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By August, Col. Wood and his three site security teams were out of the country, even though Gen. Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, agreed that they could stay as long as they were needed.

Col. Wood said those men could have accompanied the ambassador in Benghazi or responded from Tripoli when the assault occurred.

Also gone were three of the State Department’s mobile security teams requested by Mr. Nordstrom, who left Libya July 26.

Col. Wood said the State Department restricted officers on the mobile security team to training Libyans, not providing security. Still, their absence meant a smaller pool of security personnel able to respond to Benghazi.

Ms. Lamb testified that she “backfilled” to replace team members.

“I made the best decisions I could with the information I had,” she told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this month.

Mr. Stevens, a career diplomat who considered his mission in Benghazi as bringing together various tribal factions and Islamic groups, had been reporting to State on increased violence.

In June, he wrote of “Islamic extremism” and al Qaeda flags popping up on government buildings in eastern Libya.

On Sept. 11, in what appears to be his last words to Washington, Mr. Stevens said Libyan security commanders “expressed growing frustration with police and security forces” unable to control Benghazi.

Under fire

Ms. Lamb said the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi began at 9:40 p.m. local time, or 3:40 p.m. Washington time.

The first messages from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, which said the conflict had begun just after 9 p.m., reached Washington at 4:05 p.m. EDT, when the Pentagon, White House and State Department operation centers would have been fully staffed.

“The diplomatic mission is under attack,” said the embassy email, which was sent to the White House National Security Council office, as well as to the State Department. “The 17th of February militia is providing security support.”

Two hours later, the embassy reported that Ansar al-Shariah, an al Qaeda-linked militant group that also is backed by some Libyan government officials, claimed responsibility. That was a tip to Washington that this was a terrorist assault, not part of Muslim protests in the region over an American-produced anti-Islam video.

As it turned out, only three February 17 Martyrs Brigade members were at the consulate, along with five U.S. security officers. Outmatched, they proved unable to stop scores of militants storming through a gate, firing grenades and using diesel fuel to set fire to the compound.

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