Robert Young Pelton has a very long but quite interesting piece at Blackwater USA on the issue of security for our diplomats in Benghazi on September 11, and how badly the State Department departed from established practices – including the input of Erik Prince, who founded the “infamous” (among the Left) Blackwater Security firm.
Much like Afghanistan after the Taliban and Iraq after Saddam, Libya was neither safe nor a properly functioning country. The U.S. mission in Benghazi already been attacked by a massive car bomb on June 6 of this year, and a grenade was tossed over the wall a month earlier. The British ambassador had been ambushed and narrowly avoided RPG attacks. The Red Cross had been attacked in August and felt the threat serious enough to shut down operations there. Threats on the Internet appeared. As in all disasters a chain of events began to unfold.
As September 11th began to loom, the Ambassador oddly decided to travel away from the greater security of Tripoli to three days of loosely defined meetings in Benghazi starting on September 10th. Locals knew the Ambassador had arrived the day before the 9/11 anniversary. On the day of September 11th, riots broke out around the world and the flag of al Qaeda appeared above US embassies in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and soon, Benghazi.
That evening the special mission in Benghazi was attacked and overrun by al Qaeda fighters and curious locals. Sean Smith, the man in charge of crypto, or sensitive information, was killed. The Ambassador Chris Stevens died apparently from smoke inhalation, his body abandoned and discovered by a mob. Two ex-SEALs killed by a well-placed mortar, and the Benghazi mission abandoned and sensitive papers picked over by the curious. Al Qaeda quickly took credit for the attack and within two hours cables notified the White House of the group behind the attack. This would be enough of a disaster, but it was the State Department’s handling of the disaster that would enrage the families of the lost and the American population even more.
Pelton goes into a great deal of detail about the run-up to September 11th, including what one should have expected of a security profile in a Wild West atmosphere such as was present in Benghazi. Some highlights…
- There were five security agents in Benghazi with Ambassador Chris Stevens. That is considered by people in the industry as the most skeleton of skeleton crews.
- The head of Near East security for the State Department, Eric Nordstrom, built a substantial paper trail indicting the level of security in Libya and in particular for the mission in Benghazi over the span of several months leading up to September 11.
- Stevens had to discontinue his jogging routine after a Libyan militia published it online. He was something of a cowboy about security, but things got so bad that even he couldn’t stand it anymore and started joining the screaming for additional security.
- A key quote about the effect of the Benghazi massacre and the subsequent evacuation of some 30-odd people to Tripoli the morning of Sept. 12: “After billions spent to liberate and bring American influence to the region a few members of al Qaeda had eliminated or severely reduced U.S. presence in Libya in just a few hours.”
- Pelton says that the product of the meeting between President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Leon Pannetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey was that Dempsey suggested merely asking for more help from the Libyan militia which had deserted the Benghazi mission in the first place at the beginning of the attack – despite the fact that we appear to have had air assets on station and the ability to deploy military forces to the fight from our installations in Italy.
One of the most interesting items in the piece is a tale told by Col. David Hunt, who our readers might be familiar with due to his fame as a Fox News contributor. Hunt attempted to land a security contract for the Libyan embassy, but was unsuccessful. The reason why is difficult to accept…
Col. David Hunt, best known as a right-of-center television commentator, went to Libya to pitch a security contract for the new embassy. Over the four-month period that he tried to bring in business with the embassy, he was told that, according to the Rules of Engagement for Libya, an extensive document that dictates U.S. conduct in Libya, there were to be “No Americans on the ground,” as Hunt puts it. I caught up with Hunt while he was driving through Maine. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They wanted Libyans to guard the embassy. I dropped the effort right there. They [Libyan locals] are extremely hard to vet.”
Hunt explains what the Rules of Engagement for Libya document contains: “Each relevant agency would have an attachment on how they expected to work in Libya. The DSS would have an attachment. That entire document is signed off by the Secretary of State and reviewed by the President. These things are not done in a vacuum.”
He believes that the Secretary of State deliberately ignored the potential dangers of Libya and left the embassy staff hanging for the sake of political correctness.
Hunt’s assumptions are turning out to be correct as documents and evidence come forward in this politically charged controversy. The commander of the February 17th Brigade, the exact militia the special mission was forced to rely on, was given three days’ notice before the Ambassador’s arrival.
