WSJ: State Dept. and CIA had secret, botched deal for Benghazi security

November 2, 2012

A Libyan security guard at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. (GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/GettyImages)

Of all of the questions surrounding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, one that has seemed especially puzzling is the apparently insufficient security there. A new report from the Wall Street Journal sheds light on this, revealing what the paper says was a secret and possibly confused arrangement between the State Department and Central Intelligence Agency. 

The CIA is said to have been the dominant U.S. presence in Benghazi, where it had a "symbiotic" relationship with the State Department consulate that served as cover for its staff. "The State Department believed it had a formal agreement with the CIA to provide backup security," the Journal says, "although a congressional investigator said it now appears the CIA didn't have the same understanding about its security responsibilities."

But, on Sept. 11, the arrangement for the CIA to provide "emergency" security to the consulate apparently did not unfold as the State Department had expected:

Congressional investigators say it appears that the CIA and State Department weren't on the same page about their respective roles on security, underlining the rift between agencies over taking responsibility and raising questions about whether the security arrangement in Benghazi was flawed.

The CIA's secret role helps explain why security appeared inadequate at the U.S. diplomatic facility. State Department officials believed that responsibility was set to be shouldered in part by CIA personnel in the city through a series of secret agreements that even some officials in Washington didn't know about.

Two questions immediately strike me about this. The first: what is the gap between what the State Department expected from the CIA force and what it got on Sept. 11?

The CIA had force of "roughly 10," located at their separate "annex" building a mile away. The night of the attack, they sent a seven-man team that arrived in 50 minutes, including a delay of several minutes as agency officials tried and failed to contact Libyans who had been hired to provide security. The CIA force remained at the consulate for one hour before leaving with all the Americans except for the ambassador.

Is State's gripe with the CIA that they didn't arrive more quickly? That they weren't able to better secure the consulate? Or that they did not ultimately succeed in protecting their ambassador? A congressional investigator cited the CIA's delay in responding as evidence that "the secret CIA-State security arrangement was inadequate."

This gets to my second question: If the State Department believed it could rely on the CIA for emergency security, and if the congressional investigator sees the incident as a failure of the State-CIA security arrangement, then why were Ambassador Chris Stevens and his staff seeking additional consulate security from local and national Libyan authorities before the attack? Based on unsigned letters discovered at the consulate grounds weeks after the attack, it appears that Stevens did not see the building's day-to-day security as adequate and was asking for more.

This day-to-day Libyan-provided security is distinct from the "emergency" CIA security, but if Stevens saw the former as insufficient, then why now is there so much focus on the latter's inability to save the day?

I'll try to dig into these questions more tomorrow. In the meantime, read Greg Miller's beat-by-beat on what happened after the violence began.

Update: How much of the responsibility for the Benghazi disaster falls on Libya? Were the Libyan state's shortcomings foreseeable?

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Max Fisher | November 1, 2012