama and senior administration officials over their evolving description of the deadly Sept. 11 attack, a late campaign-season broadside.
Republicans sensed a political opportunity in Obama’s apparent reluctance to utter the words "terrorist attack" as well as the varying explanations emerging from the administration about the assault in Benghazi.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told Fox News recently: "I think it’s pretty clear that they haven’t wanted to level with the American people. We expect candor from the president and transparency."
Clinton discussed security on Sept. 18, when asked whether measures were appropriate.
"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," she said.
"In addition to the security outside the compound, we relied on a wall and a robust security presence inside the compound," she said. "And with all of our missions overseas, in advance of September 11th, as is done every year, we did an evaluation on threat streams."
Clinton also said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence "has said we had no actionable intelligence that an attack on our post in Benghazi was planned or imminent."
She added that diplomats "engage in dangerous work, and it’s the nature of diplomacy in fragile societies and conflict zones to be aware of the necessity for security but to also continue the important diplomatic work that has to go on.
"There is risk inherent in what we do and what these brave men and women representing the United States are up against every single day," Clinton said, "and we do our very best to limit that risk by ensuring that our security protocols reflect the environments in which diplomats work and the threats that they are presented with."
Chaffetz said in an interview that if the Benghazi security was typical of the protection in other dangerous places, "that’s frightening." He said Benghazi is "one of the most awful and volatile areas on the planet. A reduction in the security profile doesn’t seem consistent with the threat that was on the ground. That’s why we have whistleblowers anxious to speak with us."
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