Published December 23, 2015
Across 166 pages of internal State Department documents -- released Friday by a pair of Republican congressmen pressing the Obama administration for more answers on the Benghazi terrorist attack -- slain U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and the security officers assigned to protect him repeatedly sounded alarms to their superiors in Washington about the intensifying lawlessness and violence in Eastern Libya, where Stevens ultimately died.
On Sept. 11 -- the day Stevens and three other Americans were killed -- the ambassador signed a three-page cable, labeled "sensitive," in which he noted "growing problems with security" in Benghazi and "growing frustration" on the part of local residents with Libyan police and security forces. These forces the ambassador characterized as "too weak to keep the country secure."
In the document, Stevens also cited a meeting he had held two days earlier with local militia commanders. These men boasted to Stevens of exercising "control" over the Libyan Armed Forces, and threatened that if the U.S.-backed candidate for prime minister were to prevail in Libya's internal political jockeying, "they would not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi."
Roughly a month earlier, Stevens had signed a two-page cable, also labeled "sensitive," that he entitled "The Guns of August: Security in Eastern Libya." Writing on Aug. 8, the ambassador noted that in just a few months' time, "Benghazi has moved from trepidation to euphoria and back as a series of violent incidents has dominated the political landscape." He added, "The individual incidents have been organized," a function of "the security vacuum that a diverse group of independent actors are exploiting for their own purposes."
"Islamist extremists are able to attack the Red Cross with relative impunity," Stevens cabled. "What we have seen are not random crimes of opportunity, but rather targeted and discriminate attacks." His final comment on the two-page document was: "Attackers are unlikely to be deterred until authorities are at least as capable."
By Sept. 4, Stevens' aides were reporting back to Washington on the "strong Revolutionary and Islamist sentiment" in the city.
Scarcely more than two months had passed since Stevens had notified the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and other agencies about a "recent increase in violent incidents," including "attacks against western interests." "Until the GOL (Government of Libya) is able to effectively deal with these key issues," Stevens wrote on June 25, "the violence is likely to continue and worsen."
After the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi had been damaged by an improvised explosive device, earlier that month, Stevens had reported to his superiors that an Islamist group had claimed credit for the attack, and in so doing, had "described the attack as targeting the Christians supervising the management of the consulate."
"Islamic extremism appears to be on the rise in eastern Libya," the ambassador wrote, adding that "the Al-Qaeda flag has been spotted several times flying over government buildings and training facilities ..."
The documents also contain evidence that the State Department's denials of requests for enhanced security in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack may have contributed to the ability of the attackers to plan their assault on the consulate and annex grounds without being detected.
"I've been placed in a very difficult spot," said Eric A. Nordstrom, the regional security officer who testified before a House hearing last week, in a Feb. 12 email to a colleague, "when the ambassador (Gene Cretz, at that time) that I need to support Benghazi but can't direct MSD (a mobile security detachment) there and been advised that DS (Diplomatic Security) isn't going to provide more than 3 agents over the long term."
"DS is hesitant to devout (sic) resources and as I indicated previously, this has severely hampered operations in Benghazi," wrote Karen Keshap, a State Department manager, to main State in Washington the day before. "That often means that DS agents are there guarding a compound with 2 other DOS (Department of State) personnel present. That often also means that outreach and reporting is non-existent."
Earlier that day, Feb. 11, a colleague of Keshap's, Shawn P. Crowley, had apologized to her and other officials in an email for "being a broken record" on the subject of inadequate security in Benghazi. Crowley added: "(T)omorrow Benghazi will be down to two (DS) agents. ... This will leave us unable to do any outreach to Libyan nationals ... and we will be extremely limited in the ability to obtain any useful information for reporting."
These exchanges followed a dire report to top DS officials a few days earlier from Nordstom. In a Feb. 1 memorandum, the officer warned that "Al-Qaida affiliated groups, including Al-Qaida In the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), and other violent extremist groups are likely to take advantage of the ongoing political turmoil in Libya. The U.S. Government remains concerned that such individuals and groups ... may use Libya as a platform from which to conduct attacks in the region."
By Feb. 20, Nordstrom was noting the easy access that neighborhood militias enjoyed to "military grade weapons, such as RPGs and vehicle mounted, crew-served machine guns or AA weapons (23mm)," as well as "AK-47s, heavy weapons, and vehicle mounted weapons."
In the days leading up to Sept. 11, warnings came even from people outside the State Department. A Libyan women's rights activist, Wafa Bugaighis, confided to the Americans in Benghazi in mid-August: "For the first time since the revolution, I am scared."
The documents were released by two lawmakers who have been active in probing the Benghazi case, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. In a letter to President Obama, dated Oct. 19 and accompanied by the documents, the lawmakers faulted the administration both for providing inadequate security before Sept. 11, and for allegedly obfuscating the nature of the events on Sept. 11.
"Multiple warnings about security threats were contained in Ambassador Stevens' own words in multiple cables sent to Washington, D.C., and were manifested by two prior bombings of the Benghazi compound and an assassination attempt on the British ambassador," the congressmen wrote. "For this administration to assume that terrorists were not involved in the 9/11 anniversary attack would have required a willing suspension of disbelief."
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, in response to the latest documents: "An independent board is conducting a thorough review of the assault on our post in Benghazi. Once we have the board's comprehensive account of what happened, findings and recommendations, we can fully address these matters."
At the State Department briefing Friday, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland declined to comment on published reports alleging that an official working for the Central Intelligence Agency had informed the Obama administration on Sept. 12 that the Benghazi murders were an act of terrorism.