The U.S. mission in Libya where a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed in a terrorist attack lacked special security barriers that the State Department’s inspector general recommended three years ago for diplomatic facilities in danger zones, the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said Thursday.
The State Department inspector general recommended in 2009 that U.S. diplomatic facilities in danger zones have special holding areas for visitors called “man traps,” but the U.S. consular facility in Benghazi did not have them, Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine told reporters after a four-hour, closed-door briefing from senior intelligence and defense officials on Capitol Hill.
“While there were improvements made for security, those specific recommendations for man traps were not built in Benghazi,” she said.
The “man traps” that the inspector general recommended were “an enclosed area for pedestrian and vehicular inspections a walled- or fenced-off area for pedestrian visitors, hence ‘man trap’,” an official in the inspector general’s office said.
The official, authorized to speak only on the condition of anonymity, would not comment on the report’s recommendations. He said the report had never been released publicly because it contained details about security measures at U.S. diplomatic posts.
Security at the facilities in Benghazi has come under scrutiny in the wake of the attack, which killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a foreign service officer and two former U.S. military personnel working as security contractors for the CIA.
Homeland security committee members have reviewed video from surveillance drones and security cameras that documented the sophisticated, two-stage military-style assault on the consular facility and an annex used as a CIA base. The assault unfolded over more than seven hours during the night of Sept. 11-12.
“It was very disconcerting to see how easily the terrorists broke through the gates and basically just walked in and set the facility on fire and began to fire at American personnel,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the homeland security committee.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate have questioned why State Department officials in Washington turned down repeated requests for additional security personnel at the Benghazi mission and at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. Some members of Congress also have said that officials should have heeded warnings of an attack. Terrorists blew a hole in the wall of the Benghazi compound in July, and other militants attacked a Red Cross building and a motorcade carrying the British ambassador earlier this year.
Mr. Lieberman later told MSNBC that Benghazi was “a kind of outlawed territory” after the overthrow last year of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. Libya’s second largest city and the flash point of the uprising against Gadhafi had become a popular hangout for al Qaeda-related groups and radical militias. The city “was just teeming with weapons” seized from the Gadhafi government, Mr. Liberman added.
“It was a very dangerous brew,” he said.
Other Western nations had pulled their diplomats out of Benghazi before the attack on the U.S. mission.
“We were the last flag flying,” Army National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Wood said in testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee before the U.S. presidential election.
Col. Wood commanded a detachment of 16 U.S. special operations forces troops assigned to the embassy in Tripoli that was withdrawn during the summer over the protests of local diplomatic security staff.
Only three State Department security personnel were stationed at the Benghazi consulate, which consisted of a villa and two outbuildings in a walled garden, although another two were there on the night of the attack accompanying Stevens on a visit from the capital.
Mrs. Collins said the barriers recommended by the inspector general might have helped slow down the attackers.
“We can’t be certain they would have protected the compound completely, but they certainly would have slowed the ability of the compound to be overrun,” she said.
Email traffic released by the House oversight committee reveals that the diplomatic security officer on the ground, and other U.S. State Department staff in Libya, repeatedly asked for Col. Wood’s team to be kept in Tripoli. They also asked for more personnel in Benghazi.
It remains unclear whether any reasonable level of security might have protected the consular buildings from dozens of heavily armed terrorists carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers that officials have said attacked in the first wave of the assault.
To make such an assessment, one would need to know much more than just the number of attackers, retired Col. Thomas F. Lynch III told The Times recently.
“Tactical details” – such as lines of fire, setback distance between the U.S. buildings and the street, and other buildings or geography that can provide cover for attackers – “are just as important as the numbers” in determining the outcome of any firefight, he said.
Col. Lynch, formerly a special adviser on counterterrorism to then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, has worked in the Middle East and south/central Asia for the past decade, including being responsible for the security of military facilities in the Gulf.
Diplomatic security personnel “are paid to be risk-averse. They are paid to come back with a platinum-plated solution,” he said of the local security staff’s pleas for more resources.
“Then a decision has to be made [higher up the management chain] bearing in mind that budgeting is a zero-sum game” and that granting one request always means refusing another from somewhere else, he said.
Mr. Lieberman said his committee also is looking at what assets the U.S. military might have been able to deploy to the town during the night. After the initial attack on the consulate, there was a period of several hours of quiet before the second wave, in which the CIA annex was also attacked, and eventually targeted with mortars that killed the two contractors who were stationed on the roof.
“Obviously the Department of Defense did not have personnel or assets close enough to Benghazi to bring them to the scene of the terrorist attack in timely way so they could protect American personnel there. Particularly, protect the two [former] SEALs who were killed [at the annex] seven hours after the initial attack started,” he said.
The U.S. Africa Command, which has military command in the region including Libya, had no rapid-response capability, and no AC-130 gunships, but critics have said that U.S. air and naval assets in the Mediterranean and southern Europe could have been scrambled.
Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, became a lightning rod for Republican criticism after she appeared on television news shows five days after the attack and claimed the assault was the result of a mob angered over a video that insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
U.S. officials now acknowledge that it was an organized attack, staged by supporters of local terrorists groups and of al Qaeda’s North African affiliate.
Sean Lengell contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
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Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...
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