Center for Strategic Communication

A picture of the British ambassador’s convoy after it was attacked in Benghazi. Photo: House Oversight Committee

They might as well have painted a target on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. During the spring and summer, militants attacked the American diplomatic outpost and other symbols of Western influence over and over again, according to a new letter from top congressional investigators. Yet security at the consulate remained light, with only a small coterie of contract guards assigned to defend it. No wonder guerrillas — widely assumed to be connected to al-Qaeda — were able to overwhelm the consulate, and kill the American ambassador there.

On April 6, two Libyans who had been fired as unarmed guards for the consulate “threw a small IED [improvised explosive device] over the Consulate fence,” explains the letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from Rep. Darrel Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who heads the subcommittee on national security. The improvised bomb didn’t hurt anyone. Nor did it cause any damage. But it was a harbinger of things to come.

Two months later, the congressmen write, “under cover of darkness, assailants placed an IED on the north gate of Consulate Benghazi, blowing a hole in the security perimeter that was described by one individual as, ‘big enough for forty men to go through.’” Four days after that, the British ambassador’s two-car convoy “was attacked in broad daylight” by a militant with a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG.

Militants made clear that the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens, was next on the target list. “Stevens was in the habit of taking early morning runs around Tripoli along with members of his security detail,” continues the letter (.pdf), which is sourced to unnamed “individuals with direct knowledge of events in Libya” and was first obtained by Eli Lake of The Daily Beast. “Sometime in June 2012,” the letter continues, “a posting on a pro-Gaddafi Facebook page trumpeted these runs and directed a threat against Ambassador Stevens along with a stock photo of him.” Stevens stopped the runs — but only for a week. Then he went out jogging again.

When Stevens and his fellow diplomats were killed in a complex attack on the consulate on September 11, the Obama administration initially blamed a mob enraged by an anti-Islam video for the assault. No mention was made of the militants’ prior assaults, nor of the consulate’s relatively lax defensive posture. Within days, the White House’s explanation slowly unraveled — and has now become a major political issue in the American elections. ”We’ve seen a confused, slow, inconsistent response to what is now very clearly known as a terrorist act,” Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan said in a Monday radio interview.

That political pressure is likely to increase. Issa and Chaffetz will hold hearings on the Benghazi attack starting on October 10, less than a month before the election. All U.S. government officials have now been sent home from Benghazi, because of the danger to American personnel. One question that the House Oversight Committee will almost certainly investigate is why those risks weren’t spotted sooner — especially since there were so many other attacks in the vicinity.

As Danger Room first reported, the U.S. military never protected the Benghazi outpost. That job was instead left to a small British private security firm, named Blue Mountain, that was paid $783,000 for it efforts. In the weeks leading up to the September 11 assault, the unarmed Libyan guards employed by Blue Mountain Group were “warned by their family members to quit their jobs… because there were rumors in the community of an impending attack,” Issa and Chaffetz write. There were no smoke-protection masks or fire extinguishers, so consulate staff couldn’t put out the flames once the place started to burn. A source tells Fox News that the only protective equipment stationed at the consulate were a few video cameras.

All this despite an April 11 battle — which included antiaircraft guns and RPGs — that erupted just two-and-a-half miles from the consulate. Fifteen days after that, an American Foreign Service Officer had to be pulled out of a firefight by members of a local militia, the February 17 Brigade. (U.S. intelligence is now analyzing communications between that group and al-Qaeda affiliates.) The following day, a pair of South African contractors were kidnapped in a residential neighborhood of Benghazi the following day.

Less than a month later, two RPG rounds were fired at the Benghazi office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a little more than a half-mile from the U.S. consulate. “We didn’t want to hurt the Christians; it is just a warning,” read a Facebook message from a militant group, according to the Issa and Chaffetz letter. “Now we are preparing a message for the Americans.”

In August, the Red Cross building was attacked again, forcing the group to suspend its work in the city. “Once the ICRC pulled out,” Issa and Chaffetz write, “the U.S. consulate was the last Western flag flying in Benghazi, making it an ideal target for militants.”