Center for Strategic Communication

Libyans walk on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. Photo: AP/Ibrahim Alaguri

U.S. officials in Washington monitored the Sept. 11 attack on the American mission in Benghazi as it was happening. But don’t blame American policymakers for initially blaming the unrest in Benghazi on protesters.

Those are those are just two of the many contradictory messages coming from State Department employees as they testify before the House Oversight Committee, which held hearings Wednesday on the attack. But they’re not only only mismatches. Depending on which witness you believe, security at the Benghazi mission was either just fine — “the correct number of assets,” one State Department official said — or woefully inadequate.

“There was no plan, there was just hope that everything would get better,” one security official testified.

Charlene Lamb, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs, said in her prepared testimony (.pdf) that she had a firm grasp on what happened in Benghazi, starting mere moments after the mission came under assault. ”When the attack began, a Diplomatic Security agent working in the tactical operations center immediately… alerted the annex U.S. quick reaction security team stationed nearby … and the Diplomatic Security Command Center in Washington. From that point on, I could follow what was happening in almost real-time,” Lamb explained.

Yet confusion remained about the attack’s origin. Five days after the strike, American ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said the unrest in Benghazi began with a protest against an anti-Islam video. State Department officials were finally forced to concede on Wednesday there was no protest. Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy insisted in testimony on Wednesday that there was no cover-up of the attack’s true cause.

“We have always made clear that we are giving the best information we have at the time. And that information has evolved,” Kennedy said in his prepared statement (.pdf). “For example, if any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16th, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point. As time went on, additional information became available. Clearly, we know more today than we did on the Sunday after the attack.”

One thing that was known months and months ago: Benghazi was a seriously hostile place for American diplomats.

Gaddafi loyalists plotted to attack U.S. embassies in Benghazi and Tripoli as early as December 2011, according to a summary of security incidents (.pdf) in Libya compiled by the State Department and given to congressional investigators.

The plot, called “Papa Noel” — French for “Santa Claus” — was busted up by Libyan security forces before it was ever put into action, and was “allegedly planned for the Christmas and New Years Eve holidays” in December 2011. But the plot was also planned to go into action a mere two months after the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a sign — and an omen — that militants intended to attack U.S. diplomatic stations much earlier than previously thought.

“According to [government of Libya] security official Abdessalam Borghathi, a network of Gaddafi loyalists were behind the plot and the GoL arrested the members and dismantled the group,” the summary stated in a brief entry dated Dec. 20. The Libyan government reported seizing “150 RPG launchers, and various light weapons and ammunition and undisclosed sums of money.” The militants also used SMS messages to communicate, “confirming their intent in carrying out this operation as an explosive ‘Christmas gift’ to the Libyan people.”

The alleged plot was only one of 230 “specific security incidents” detailed in the report, but also one of the most sophisticated until the Sept. 11 complex attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans. In April and again in June, militants attacked the consulate on with improvised explosives. In another warning to American personnel stationed in the city — this time in May — RPG rounds were fired at the nearby Benghazi office of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Two security officers were wounded in an RPG attack on the British ambassador’s convoy in June.

There was also a steady drumbeat of attacks on — and between — Libyans in the Benghazi. In April, antiaircraft and RPG fire was exchanged two-and-a-half miles from the consulate. Two weeks later, an American Foreign Service Officer had to be rescued from a firefight by the February 17 Brigade. Next, two South African contractors hired to dispose of unexploded bombs were kidnapped. In July, a Libyan air force helicopter was forced down after being hit by anti-aircraft fire. Less than two weeks after that, a dispute between two families led to one family attacking the other’s house with RPG rounds.

It was a dangerous trend. “The risk of U.S. Mission personnel, private U.S. citizens, and businesspersons encountering an isolating event as a result of militia or political violence is HIGH,” the embassy report warned. The Libyan government ”does not yet have the ability to effectively respond to and manage the rising criminal and militia related violence, which could result in an isolating event.”

“These incidents paint a clear picture that the environment in Libya was fragile at best and could degrade quickly,” wrote State Department security officer Eric Nordstrom in an e-mail provided to Danger Room. “Certainly, not an environment where post should be directed to ‘normalize’ operations and reduce security resources in accordance with an artificial time table.” By that, Nordstorm meant a push by State Department officials to avoid the perception that Libya’s security was getting worse, potentially turning into a situation like Iraq or Afghanistan.

The security situation in Benghazi was “a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” (.pdf) said Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, the State Department’s Site Security Team commander in Libya from February to August 2012. Wood, who is to testify to the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, added that “targeted attacks against westerners were on the increase.”

By July, the three diplomatic security teams on the ground in Libya were whittled down to one team “restricted from performing security work and limited to only training local guard force members,” according to Wood. That team was eventually withdrawn too. Nordstrom asked for an extension of the SST teams, but said he was turned down because there “would be too much political cost.”

“There was a complete and total lack of planning for what was going to happen next,” he added. “There was no plan, there was just hope that everything would get better.”

As Danger Room first reported, security was then largely left in the hands of British security firm Blue Mountain, which employed unarmed Libyan guards and paid them $4 per hour.

The State Department has been criticized for leaving the mission’s security up to such unimpressive forces — and for not hardening the mission in Benghazi, despite the drumbeat of danger. Lamb, who has never visited Libya, she insisted that there were the “orrect number of assets in Benghazi on the night of 9/11″: five diplomatic special security agents, three armed guards provided by the government of Libya, plus the $4/hour rent-a-guards.

Lamb said she wouldn’t have supported transfer of all or some of the heavily armed Site Security Team from Tripoli to Benghazi. And in her prepared statement, Lamb said the State Department had made all sorts of security improvements to the mission.

After acquiring the compound, we made a number of security upgrades. To strengthen the
compound’s perimeter, we extended the height of the outer wall with masonry concrete. Then
we added barbed wire and concertina razor wire to further extend the height of the wall to 12
feet. We increased the external lighting and erected Jersey Barriers –large concrete blocks –
outside the perimeter to provide anti-ram protection. Inside each of the three steel gates, we
installed steel drop bars to control vehicle traffic.

Inside the perimeter of the wall, we also added equipment to detect explosives, as well as an
Imminent Danger Notification System. We hardened wooden doors with steel and reinforced
locks. And we installed security grills on windows accessible from the ground. This included
escape windows with emergency releases.

We also built guard booths and sandbag emplacements to create defensive positions inside the

But there was only so much the State Department could do, Kennedy said. “We’re never going to have enough guns… We’re not an armed camp ready to fight it out as the U.S. military does,” he added. And in any case, the scattered IED [improvised explosive device] attacks and shootings were not enough to “indicate that there was a plan or any indication of a massive attack of the nature and lethality” of the complex consulate attack in Benghazi.

On Tuesday, an internal staff memo from congressional Democrats accused Rep. Darrell Issa, the Oversight Committee chairman, of stonewalling House Democrats from the investigation into the attacks. House Democrats also complained of being excluded from an Oct. 5 congressional delegation visit to Libya after Republicans allegedly concealed the trip until less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to leave. “It’s a shame they’re resorting to such petty abuses,” says the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings. (Republicans countered that they found out about the trip just when Democrats did.) Democrats also complained of being left out of a classified briefing about the investigation organized by Speaker John Boehner. Hold on, because that political acrimony to likely to increase — especially if administration officials continue to contradict one another about what went on in Benghazi.