New details on ambassador’s failed, fateful push for more security at Benghazi

November 1, 2012

A Libyan man walks past the closed U.S. consulate in Benghazi. (Abdullah  Doma/AFP/Getty Images)

Two journalists combed through the U.S. consulate building in Benghazi, Libya, over a month after it was attacked and turned up something significant: two unsigned draft letters expressing strong concern about security at the building. The letters are dated Sept. 11 – the day of the attack – and addressed to Libya's foreign minister and Benghazi's police chief. U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens's team had earlier requested additional security from the Libyans, according to the letters, and were not satisfied with the results.

The story make clear that there was a significant gap between the security that Stevens had in Benghazi and the security he felt the consulate badly needed. It originally appeared on pan-Arab network Al-Aan and is now in English on ForeignPolicy.com.

With all the rumors, conflicting accounts and confusingly contradictory narratives that have come out of Benghazi in the past month, it's worth carefully parsing what we learn, and don't, from this and other new pieces of information out today:

1) Ambassador Stevens and his staff clearly held significant, sustained concerns about security at the consulate. They cite a police officer taking very suspicious photos of the building. What they did with those concerns is a little murkier.

2) We now know that Stevens took his concerns to local and national Libyan authorities. It's not clear whether or not the letters that Al-Aan found ever got mailed. But they clearly follow up on previous requests for significantly heightened security. It seems pretty clear that local and national Libyan authorities fell down on those requests.

3) Libyan officials have not been terribly successful at organizing basic state functions, including security services. This was well-publicized at the time, and Stevens had clearly bumped up against his own challenges in getting Libyan officials to take charge. This is where it gets tricky: Why did Stevens keep pushing the Libyans for security instead of giving up on them and going to U.S. sources?

4) We don't know, from these letters, the degree to which Stevens did or did not seek U.S. help in alleviating the security problem. The doggedness with which he pursued Libyan security for the building, right up through the day of the attack, suggests he thought that was among his best courses. Fox News last night reported that the Benghazi consulate had drafted an Aug. 16 memo articulating its security concerns and announcing plans to "submit specific requests to US Embassy Tripoli for additional physical security upgrades and staffing needs by separate cover." The obvious question: Did they follow through on this by Sept. 11 and request those "staffing needs" be filled by Americans? A New York Times investigation this month, on the extent of U.S. security requests in Libya, would seem to suggest that they did not. It would be consistent with what we know so far if the Benghazi consulate had sought Tripoli's permission for additional Libyan security, of the kind Stevens asked for in his letters.

5) Why was Stevens not devoting his full attention on the security problem toward securing American support, given the Libyans' inability to follow through? Context: The U.S. has 294 physical embassy and consulate facilities around the world, which by necessity depend on local security. The New York Times investigation found that U.S. diplomats in Libya had requested greater U.S. security in Tripoli (not in Benghazi, 400 miles away) and had their requests denied by "mid-level" State Department officials – the highest that those requests went.

6) There are a lof of pieces to this puzzle, and they fit together a few different ways. Here's the worst-case, plausible scenario that I can put together, based on the available information: Stevens did not believe that the U.S. would meet his requests for additional security at Benghazi consulate, which is why he was pushing the Libyans. Maybe this was because the State Department had earlier denied the Tripoli embassy's appeal, maybe they'd denied more recent appeals specific to Benghazi, or maybe some other reason. This would be the worst-case because Libya's problems were not a secret at the time, and it's alarming to imagine the State Department as institutionally unresponsive to those problems and to one of their ambassadors' appeals. 

7) Here's the best-case that I can construct based on this information: Stevens earnestly wanted the Libyans to fill the security gap at Benghazi. Maybe, in this scenario, this was because he thought it was the host country's responsibility, maybe because he thought it was protocol, or some other reason. "Best-case" (a relative phrase here, obviously) because it would boil down to one veteran ambassador making an informed decision that turned out to be costly. This is still obviously bad, but it is the least bad of what I can put together. 

8) Here's what neither of these scenarios suggests: a failure by anyone higher up than those mid-level State Department officials responsible for handling security requests from Libyan diplomatic outposts. 

9) One piece of bad news in any scenario I can imagine: The FBI has still not secured the consulate grounds. The Al-Aan/Foreign Policy article sympathetically notes that the FBI is probably preoccupied with keeping the other Americans still in Libya safe. Still, with the amount of attention the Benghazi attack has received and the size of the FBI, it's puzzling that it's still so easy for reporters to roam around the consulate and pick through sensitive government documents.

10) Caveats: Like everyone else, I'm working with incomplete information, and it's entirely possible that new revelations will alter or even contradict my already-hazy reading. And the weak security at the time of the attack is not the only issue here – David Ignatius raised questions about the U.S. response once the attack had begun, which is its own complicated and foggy story. But it's worth trying to nail down what we know and don't, what we can plausibly imagine based on this information and can't.

What am I missing?

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Olga Khazan · November 1, 2012