Appeals for more security help in Libya frustrated, agents tell House panel

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Two American diplomatic security agents told a House panel Wednesday of their frustrated attempts to get the State Department to assign more security agents to protect diplomats in Libya.

House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) presided at the often contentious, four hour hearing investigating the attacks that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three US diplomatic personnel in Libya last month. Several of the panel’s GOP members insisted US officials should have known immediately that the Sept. 11 2012 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and not the result of spontaneous protests over a 15 minute anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

Were initial Obama administration statements that suggested the Benghazi attack was connected to protests over the video the result “of negligence … or something more nefarious?” asked South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy.

The committee also sought to probe why State Department diplomatic security officer Charlene Lamb allegedly discouraged requests from two security agents on the ground for more armed American security agents to be posted to Libya amid a deteriorating security situation that led the British to close their Benghazi mission. But it wasn’t always clear the congress members were so interested to hear the witnesses’ answers in favor of delivering their talking points.

At one point, for instance, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), even scolded one of the Republicans’ star witness for not agreeing with him that the Libyan militia suspected in the attack was affiliated with Al Qaeda.

“Just say it is a terrorist group,” Burton cut off the witness, Col. Andrew Wood, after the Utah national guardsman formerly posted to Libya described the militia, Ansar al-Sharia, as being aligned with the Libyan government. “The Libyan government doesn’t consider them a terrorist group,” Wood said.

Wood and former US Regional Security Officer for Libya Eric Nordstrom repeatedly conveyed their frustration at their sense that State Department bureaucrats were fighting their efforts to keep a team of 16 armed US security officers in Libya.

“We had a saying in Libya: you will be fine, until you’re not,” Nordstrom told the panel. “We were extremely concerned that over time …. we would not have the resources to respond” to security threats.

Nordstrom insisted that he had conveyed the request “for more bodies” to provide security in Libya after being discouraged by Lamb from requesting the extension of the 16-member SST team. (Here’s a July cable from Nordstrom to State requesting more temporary duty help in Libya. Here’s Amb. Chris Stevens’ cable to State from Benghazi on 9/11/2012, the day he died.)

Lamb, the deputy assistant director of international programs inside the State Department’s diplomatic security bureau, and a three-decade diplomatic security agent, insisted that the number of armed US security agents in Libya was adequate and met the numbers requested by Nordstrom.

He often felt like “we were fighting the people, programs meant to support us,” Nordstrom told the panel.