Senate Report Rips State Department on Benghazi

Yesterday the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs released a report on its investigation of the Benghazi disaster. The report, which can be accessed here, is titled “Flashing Red: A Special Report On The Terrorist Attack At Benghazi.” It is signed by Committee chairman Joe Lieberman and ranking member Susan Collins. Presumably because of Lieberman’s involvement, the report is not a whitewash of the Obama administration.

On the contrary: while it is sober and judicious in tone, the Senate report offers a stinging evaluation of the State Department’s performance with regard to security at the Department’s Benghazi facilities. It begins with a good, brief summary of the facts of the Benghazi attack, then makes a series of findings and recommendations. It details the many indications of security threats in Benghazi:

The Committee has reviewed dozens of classified intelligence reports on the evolution of threats in Libya which were issued between February 2011 and September 11, 2012. We are precluded in this report from discussing the information in detail, but overall, these intelligence reports (as the ARB similarly noted) provide a clear and vivid picture of a rapidly deteriorating threat environment in eastern Libya—one that we believe should have been sufficient to inform policy-makers of the growing danger to U.S. facilities and personnel in that part of the country and the urgency of them doing something about it. This information was effectively shared by the IC [intelligence community] with key officials at the Department of State. For example, both the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Charlene Lamb, who was responsible for the security at more than 275 diplomatic facilities, and former Regional Security Officer (RSO) for Libya Eric Nordstrom, who was the principal security adviser to the U.S. Ambassador in Libya from September 21, 2011 to July 26, 2012, told the Committee that they had full access to all threat information from the IC about eastern Libya during the months before the attack of September 11, 2012.2 Yet the Department failed to take adequate action to protect its personnel there.

The report cites four incidents in particular that showed how much danger diplomats in Benghazi would face:

Other publicly reported incidents occurred during this time frame, but there are four that we believe are particularly noteworthy. Taken as a whole, they demonstrated the capability and intent of Benghazi-based Islamist extremist groups to conduct a significant attack against U.S. or other western interests in Libya:

* On May 22, 2012, the International Committee for the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC) building in Benghazi was hit by two RPG rounds, causing damage to the building but no casualties. Several days later, the Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman claimed responsibility for this attack, accusing the ICRC of proselytizing in Libya.

* On June 6, 2012, the U.S. Temporary Mission Facility in Benghazi was targeted by an IED attack that blew a hole in the perimeter wall. Credit for this attack was also claimed by the Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, which said it carried out the attack in response to the reported drone strike on al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi in Northern Waziristan.

* On June 11, 2012, an attack was carried out in Benghazi on the convoy of the British Ambassador to Libya. Attackers fired an RPG on the convoy, followed by small arms fire. Two British bodyguards were injured in the attack. This attack was characterized afterwards in an incident report by the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security as a “complex, coordinated attack.”

* On June 18, 2012, the Tunisian consulate in Benghazi was stormed by individuals affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia Libya (AAS), allegedly because of “attacks by Tunisian artists against Islam.”

The report relates the familiar fact that State Department personnel on the ground in Libya requested more security, but did not get it. Much of the following narrative was new to me:

Nordstrom also testified that he would have preferred to extend a DOD support team, which DOD provided to the Department of State on a non-reimbursable basis, that was scheduled to depart in August 2012. The 16-person Site Security Team (SST) was stationed in Tripoli, but on occasion some of its members also helped with security in Benghazi. The team’s deployment had previously been extended twice. Nordstrom said he though [sic] that requesting an extension would have “too much political cost,” and he was not told to do so. In July 2012, Nordstrom had sent a request, via cable approved by Ambassador Stevens, for a minimum of 13 temporary U.S. security personnel—which he said could be either DS employees or SST personnel, or a combination of both—to support needs in Tripoli. Nordstrom said he never received a response to that request. Though the Department of State never formally asked DOD to extend the SST team, at the time of the attack several members of the SST were still in Tripoli for other purposes, and two participated in the rescue effort the night of the attack.

One question I have never seen satisfactorily answered is why the administration could not get special forces or other troops to Benghazi during the seven or eight hours when the attack was in progress. The Senate report addresses that issue:

American government officials outside of Benghazi learned of the attack shortly after it started at 3:40 p.m. EST (9:40 p.m. Benghazi time). …

From 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. EST, Secretary Panetta met with senior DOD officials to discuss the Benghazi attack and other violence in the region in reaction to the anti-Muslim video. The Secretary directed three actions: 1) that one Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST) platoon stationed in Rota, Spain, deploy to Benghazi and that a second FAST platoon in Rota prepare to deploy to Tripoli; 2) that U.S. European Command’s In-extremis Force, which happened to be training in central Europe, deploy to a staging base in southern Europe; and 3) that a special operations force based in the United States deploy to a staging base in southern Europe. The National Command Center transmitted formal authorization for these actions at 8:39 p.m. A FAST platoon arrived in Tripoli the evening (local time) of September 12th, and the other forces arrived that evening at a staging base in Italy, long after the terrorist attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi had ended and four Americans had been killed.

One might think that the decision to deploy forces to Benghazi to protect the State Department and CIA personnel under attack there could have been made more quickly. Apparently the order to send a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team platoon from Rota, Spain to Benghazi was given around five hours after the attack began. The Senate report suggests that this timing made no difference because the FAST team did not arrive in Benghazi until the evening of September 12. This is difficult to understand: does it really take a rapid-response anti-terrorism team 18 hours to get from the Rota naval base near the Strait of Gibraltar to Benghazi, around 1,500 miles away?

The Senate report doesn’t break new ground, but it is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the failures on the part of the Obama administration that led to, and continued after, the Benghazi attacks. Summing up the performance of Hillary Clinton’s State Department, the most charitable characterization is that the department was negligent, and its negligence resulted, foreseeably, in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

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