The decision to keep U.S. personnel in Benghazi with substandard security was made at the highest levels of the State Department by officials who have so far escaped blame over the Sept. 11 attack, according to a review of recent congressional testimony and internal State Department memos by Fox News.
Nine months before the assault that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others, State Department Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy signed off on an internal memo that green-lighted the Benghazi operation.
The December 2011 memo from Jeffrey Feltman -- then-Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) -- pledged "to rapidly implement a series of corrective security measures." However, no substantial improvements were made, according to congressional testimony to the House oversight committee from Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom.
Nordstrom said the Benghazi operation never met the rigid standards set out by the Overseas Security Policy Board, or OSPB, which according to the State Department website "is an interagency body created to assist the secretary" in carrying out security obligations under a 1986 law.
"We did not meet any of those standards with the exception of perhaps the height of the wall," Nordstrom testified.
What's clear is that Benghazi was not referred to as a consulate in the "Action Memo for Under Secretary Kennedy" by Feltman. The omission may have exempted it from mandatory physical security standards.
In fact, the recently released "talking points" emails show that the State Department was insistent that the White House not refer to Benghazi as a consulate. Instead, policy adviser Jacob Sullivan said it should be called a "mission" or "diplomatic post."
Both Kennedy and Feltman signed the Dec. 27, 2011 memo titled: "Future of Operations in Benghazi."
The document also indicates that the CIA and State Department operations were separate, undercutting reports that the Benghazi mission was a cover for the agency's activities which included the rounding up of loose weapons after the fall of the Libyan dictator. The action memo notes that the "State presence cannot be accommodated at the annex and the current State facility is not large enough to permit co-location."
The Sept. 11 attack killed Stevens, as well as Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, and former Navy Seals Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
The action memo revealed other State Department goals in Benghazi. It said: "The team will be able to monitor political trends (Islamists, tribes, political parties, militias) and public sentiment regarding the 'new Libya,' as well as report on the critical period leading up to and through Libya's first post Qadafi election."
But the Benghazi site never met the rigid standards set out by OSPB, which haunted Nordstrom.
Nordstrom repeatedly expressed his deep security concerns and noted Benghazi was still "undefined" in emails with his superiors seven months before the attacks.
In February 2012, he wrote that "while the status of Benghazi remains undefined, DS (Diplomatic Security) is hesitant to devout (sic) resources and as I indicated previously, this has severely hampered operations in Benghazi."
He said that he "only had two DS agents on the ground. ... and been advised that DS isn't going to provide more than 3 DS agents over the long term."
While other media reports have made passing references to the action memo signed by Kennedy and Feltman in the context of ongoing security issues, former State Department officials tell Fox News that the document is significant because Kennedy would not set policy on his own. Kennedy was ultimately responsible for overseas building operations deals with building leases and security, which should have followed strict OSPB standards.
"I find it very hard to believe that he (Kennedy) would sign this memo without having talked to Secretary Clinton or at least Deputy Secretary (William) Burns," former ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton told Fox News after examining the December 2011 memo.
"Keeping this position open in Benghazi is a policy decision. It's a policy decision that overrides normal security considerations. And I think that's significant enough that a careerist like Undersecretary Kennedy would not do it on his own."
According to OSPB, standards cannot be waived where U.S. government employees are going to conduct diplomacy. In Nordstrom's written statement May 8, 2013, he said he reviewed documents that showed the approval of facilities "that did not meet" the proper standards. And he claimed no waivers regarding those requirements were prepared "for either the Tripoli or Benghazi compounds."
"More importantly, senior decision makers in the Department, including the U/S for Management, determined that funding would not be provided in order to bring the facilities into compliance with the aforementioned standards," he said.
In the aftermath of Muammar Qaddafi's fall in October 2011, various factions and competing militias, some with Al Qaeda-affiliated support, flowed into the region. More than 16,000 criminals were released by former regime officials. Compounding the problem of transition was Libya's massive weapon stockpiles which includes shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles known as MANPADS and SA-7s.
But the pressure to declare a diplomatic victory in Libya was apparently on. In November 2011, Clinton was quick to announce that the U.S. committed $40 million to help Libya secure and recover its weapons stockpiles. But as Fox News reported last fall, Stevens may have been in Benghazi that Sept. 11 as part of his efforts to facilitate a weapons transfer to help get SA-7 missiles out of the hands of Libya-based extremists.
Recent congressional testimony has now drawn a direct link between the decision to keep the Benghazi post open and Clinton's expedited policy goals in eastern Libya. Before the House oversight committee on May 8, Stevens' deputy Greg Hicks relayed a conversation with his boss, stating for the first time that Clinton's personal goal was to establish a permanent presence in Benghazi. Despite the Dec. 27 memo referring to "budget constraints and the reduced footprint," the pressure was on to embrace a new transitional government.
"According to Chris, Secretary Clinton wanted Benghazi converted into a permanent constituent post. Timing for this decision was important. Chris needed to report before September 30th, the end of the fiscal year, on the physical -- the political and security environment in Benghazi to support a -- an action memo to convert Benghazi from a temporary facility to a permanent facility," Hicks said.
Nordstrom added in his written testimony that the Benghazi compound was one of the rare locations with "high and critical threats in all categories" at the time of the terrorist attack. Carjackings, bombings and kidnappings were on the rise in the region and duly noted in official reports.
Asked if the information about Clinton and her policy goals were shared with the State Department investigation known as the Accountability Review Board, or ARB, Hicks testified that ARB co-chair Ambassador Thomas Pickering was told and seemed shocked by the revelation.
"I did tell the Accountability Review Board that Secretary Clinton wanted the post made permanent. Ambassador Pickering looked surprised. He looked both ways on the -- to the members of the board, saying, 'Does the 7th floor know about this?'"
The "7th floor" is a reference to the State Department executive floor where senior leadership, including Clinton, have their offices. Critics of the ARB report continue to criticize Pickering for failing to interview Clinton as part of the investigation. Pickering has said he got everything he needed from other witnesses.
Asked whether Kennedy signed off on State Department policy unilaterally, or whether he consulted senior leadership, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki downplayed the importance of the memo, stating Fox News' policy question was dealt with during a hearing before the House oversight committee last fall.
"Let me just say on this particular memo, it's been available to the House of Representatives since October. It was discussed in October in a hearing on the House side and in many, many, many briefings. It was even posted -- this sensitive document was posted on the website as well," Psaki said.
Asked whether Kennedy had the authorization to sign off on a continued presence, Psaki said Kennedy had spoken at length to the Accountability Review Board, adding "I don't know that we have a new update today."
Asked if there was a separate memo designating the Benghazi operation a "special mission compound," which would appear to exempt the operation from State Department physical security requirements, Psaki said she would get back to Fox News. "I will look into that and see if there's anything more to add."
However, a review of the Oct. 10 House oversight hearing where Kennedy testified, a briefing by Kennedy at the State Department after the hearing, and the Accountability Review Board report show that the question was not addressed.
When Fox News followed up a second time, there was no response from the State Department's Jen Psaki. Congressional investigators have complained that blame was not properly affixed in the ARB, and Kennedy specifically escaped blame.
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.