BENGHAZI, Libya -- Even before the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, diplomats from other nations and Libyan security officials had questioned the wisdom of a U.S. decision to rely primarily on members of a local militia to protect its compound here.
Diplomats here told McClatchy that while it’s customary to depend on local forces to protect diplomatic missions, only the United States of the 10 or so foreign missions here allowed the local militia to be the first line of defense. The others said they instead depended on military forces from their own country to provide security.
“A few months ago, there was a small attack here and the Libyans fled,” said a diplomat from a European nation who asked that he not be further identified so that he could speak candidly about his assessment of security here. “After that, I decided to only use special forces” from his own country.
“We never considered using the brigades,” he said, referring to the 17th of February Brigade, the local militia that was considered the primary security force for the U.S. mission. “We assumed the United States had a special relationship with the brigades.”
Said another diplomat who requested anonymity for the same reasons: “I would never depend on the brigades.”
The diplomat said he believed U.S. officials were unaware of the extremist links of those who were guarding them. "The mistake of the Americans was not following the trail of Islamic radicals," he said.
For some, the cost of supplying security made operating in Benghazi prohibitive. The British, for example, brought in their own troops and also hired Libyans to provide security, according to Khalid al Hadar, who owns the compound that the British used as their offices here. But after a June attack on the British ambassador’s convoy, the British withdrew from Benghazi. A British official told McClatchy that the realization that security would require a larger – and more expensive – British force in Benghazi helped fuel that decision.
Hadar said the British still check in periodically on their compound, where a shot-up bulletproof windshield from the June ambush still sits in what was the consulate’s carport.
Who was responsible for determining how the United States protected its consulate here remains unclear two months after Stevens’ death. According to the State Department, the ambassador, in consultation with deputies and security advisers, makes all security decisions, though they can be overruled from Washington. At a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last month, Eric Allan Nordstrom, who served as the chief security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli from September 2011 until July, testified that he had requested additional security.
Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security, defended the security procedures that had been taken in Benghazi, telling the hearing that there were five American security guards – the number recommended by Nordstrom – along with Libyans in Benghazi when the attack took place.
“We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11,” she said.
It is unknown what Stevens’ own position on security in Benghazi was. A Western diplomat here said the trip was Stevens’ first extensive visit to Benghazi since he’d assumed the ambassador’s post in May. The diplomat said that when he heard the attack begin about 9:30 p.m., he assumed “that Chris was long gone.”