Security for U.S. diplomats in Libya was cut in the weeks before the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, despite the North African country’s high-risk environment, according to a member of the security team assigned to U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
“I felt like we were being asked to play the piano with two fingers,” Army Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who headed a Special Forces site security team in Tripoli, told CBS News. “We felt we needed more, not less.”
The attack, which killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, occurred in the midst of Arab world protests against a U.S.-produced film that disparages Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Col. Wood’s 16-man team originally had accompanied the diplomats to Tripoli to help establish a presence in the liberated Libyan capital last year, and its term was extended in February, ABC News reported. The team was rotated out in June.
“They just had to make do with less security,” Col. Wood told ABC News.
A State Department statement said the team was “based in Tripoli and operated almost exclusively there,” as opposed to Benghazi, where the attack took place.
“When their rotation in Libya ended, Diplomatic Security Special Agents were deployed, and maintained a constant level of security capability. So their departure had no impact whatsoever on the total number of fully trained American security personnel in Libya generally, or in Benghazi specifically,” the statement said.
Col. Wood and State Department Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom will testify to Congress alongside senior State Department officials this week.
Security in the run-up to the attack and the U.S. response to it afterward have become fodder in the heated general election campaign.
Republicans charge that the Obama administration skimped on security before the attack and avoided calling it terrorism for more than a week afterward, in the hope of keeping alive a narrative about U.S. successes against al Qaeda.
Democrats retort that no reasonable security presence could have defended the consulate against the dozens of heavily armed extremists.
If there were cuts to security, Democrats add, they were the fault of congressional Republicans, who cut $300 million from State Department spending requests for embassy construction and security in the past two years.