US officials assailed on Libya

US officials assailed on Libya

WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
US officials assailed on Libya

Wood (L), who was in charge of Tripoli compound, Nordstrom (2nd L), regional security officer, Lamb (2nd R), Deputy Assistant Secretary and Ambassador Kennedy swear before testifying on Capitol Hill. AFP photo

The U.S. consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi was a sitting target with weak security as requests for extra staffing were denied despite a rising al-Qaeda threat, U.S. lawmakers were told Oct. 10 in a special House hearing.

In a testy and heated hearing, Republican lawmakers grilled three top State Department officials and the former leader of a security team into what went wrong in a Sept. 11 attack on the mission, in which U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans died. Two officials testified that requests for extra support for U.S. posts in Tripoli and Benghazi had been refused and that the regional security officer said he was frustrated by a “total absence of planning” for future security.

“It was abundantly clear: We were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident,” regional security officer Eric Nordstrom told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, which lasted over four hours.

Nordstrom said he sought to bolster security by asking for 12 more agents, but was told by a State Department regional director that he was asking for “the sun, moon and the stars.” In response, Nordstrom said the most frustrating part of his assignment was not the unrest gripping Libya. “It’s not the hardships, it’s not the gunfire, it’s not the threats: It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me,” he said.

‘Fighting a losing battle’
Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who was in charge of a 16-strong site security team based in Tripoli from mid-February until it was withdrawn in mid-August, agreed that “we were fighting a losing battle. We were not even allowed to keep what we had.” The fierce and sustained attack by dozens of militants bearing heavy weapons who torched and bombarded the mission and a nearby annex has thrust President Barack Obama’s foreign policy to the forefront of the bitter White House race.

Lawmakers had also railed against the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who initially said the assault was triggered by a “spontaneous” protest over an Internet video that denigrates Islam. Both Wood and Nordstrom blamed Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb, responsible for security at some 275 U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world, for refusing their calls for extra manpower. She was repeatedly pummeled by lawmakers in the acrimonious and highly partisan hearing, and admitted she had not supported those requests, saying they were training local Libyan staff to take on some of those duties. Lamb added, however, that the final decision was made by her superiors.

The State Department believed “we had the correct number of assets” on the ground, she said. “I made the best decisions I could with the information I had.” Wood, a former special forces soldier, said he had recommended the closure of the Benghazi mission as most other Western nations withdrew from the city.

“When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi; we were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi,” he said. Although he had left Libya before the assault, Wood said it was “instantly recognizable” as a terrorist attack. He added that the al-Qaeda presence in Libya was growing “every day.”