US hearing examines mission security in Libya

Head of US security team says officials did not have protection before assault that killed ambassador and three others.

    Residents of Benghazi held a demonstration condemning
    the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens [Reuters]

    Diplomatic security for the US mission in Benghazi was "a struggle" and security teams in Libya were drawn down ahead of last month's fatal attack, the former head of a US security team in Libya has told lawmakers.

    "The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there," Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Wood told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday.

    The hearing was congress' first on the September assault that killed Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador, and three other Americans.

    "The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April there was only one US diplomatic security agent stationed there," Wood said.

    He said that when he arrived in Libya in February there were three US diplomatic special security teams in the country, but by August they had been withdrawn.

    Republican charges that the US was caught unprepared for the attack have put President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on the defensive in advance of the November 6 presidential election.

    Partisan tension

    Partisan tension quickly spilled out at the hearing, with Republicans accusing the state department of not being fully cooperative in providing information on security decisions before the attack.

    Democrats accused the majority Republicans of conducting a one-sided probe that excluded them.

    Republicans continued their line of attack that the administration initially issued misleading comments saying the assault was a spontaneous event that sprang from a protest against an anti-Islam video.

    Administration officials said those initial comments, including by Susan Rice, US ambassador to the UN, resulted from the best information at that time.

    "If any administration official including any career official were on television on Sunday, September 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said," Patrick Kennedy, US undersecretary of state for management, told the hearing.

    "The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point."

    However, Reuters news agency reported last week that within hours of the attack, the Obama administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting fighters connected to al-Qaeda were involved.

    US intelligence officials were the first to publicly say it was a “terrorist” attack that struck the compound.

    Brennan in Tripoli

    In a related development, John Brennan, the senior US security official, pressed Libyan leaders to hunt down those guilty of the carrying out the Americans' killings.

    Security was tight in the Libyan capital Tripoli for Brennan's talks with Mohammed Megaryef, the Libyan National Assembly chief and de facto head of state, and other senior officials.

    Brennan set out to Megaryef "specific additional steps Libya can take to better assist the US in ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice", the White House said.

    "Mr Brennan encouraged Libyan officials to move quickly on refining their policies and advancing government capabilities in the security and justice sectors," Tommy Vietor, National Security Council spokesman, said.

    Brennan also urged Libya to "take full and timely advantage of specific offers of assistance from the United States and other international partners".

    Claims by Republicans that the White House covered up a radical element in the assault and that there was lax security in Benghazi have been drawn in to the campaign.

    The day after the assault, the Libyan authorities promised their full co-operation with a US inquiry into the attack but security conditions in Benghazi have meant that it was only on October 4 that an FBI team probing the killings was finally able to visit the scene.

    Benghazi was the cradle of the 2011 revolt that toppled and killed Muammar Gaddafi but has since become the focus of mounting violence, some of it involving armed Islamist groups.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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