Just hours before he died in a terrorist attack at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Ambassador Chris Stevens sent a cable to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton painting a chaotic, violent portrait of the eastern Libya city and warning that local militias were threatening to pull the security they afforded U.S. officials.
Militia leaders told U.S. officials just two days before the attack that they were angered by U.S. support of a particular candidate for Libyan prime minister and warned “they would not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi, a critical function they asserted they were currently providing,” Stevens wrote in the cable the morning of Sept. 11, 2012. He also cited several other episodes that raised questions about the reliability of local Libya security.
“Growing problems with security would discourage foreign investment and led to persistent economic stagnation in eastern Libya,” Stevens cautioned.
The Washington Guardian obtained a copy of the memo, a weekly summary of events in Libya dated just hours before a band of terrorists struck the unofficial U.S. consulate in Benghazi and a neaby annex building where the CIA operated, killing the ambassador and three other Americans.
Stevens’ cable is likely to become a central focus of congressional hearings that begin Wednesday — hearings where Clinton will be pressed to explain why security for diplomats in the region wasn’t increased in the weeks before the attack and why so much reliance was placed on local security forces with dubious loyalties.
Among the questions lawmakers in both parties are likely to probe is why the State Department turned down a request in August that a special military security team extend its stay in the region, and why U.S. officials relied so heavily on local security tied to militias, a concern Stevens himself had flagged.
Congressional investigators have developed evidence that some of the local security at the Benghazi consulate failed to protect the compound during the attack and may have even had forewarnings that violence could occur that day.
Obama administration officials declined comment on the cable, referring a reporter instead to the findings released in late December of the State Department Accountability Review Board report on Benghazi.
For weeks after the attack, State Department officials insisted they had reviewed security at the compound and believed they had adequate resources heading into the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. They also claimed they had no forewarning of impending trouble.
Stevens’ concerns about militia security were previously mentioned by news outlets such as The Daily Beast, but the full details of the diplomatic cable and the exact language Stevens used to alert his bosses in Washington show the State Department had plenty reason to know the city he was visiting was in violent disarray and that there was growing distrust of the security capabilities of local police and militias.
The document described a “state of maximum alert” that had just ended a few days earlier in the city, detailed “extra-judicial killings” of Libyan government officials that were ongoing in the vicinity, reported on a deadly car bombing, and noted the destruction of power lines that blacked out part of the region.
One Libya security commander “expressed growing frustration with police and security forces” and suggested local security was “too weak to keep the country secure,” the memo said.
The cable also warned that Salafists had engaged in a gun battle at a Muslim shrine less than 22 miles (35 kilometers) outside Benghazi three days earlier, killing three and injuring seven. Stevens specifically flagged concerns about official security exposed by that incident, saying a militia brigade sent to protect the shrine was “late responding” and some Salafist members in the brigade “were actually fighting against local residents in support of efforts to destroy the shrine.”
Likewise, the ambassador wrote he also had received a warning of “expanding Islamist influence” in the nearby community of Derna, noting another local militia brigade had “undercut police presence by accusing the police of being loyal to the former regime.”
As for the explosives attacks on power lines, Stevens wrote, authorities had “confirmed press reports that huge 400 kilowatt lines and towers, including their foundations, had been completely destroyed.”
While the report was mostly filled with reports of violence and warnings of dubious security, Stevens did relate one meeting he had with local business leaders who tried to make the case for increased U.S. investment in Benghazi. The businessmen argued that “despite the challenges… the security situation was improving,” the cable said before rattling off a laundry list of recent violence.
One of the reasons Stevens apparently risked going from the more fortified embassy in Tripoli to Benghazi was also detailed in the cable: Stevens planned to unveil a new U.S. project in Benghazi to enhance “cultural and education outreach by U.S. Mission Libya.”
Investigators also have zeroed in on another reason for his trip, an evening meeting with a Turkish diplomat that ended shortly before the attack. Stevens apparently had befriended the diplomat on earlier assignments and the two corresponded as early as August about the possibility of meeting in Benghazi.
The official State Department review board report on the Benghazi tragedy, released last month, carefully danced around the reasons for Stevens’ willingness to take the risk of going to the less-secure compound in Benghazi on the anniversary of Sept. 11 terror attacks, saying only that ambassadors were afforded great latitude in deciding their movements and schedules.
“The Board found that Ambassador Stevens made the decision to travel to Benghazi independently of Washington, per standard practice,” the report said.
The report, however, was far more direct in accusing the State Department of failing to assess the security situation in Benghazi and providing adequate protections.
“Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department (the “Department”) resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place,” the review board concluded.