In the final weeks before the deadly Benghazi attack in September 2012, State Department officials serving in the tumultuous Libyan city had increasing worries about safety, reaching out repeatedly to the CIA and Libyan government for extra security and dealing with landlord and guard issues that raised additional red flags, according to documents recovered from the burned-out compound.
The documents, given to The Washington Times by a U.S. official, provide contemporaneous accounts of career State Department officials coping with an increasingly unstable foreign city and grasping for security help from outsiders in the absence of more action from their own department.
“In response to threats of a planned attack posted on the Internet, U.S. Mission Benghazi is requesting assistance from the Supreme Security Council,” Jennifer Larson, the State Department’s principal officer for Benghazi, wrote in a May 29, 2012, letter to a top Libyan official.
“U.S. Mission Benghazi is requesting a mobile patrol outside the vicinity of the Mission during hours of darkness, from 2000 to 0700,” she added in the letter to Fawzi Wanis, the then-head of the Libyan Supreme Security Council.
Ms. Larson repeated the request in an urgent follow-up on June 6, 2012, the same day the Benghazi mission suffered a small bomb attack that became a prelude to the much bigger attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans just three months later.
With just a few diplomatic security officers on scene at the State Department compound in Benghazi, Ms. Larson sought a perimeter patrol by Libyan forces to “remain in place until further notice,” the memo shows.
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‘They gave us nothing’
The need to seek security help from the Libyans was necessary because the State Department in Washington repeatedly turned down requests for more safety resources, according to the former head of the U.S. site security team in Libya at the time.
“They gave us nothing to work with. We had to resource everything we could with what we had in front of us, contracting with the locals, seeking the agency’s help and working with meager internal resources,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a special forces reserve officer who tried several times to fortify the weak security at Benghazi in 2012.
State Department officials in Washington “had their minds made up. They were not going to provide additional security there, period,” he said in an interview Monday with The Times.
State Department officials declined to discuss the memos, deferring to multiple investigations that have concluded there was inadequate security at the compound when it was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012.
Officials said, however, they have made numerous improvements at high-risk diplomatic compounds worldwide since.
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“We cannot guarantee that attacks won’t happen again, but we can take steps to try to prevent them and mitigate risk. And that’s what we’re doing,” the State Department said in a statement to The Times.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is slated to testify Thursday before a special House committee chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy empaneled to look at the security lapses that preceded Benghazi.
Landlords get nervous
The memos show that the deteriorating security at Benghazi not only concerned State Department officials working there, but also the Libyan landlords who rented the two villas comprising a large portion of the compound.
One of the landlords demanded more money for rent, while the other asked to be released from the rental agreement in the summer preceding the attacks, the memos show.
“The owner has requested to write to you to consider the termination of the lease contract on the end of the first term July 31, 2012,” a representative for one of the landlords wrote on June 18, 2012. “Regrettable due to family and personal reasons.”
That landlord owned the part of the complex known as Villa C, which constituted the main working place for the complex and the location where Stevens died in a blaze. The landlord expressed increased concerns for his family’s safety and the safety of his villa if Americans continued to occupy it, a U.S. official told The Times.
The owner of the second complex, Villa B, also began raising concerns around the same time. In a letter contained in the Benghazi compound staff files, the landlord demanded higher rent after discovering the other landlord was getting paid more for his complex.
“In addition to extra works of which we bear all expenses as you already know, and whereas the price of this property differs from that of the neighboring property and that this amount of rent does not cover the agreed upon charges, we look forward for good cooperation by suggesting to you either increasing the amount of rent or regretfully terminate the contract,” the landlord wrote in an April 7, 2012, letter.
Officials said that rent dispute carried through the summer unresolved and had become more intense shortly before the attack occurred. The amount of money in dispute reached $100,000 by late summer, and the landlord’s representatives warned State officials that they would “be sorry if you don’t pay rent and pay more,” according to a U.S. official directly familiar with the situation.
State Department officials confirmed the rental dispute and said it was going through a mitigation process aimed at settling the issues when the attack occurred.
Col. Wood, the security expert, said he became aware of the landlords’ concerns and considered them a red flag indicating local Libyans were worried about being affiliated with the U.S. He became even more alarmed when local Libyan security guards began expressing concerns about showing up for work for fear of their safety.
“It did come up that they (the landlord and his representatives) were asking for more money,” he recalled. “There were several other indicators that went on that suggested an attack was imminent. The contract security guards were saying their moms are telling them ‘Don’t go to work, it is too dangerous. That was a huge indicator.”
