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Exclusive: Classified cable shows Benghazi consulate considered suspending operations, moving in with CIA

 

The U.S. mission in Benghazi, at an "emergency meeting" less than a month before the Sept. 11 attack, drafted a contingency plan to suspend operations as security deteriorated -- and in the near-term, recommended that consulate operations be moved to the CIA annex about a mile away, according to a classified cable reviewed by Fox News. 

The State Department's senior representative at the consulate told those at the Aug. 15 meeting that the security situation was "trending negatively" and reported "this daily pattern of violence would be the 'new normal' for the foreseeable future, particularly given the minimal capabilities" of the Libyan security forces. 

With no apparent reason to believe conditions would improve, the cable notified the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the "Emergency Action Committee" was updating "Post's tripwires in light of the deteriorating security situation ... to include a 'suspension of operations' section." 

The term "tripwire" refers to lines in the sand which, if crossed, cover personnel levels, security measures, and in this case, the extreme step of suspending operations. 

The cable marked "SECRET" also said, of the possibility of moving the consulate operations: "Mission personnel could co-locate to the Annex (CIA outpost) if the security environment degraded suddenly. ... (There was agreement) to formal weekly meetings to discuss the security environment. ... In the longer term, we believe formal collocation with the (Annex) will greatly improve our security situation." 

The warnings reflected a grave concern among officials on the ground that the Libyan militia charged with protecting the consulate had been compromised, perhaps even infiltrated by extremists. 

Summarizing the Aug. 15 meeting, the cable sent the following day reported that "certain sectors of the 17 February Brigade were very hesitant to share information with the Americans, but as the largest brigade they acted as a buffer for the Mission against some of the more anti-American, Islamist militias in town." The brigade was charged with protecting the consulate. 

Moving the consulate operations to the CIA annex might not have ultimately saved the four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the Sept. 11 strike. The annex ended up coming under fire and was the site where two of the four Americans were killed. 

But the concerns in the cable -- which also warned Washington that the consulate could not be protected in the event of a "coordinated attack" and that "approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps" were known to operate within Benghazi -- are further evidence that the U.S. mission in eastern Libya repeatedly warned Washington that they were a target. 

The reference in the cable to the February 17 Brigade was significant. 

This week, new documents recovered from the Benghazi compound by Foreign Policy magazine further support the classified cable's prescient warning that the Libyan militia was compromised. In the early morning hours of Sept. 11, the consulate staff believed they were under surveillance.  A document found by the magazine stated "this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore ... this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission." 

This reporting is consistent with an online post from Sean Smith, an avid gamer, shortly before the consulate was overrun by terrorists and Smith was killed. As reported by Wired magazine shortly after the attack, Smith wrote: "Assuming we don't die tonight. We saw one of our 'police' that guard the compound taking pictures." 

Days after the attack, an intelligence source on the ground in Libya told Fox News: "One thing for sure is that the 17 Brigade was nowhere to be found and the Americans were left on their own in the assault." On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being very bad, the intelligence source said the consulate security was "A 10 -- total security failure. Benghazi was known to be a major area for extremist activities. Militias' loyalty is easily bought and sold. Deals with militia leaders are worth nothing." 

The cable also shows the consulate staff and CIA leadership in Benghazi agreed to work hand-in-glove, which included reviewing "emergency action plans" and addressing areas of collaboration. 

Fox News asked the State Department to respond to a series of questions about the Aug. 16 cable, including who was specifically charged with reviewing it and whether action was taken by Washington or Tripoli. Fox News also asked, given the specific warnings and the detailed intelligence laid out in the cable, whether the State Department considered extra measures for the consulate in light of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- and if no action was taken, who made that call. 

Fox News first reported on its review of the classified cable on Oct. 31. 

Given the detailed intelligence and emergency planning presented to the State Department by its own staff, the cable raises more questions about the administration's initial assessment that a demonstration linked to an anti-Islam film was responsible. 

The State Department press office told Fox News that they could not comment, citing the classified nature of the cable. 

"An independent board is conducting a thorough review of the assault on our post in Benghazi," Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner said in written statement. "Once we have the board's comprehensive account of what happened, findings and recommendations, we can fully address these matters."

Catherine Herridge is an award-winning Chief Intelligence correspondent for FOX News Channel (FNC) based in Washington, D.C. She covers intelligence, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. Herridge joined FNC in 1996 as a London-based correspondent.