Administration officials defended the security measures at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi when a riotous mob and suspected Muslim militants killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, although a State Department source said it lacked the Marine guards common at larger diplomatic missions.
The senior administration official said a force of locally contracted Libyan guards was stationed outside the compound, as is standard practice, and there was “a robust security presence” inside. The guards reportedly fled as the attack intensified in the eastern Libyan city.
In common with every other diplomatic post throughout the world, security at the Benghazi consulate was reviewed in the days before to the Sept. 11 anniversary, the official said. But security of the diplomatic corps in the post-9/11 world has become a major concern at the State Department and on Capitol Hill.
Former national security officials explained that there is always a compromise that must be struck between security and accessibility.
“You have to balance being secure and being able to do your job,” former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. “You can never completely eliminate the risk. Clearly these attackers exceeded the firepower of a typical diplomatic post defense.”
The Washington Guardian website reported Wednesday that the State Department’s own internal watchdog, its Diplomatic Security office, recently acknowledged it lacked the funding for some recommended improvements, including security training, and was instead looking for workarounds.
Top Obama administration officials said they were still struggling late Wednesday to ascertain a clear timeline of how the events unfolded and who was involved in the attacks in Benghazi and one on the embassy in Egypt. Several officials and analysts speculated that militant Muslims used a trailer from a low-budget film that depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a pedophile and a fraud to incite the mobs and use it for cover to attack.
Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution that toppled dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year, is a hotbed of activity by Libya’s small but burgeoning Islamic extremist movement.
The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked in June, a few days before the British ambassador’s motorcade was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade. Last month, the Red Cross compound in the city was attacked with RPGs, but no one was hurt.
One national security expert, retired Army Col. Ken Allard, said the Obama administration should have been prompted to increase security by the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, a call from al Qaeda’s leader to attack Americans and by a growing terrorist presence in Benghazi.
“There is now a lot of story-telling about [al Qaeda] in Libya, apparently not a surprise to anyone who was there, too,” Col. Allard said.
“Our hopes and rhetoric about the Arab awakening have considerably outrun all common sense. I doubt the Libyan attack was a coincidence because our enemies understand that rhetoric matters much less than the ability to bring force to bear against any unguarded outpost.”
The United States increased security at embassies across the Arab world Wednesday in the wake of the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and attacks on diplomatic missions in Egypt and Libya.
The Obama administration ordered as many as 200 Marines to Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and warned U.S. citizens throughout North Africa of possible further violence.
Mobs marched on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Tuesday. Many clambered over the embassy walls, tore down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag frequently flown by al Qaeda terrorists.
• Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.