Col. Wood said he brought the concerns to Stevens in late summer.
“I told this to Mr. Stevens himself, in front of a big meeting. I said ‘You are going to get attacked and you are going to get attacked in Benghazi,’” he said.
The run-of-the-mill memos provide an unusually personal window into the pressures and concerns of the everyday U.S. staff in Benghazi before the deadly attack. They paint a poignant picture of an American team seeking the help of Libyan locals and CIA counterparts to ensure their safety in the absence of more resources from Washington.
Those missing resources included more heavy-duty armaments, more American security personnel and U.S. air support for evacuation in case of an attack.
You’re on your own
The resource concerns are further laid bare in a CIA memo sent to the field in Benghazi shortly before the attack, which made clear the strategy for U.S. personnel was essentially a fend-for-yourself edict from Washington.
“The primary course of action for officers operating in Libya during a personnel recovery scenario should be to move away from the enemy activity as there is no mechanism/authorities in place for the field to leverage Emergency Close Air Support,” the memo warned. “The base should be prepared to recover its officers with local resources within its capabilities and limitations.”
CIA security officers told the House Intelligence Committee during an after-action report that the State Department compound was far less secure than the agency’s own buildings and that diplomatic security agents feared they were ill equipped to respond to an armed attack against the mission. The local State Department employees repeatedly sought help from CIA to try to fortify a compound with clear security weaknesses.
The lack of preparation and resources persisted, even as CIA produced more than four dozen pieces of confirmed intelligence that reported on increasing threats against Americans and Westerners in Benghazi and documented more than 20 attempted attacks in the area just before the fiery assault on the compound on Sept. 11.
“CIA security personnel testified that State Department DS (diplomatic security) agents repeatedly stated they felt ill-equipped and ill-trained to contend with the threat environment in Benghazi,” the report said.
“The DS agents knew well before the attacks that they could not defend the TMF against an armed assault. The DS agents also told CIA about their requests for additional resources that were pending,” it said.
Stevens, a respected career diplomat, was aware before he left Tripoli to visit Benghazi for a ceremony that the city was in worsening security shape.
The morning before he died, his final cable to Mrs. Clinton described an increasingly violent city and his own fears that the local Libyan forces guarding the complex might not adequately ensure the safety of State Department personnel.
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 the morning of the attack.
State resists IG recommendation
The various investigations of Benghazi have concluded that the local Libyan forces at the compound did not effectively deter the attack and that the State Department’s heavy reliance on foreign security forces for such a high-risk location was a flawed strategy.
The State Department’s own accountability review board made 29 recommendations for improving security, including that the agency “implement a plan to strengthen security beyond reliance on host government security support” for high-risk, high-threat (HRHT) posts.
Though more than two years old, that recommendation has not been fully implemented by the Diplomatic Security office, the State Department’s inspector general recently warned.
“Although DS has not developed a plan for strengthening security at HRHT posts as Recommendation 12 recommends, it has undertaken several initiatives directed at the recommendation’s intent, including enhanced personnel training, increased use of the Deliberate Planning Process, expansion of the Marine security guard (MSG) program and revision of its mission, and closer coordination and cooperation with DOD,” the inspector general reported in a little-noticed memo released in late August when most of official Washington was on vacation.
The IG, the agency’s internal watchdog, also noted that State had outright rejected one of its recommendations for improved security: to develop mandatory minimum security standards for high-risk outposts.
“Recommendation 17 of the ARB process review report recommended that the Department develop minimum security standards that must be met prior to occupying facilities in HRHT locations,” the IG noted. “The Department rejected this recommendation, stating that existing Overseas Security Policy Board standards apply to all posts and that separate security standards for HRHT posts would not provide better or more secure operating environments.”
The IG said it disagrees with that assessment and “the department’s response does not meet the recommendation’s requirement for standards that must be met prior to occupancy.” As a result, the watchdog has reissued that recommendation and urged State to take action.
State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach told The Times that State has taken all the security recommendations seriously and “implemented new procedures to address high-threat posts, procured critical security assets and engaged Congress to secure increased funding for embassy security.”
But he acknowledged some of the recommendations have not been fully implemented yet.
“We adopted all the ARB’s 29 recommendations and are committed to implementing each,” he said. “We have closed 26 of 29 recommendations, some of which require long-term technical upgrades. The remaining three are in progress.”