WASHINGTON - The former head of a 16-member U.S. military team in Libya said Wednesday the consulate in Benghazi, where the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed, never had the forces it needed to protect itself.
Lt. Col, Andrew Wood told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that U.S. security was so weak that in April, only one U.S. diplomatic security agent was stationed in Benghazi.
The committee hearing followed assertions Tuesday night by the State Department that it never concluded that the Sept. 11 attack stemmed from protests over an American-made video ridiculing Islam. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in what the administration now says was a terrorist attack.
Asked about the administration's initial - and since retracted - explanation linking the violence to protests over the anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet, one official said, "That was not our conclusion."
He called it a question for "others" to answer, without specifying. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, and provided no evidence that might suggest a case of spontaneous violence or angry protests that went too far.
It was a top administration diplomatic official - U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice - who gave a series of interviews five days after the attack that wrongly described the attack as spontaneous.
She said the administration believed the violence was unplanned and that extremists with heavier weapons "hijacked" the protest against the anti-Islamic video. She did qualify her remarks to say that was the best information she had at the time. Rice since has denied trying to mislead Congress.
Meantime, the White House said Wednesday that top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan has met in Tripoli with President Mohamed Magariaf and others and has discussed ways Libya can better help the United States track down those responsible for the deaths.
In statements immediately after the attack, neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned terrorism. And both gave credence to the notion that the attack was related to protests about the anti-Islam video.
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," Clinton said on the night of the attack. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
Wood, who is a member of the Utah National Guard, said, "The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there."
"The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there," he said. "The RSO (regional security officer) struggled to obtain additional personnel there but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with," Wood added.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has alleged that the State Department turned aside pleas from its diplomats in Libya to increase security in the months and weeks before the attack in Benghazi. One scheduled witness Wednesday, Eric Nordstrom, is the former chief security officer for U.S. diplomats in Libya, who told the committee his pleas for more security were ignored.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and GOP members of Congress have increasingly sharpened their criticism of the administration's initial explanation of the attack. They said they never accepted the original explanation.
Nordstrom addressed the diplomatic security issue in an Oct. 1 email to a congressional investigator. He said his requests for more security were blocked by a department policy to "normalize operations and reduce security resources."
A memo Tuesday by the Oversight Committee's Democratic staff provided details of Nordstrom's interview with the panel's investigators. In that interview, Nordstrom said he sent two cables to State Department headquarters in March 2012 and July 2012 requesting additional diplomatic security agents for Benghazi, but he received no responses.
He stated that Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for international programs, wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi artificially low. He said Lamb believed the Benghazi facilities did not need any diplomatic security special agents because there was a residential safe haven to fall back to in an emergency.
Nordstrom's Oct. 1 memo to the congressional investigator said, "You will note that there were a number of incidents that targeted diplomatic missions and underscored the GoL's (government of Libya) inability to secure and protect diplomatic missions.
"This was a significant part of (the diplomatic) post's and my argument for maintaining continued DS (diplomatic security) and DOD (Department of Defense) security assets into Sept/Oct. 2012; the GoL was overwhelmed and could not guarantee our protection.
"Sadly, that point was reaffirmed on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi."