Why was U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens in a lawless Benghazi with minimal personal protection on Sept. 11, 2012, knowing the added security risk of being there on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks?
That should be a starting point for Thursday’s appearance of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
“Chris Stevens did not ask anyone [back at the State Department] for permission to go to Benghazi; I don’t think it would have crossed his mind,” Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 23, 2013.
One thing that could help the public understand the situation better would be if committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) or Clinton would briefly explain the background of Stevens’s experience in Libya, and Benghazi in particular.
Stevens, who joined the Foreign Service in 1991, spoke French and Arabic and specialized in the Middle East. He served in Israel, Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia before first going to Libya as deputy chief of mission from 2007 to 2009, while Moammar Gaddafi was in power.
In spring 2011, Clinton picked Stevens to be special envoy to the Libyan Transitional National Council that was fighting Gaddafi and on April 5, he arrived aboard a Greek cargo ship at Benghazi, which at the time was in rebel hands. Accompanied by 10 State Department security agents for protection, Stevens lived in a hotel and served as the U.S. liaison with insurgent groups that Washington hoped would be part of the post-Gaddafi government.
In June 2011, when a car bomb exploded outside his hotel, Stevens and his security team moved first to a protected CIA complex in Benghazi and then to a walled, 13-acre compound that contained villas. These became the State Department’s special mission headquarters.
In her 2013 House testimony, Clinton said, “Nobody knew the dangers or the opportunities better than Chris, first during the revolution, then during the transition.”
The State Department Accountability Review Board (ARB) reported that Stevens went to Benghazi on Sept. 10, with plans to stay until Sept. 14, to “reconnect with local contacts,” as well as “fill the staffing gaps,” because a principal officer there had left, and “to open an American Corners [library for U.S. books and other materials] at a local school.”
Stevens’ deputy chief of mission in Libya, Gregory Hicks, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on May 8, 2013, that “at least one of the reasons he was in Benghazi was to further the secretary’s [Clinton’s] wish that that post become a permanent constituent post.”
After Stevens left in November 2011, the Benghazi Special Mission compound had become a temporary duty post with no official status. The ARB reported that the compound had an “uncertain future after 2012 and its ‘non-status’ as a temporary, residential facility made allocation of resources for security and personnel more difficult.”
As Clinton noted in her 2013 testimony, there was no classified information in the compound and therefore no Marine guard presence, just three Diplomatic Security personnel, some local militia and a contracted security force on call. For added protection, she noted, the CIA annex nearby had heavy weapons.
Hicks indicated to the House committee that Stevens originally planned to go to Benghazi in October, but by going in September he might get fiscal 2012 funds to upgrade the Benghazi compound.
In addition, Hicks said, “we understood that the secretary intended to visit Tripoli later in the year. . . . We hoped that she would be able to announce to the Libyan people our establishment of a permanent constituent post in Benghazi at that time.”
In her January 2013 hearing, Clinton said Stevens “believed that it was important for him to go to Benghazi. . . . He was someone who really believed strongly he had to get out there.”
Stevens was aware of the danger.
Hicks testified that there were two planning meetings for the trip where security concerns shortened his time in Benghazi by two days, although he would still be there Sept. 11. It was agreed that there would be no prior announcement of the visit.
Stevens took only two Diplomatic Security personnel with him, and so in Benghazi he had only five altogether, half the number of protectors he had when he arrived there in 2011.
The first night in Benghazi, Stevens had dinner at a local hotel with the City Council, which in turn had invited the media, although the United States had tried to keep the visit low-key. He later had drinks there with old friends.
On Sept. 11, because of the anniversary, his several meetings were all held in the compound. Stevens was informed of the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo immediately after it occurred. At around 9 p.m., he retired to his room in a villa on the compound, only to be called by one of the Diplomatic Security guards some 45 minutes later as the attack began.
“It’s so nice to be back in Benghazi. More stronger emotional connection to this place — the people,” Stevens had written in the Sept. 11 entry in his diary, found in the compound by a CNN reporter days after the attack. Stevens listed the results of his four or five meetings that day, including reconnecting with people “from the old days.”
Stevens’s last entry was prophetic: “Never ending security threats. . .”