WASHINGTON — The State Department withdrew U.S. security personnel from Libya just weeks before suspected Islamist extremists killed the U.S. ambassador there despite warnings from the U.S. Embassy that the Libyan government couldn’t protect foreign diplomats, according to an email released Tuesday.
The State Department rejected requests to extend the tours of U.S. diplomatic and military security personnel in order to “normalize” embassy operations according to “an artificial timetable,” Eric Nordstrom, the embassy’s former security chief, wrote in an Oct. 1 email.
The claim is certain to fuel a growing election year furor over security at the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi at the time of the Sept. 11 assault that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made the incident a campaign issue, criticizing President Barack Obama over the administration first calling the attack a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video on the Internet before acknowledging that it was a terrorist operation possibly tied to al Qaida. The White House says that its statements were based on U.S. intelligence assessments at the times they were made.
The email and a list that Nordstrom had compiled while in Libya of 230 security incidents between June 2011 and July 2012 were released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the eve of a hearing at which Nordstrom, who is still a State Department security officer, is scheduled to testify.
Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who commanded a U.S. military security detail at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, also is to appear. Wood is expected to back Nordstrom’s version of events.
Nordstrom’s list, which he said resulted in a 30 percent increase in pay this summer for embassy staff because of the danger of the assignment, recounted a litany of near-daily bombings, shootings, robberies and other violence. Many involved Islamist extremists and local militias that refused to disband after defeating the forces of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
The incidents included a June 6, 2012, improvised explosive device blast that blew a hole in the wall of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. An Islamist extremist group claimed responsibility.
A July 2012 security assessment included in the list was eerily prescient of what befell Stevens and the three other Americans when some 120 gun- and rocket-propelled-grenade-wielding assailants stormed the consulate in Benghazi just two months later. It warned of a “high” risk that U.S. diplomats, private citizens or business people could be embroiled in an “isolating incident” in which they’d be beyond rescue by Libyan security forces.
“The government of Libya does not yet have the ability to effectively respond to and manage the rising criminal and militia related violence,” it said.
Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department computer specialist, died from inhaling smoke from fires set by the assailants after apparently becoming trapped inside the main building of the compound. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs serving as security personnel, were killed in a subsequent assault on a CIA safe house.
The name of the person to whom Nordstrom sent the email was blacked out in the version the House committee distributed to reporters.
In the email, Nordstrom noted that his security incident list included the targeting of foreign embassies, underscoring “the GoL’s (government of Libya) inability to secure and protect diplomatic missions.”
He wrote that the Libyan government’s problems in protecting embassies “was a significant part” of arguments that he and the embassy made to the State Department in opposing the decision to withdraw State Department and Pentagon security personnel.
“The GoL was overwhelmed and could not guarantee our protection,” he wrote. “Sadly, that point was affirmed on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi.”
The American security personnel to whom Nordstrom referred came from the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security and a Special Security Team of 16 U.S. special forces. They were pulled out of Tripoli in August despite requests that their tours be extended by 120 days, according to a congressional aide who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
In addition to protecting Stevens and other embassy personnel, the U.S. special forces also were training Libyan security guards to take over from them, he said.
He quoted Nordstrom as telling the committee in an interview that the State Department extended the Special Security Team’s tour from February, and then informed the embassy, “We do not want to see you make another request for an extension of the SST.”
The State Department wanted the embassy to stick to an “overly aggressive timetable . . . not fitting with the situation” for the Libyan guards to take over from the SST, he quoted Nordstrom as saying.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House committee, said in a statement that the email showed “a clear disconnect between what security officials on the ground felt they needed and what officials in Washington would approve.”
“Reports that senior State Department officials told security personnel in Libya not to even make certain security requests are especially troubling,” he continued. “It is important for the committee to determine if the State Department is taking appropriate steps to address systemic deficiencies.”
The State Department has declined to respond to questions about security at the U.S. consulate, saying it was deferring answers until an internal investigation is completed. The FBI also is conducting an investigation.