- The Washington Times - Monday, December 31, 2012

The State Department should have closed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, long before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack because it knew that local authorities could not protect the facility and that the city was a hotbed of extremism, according to a Senate report released Monday.

“Despite the inability of the Libyan government to fulfill its duties to secure the facility [and] the increasingly dangerous threat assessments. … [State Department] officials did not conclude the facility in Benghazi should be closed or temporarily shut down,” says the report, prepared by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. “That was a grievous mistake.”

Titled “Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi,” the bipartisan report concludes that there were no contingency plans to get military help to Benghazi in the event of an attack against U.S. facilities.

“The Department of Defense and the Department of State had not jointly assessed the availability of U.S. assets to support the Temporary Mission Facility in Benghazi in the event of a crisis and although [the Pentagon] attempted to quickly mobilize its resources, it did not have assets or personnel close enough to reach Benghazi in a timely fashion,” the report states.

The Senate report was released as several congressional committees were investigating the circumstances of the attack in Benghazi, in which dozens of heavily armed extremists, including members of a militia linked to al Qaeda, stormed the diplomatic mission and attacked a nearby CIA annex.

U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty were killed in the attack.

Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the consulate was so poorly guarded that the terrorists “essentially walked into the compound virtually unimpeded and set it ablaze.”

“There had been numerous previous attacks, including two at our own very compound in Benghazi as well as other attacks aimed at Western targets,” Mrs. Collins said, according to a Reuters report.

U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world have their own security contingents, consisting of a mix of Marine Corps guards, diplomatic security officers and locally contracted private security personnel.

Diplomatic missions traditionally have relied on local police and security authorities to protect them from large-scale attacks — as required by international law and treaty obligations.

In Libya, the report states, it was well understood that the government could not fulfill those obligations.
But in Benghazi, the security that was provided by the local authorities — a small detachment from a militia known as the Feb. 17 Force — was known by officials in Tripoli and Washington to be “unreliable.”

The State Department press office did not respond to requests for comment.

An underfunded mission

The Senate report notes that the State Department’s security budget request had not been fully funded since fiscal 2010, although it had increased ninefold from 1998 to 2008. Congress cut the department’s requested security funding by nearly $90 million in fiscal 2011 and $275 million in fiscal 2012.

In addition, the State Department, along with the rest of the government, was operating for much of the past two years on temporary budget legislation called a continuing resolution, which continues funding at the previous year’s level.

Because there was no U.S. mission in Benghazi in 2011, there was no budget request for one. State Department officials were paying for security in Benghazi by taking money from other parts of the security budget — cutting other embassies’ budgets, in other words.

These temporary funding arrangements had “detrimental effects on efforts to improve security in Benghazi,” the report concludes, noting that officials could have made a special request to Congress to reprogram money from elsewhere.

The report also states that there did not appear to be contingency plans to get military personnel, planes or other assets to Benghazi in the event of an attack on U.S. facilities there.

As a result, U.S. Africa Command (Africom), which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, had nothing that could reach Benghazi in time, and neither did the neighboring U.S. European Command.

“We responded very quickly,” Africom spokesman Maj. Robert A. Firman told The Washington Times on Monday. “It was just a matter of the distances involved.”

Within minutes of the start of the attack, he said, a surveillance drone was deployed over the site.

“Africom was in a heightened state of alert,” Maj. Firman said, adding that there was no warning of any impending attack in Benghazi.

The Senate report notes that Africom lacked a commander’s in-extremis force — a small contingent of special operations troops that can be deployed at short notice.

Maj. Firman said Africom had use of such a force, under an agreement with European Command, but the force was conducting training in Central Europe on Sept. 11. He said Africom got its own in-extremis force Oct. 1.

A Pentagon timeline released earlier this year shows that special teams of Marines stationed in Europe were ordered to Libya about 2? hours after the assault began, but they did not arrive until the evening after the attack.

Critics have asked why strike jets were not deployed from southern Europe to provide air support during the assault, which unfolded in two stages several hours apart. Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, has called for the Pentagon to launch an internal investigation, as the State Department has done.

The report suggests, without directly mentioning classified CIA activities in Benghazi, that Africom did not know the full extent of the agency’s presence in the town, which could have hampered rescue efforts.

Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, Africom’s commander, “did not have complete visibility of the extent and number of government personnel in Benghazi in the event that [an evacuation] was required,” the report states. “If sufficient time had been available for such an evacuation, we are concerned that this limitation could have impeded Africom’s ability to respond and fulfill its mission responsibility.”

Maj. Firman declined to comment on intelligence matters.

Altering the talking points

The Senate report also addresses at some length the confusion and controversy about the way Obama administration officials characterized the attack in the days immediately afterward.

The attack took place amid a wave of deadly protests outside U.S. embassies that swept the Muslim world. The protesters were infuriated by reports about a U.S.-made, anti-Islam video.

Early analysis of the Benghazi attack by U.S. intelligence agencies assessed the possibility that it was inspired or grown out of a similar protest, the report says, partly because many local news reports erroneously reported that protests preceded the attack.

The early analysis also concluded that members of Ansar al-Shariah, a Libyan militia linked to or at least drawing its inspiration from al Qaeda, took part in the attack.

But when declassified “talking points” were prepared by intelligence officials Sept. 15, initially for members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, all references to al Qaeda were removed and the attackers were referred to variously as “extremists” or even “demonstrators,” the report notes.

The Times has reported that some of the intelligence reports about the possible involvement of al Qaeda supporters came from highly classified communications intercepts, and references to the group were removed from the talking points to “protect sources and methods,” according to U.S. intelligence officials.

But the report notes that the original drafter of the talking points, described as a veteran career analyst, “concluded that the information [about the possible involvement of al Qaeda supporters] could be made public because of the [open] claims of responsibility made by Ansar al-Shariah, which has been publicly linked to al Qaeda.”

Moreover, the report notes that by Sept. 15, the FBI had interviewed survivors of the attack and learned that there was no protest preceding it. But the bureau did not circulate that information to other agencies until almost a week later.

The talking points “were the subject of much of the confusion and division in the discussion of the attack,” the report notes, a state of affairs only “intensified” by the fact that they were issued before analysts were certain what had happened.

The report goes so far as to call on U.S. intelligence agencies to stop preparing such unclassified summaries for officials. “It is not the responsibility of [intelligence agencies] to draft talking points for public consumption — especially in the heat of a political campaign — and we therefore recommend that [they] decline to do so in the future.”