Hunt is appalled at the level of security chosen for Libya. “Probably the lowest level of security we have for any foreign embassy I can think of,” he says.
Something else in the piece which stands out despite having been little-discussed in the aftermath of Benghazi was the fact that the mission did not destroy the sensitive files stored there, as protocol demands. The compromise of sources and methods that represents can’t be understated considering that Al Qaeda now has a clear picture of American operations in that region (and it isn’t a terrible bet the Iranians and Russians likely have them as well).
And then there’s Prince’s take on Benghazi. The fact he no longer has the lucrative State Department contract to protect at-risk missions like Benghazi would make him unsurprisingly critical of the failure there, but his indictment is worth repeating in any event…
“In a frontier post like Libya,” said Prince, “it’s unconscionable and unprecedented that they were depending on local security services, which, based on events, were thin to non-existent.”
Embassy security generally includes local nationals, static security guards—which guard places like gates, access points and are usually third country nationals—Department of State, or DS, security guards, and a Regional Security Officer, or RSO. Contrary to what most people think, the Marine Corps does not guard an embassy. Marines guard the door to the embassy and the sensitive information within the embassy, but not the building, according to Prince.
There were no Marines at Benghazi. But there were plenty of locals. In their roles as guards, these personnel are tasked with repelling attacks like that of September 11th that killed Stevens. On the night of September 11th, the guards seem to have done little to repel the attack.
“I had a friend who visited the Benghazi compound the day after the incident,” Prince said, “and they remarked at the lack of pockmarks, impact points and casings. There were no pockmarks because the guards fled. I had a report that the guards reported the threat to the higher ups in the State Department, which went ignored. Another that a Libyan in the security forces warned them away before the attack. Either way, they abandoned their posts when the assault came.”
The Ambassador is guarded by a mobile private security detail along with the DS agents. When the attack happened the DS agents lost their assignee, the Ambassador. And when the second attack occurred at the CIA annex, the DS agents weren’t the ones who went down fighting—it was the former SEALs that died fighting.
There have been allegations that the Ambassador had a personal appointment the night of the attack. Some say it was a date. Whatever the case, his security guards were not with the one asset they were assigned to protect—Chris Stevens.
“It is my understanding that the Ambassador died at the consulate,” Prince said. “So there was a failure of the static security force that did not hold. There was a failure of the DS agents who did not protect him. There was an intelligence failure because in not holding they did not burn the crypto [sensitive information] and documents and lists of assets working with the U.S.”
The security profile of US foreign installations is not determined by the Ambassador. That job is left to the head of Diplomatic Security in Washington. And while the higher-ups in Washington may have misjudged the threats present in Benghazi, men on the ground, those assigned to the Ambassador, failed to do their job.
“Think of that” Prince said. “They lost track of the US President’s personal representative for ten hours. They had to rely on a Libyan Good Samaritan to get the Ambassador’s body back.”
Not surprisingly, Prince, among others, thinks that had their been a security detail more like Blackwater offered, disaster may have been avoided.
“I had heard reports that a contract was going to be let to my old company [Academi],” he said. But that didn’t happen. “There was no contract and no upgraded security warning for Libya. These decisions are made back in Washington by the diplomatic folks.”
Such is the nature of foreign security under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Which is to say that the State Department opted for a smaller security footprint—no armed guards, no Blackwater-type guards locked and loaded on every corner—that would, hopefully, be less of an offense to locals, especially locals in a country where the U.S had just supported the toppling of a dictator.
“Due to lax security under this administration’s view of threats, four of their employees came home in caskets,” Prince said. “When Blackwater protected the State Department, Condi Rice and Hillary never had to appear at Dover or Andrews Air Force Base to receive the bodies of fallen diplomats. Considering the amount of IEDs, surface to air and attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, that is saying something.”
So the big question is who will take the fall for the poorly guarded embassy and the deaths of four Americans working in service to their country?
“It’s the government,” Prince said, “nobody gets fired.”
The piece is well worth a read. It serves as a glaring indictment of a thorough failure of security in advance of the Benghazi attack driven by a badly out-of-touch State Department which forgot all of the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the loss of four American heroes and priceless intelligence material as the cost.