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Several agents tasked with defending murdered United States Ambassador Christopher Stevens left his side to retrieve their weapons and armor as the U.S. consulate in Libya came under attack by heavily armed militants, according to testimony provided by State Department officials Wednesday during an often tense congressional hearing on the attack.
As one of five diplomatic security agents attempted to secure Stevens and another official during the attack, “The other agents retrieved their M4 submachine guns and other tactical gear from” a separate building, Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary of state for international programs, testified before the House Oversight Committee.
Less than two hours after the attacks began, the agents and supplemental Libyan security personnel evacuated the embassy without locating Stevens, who had gone missing after terrorists set fire to the building where he was located, Lamb testified.
The attack began at 9:40 p.m., but by “11 p.m., members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site,” stated Lamb, who is responsible for security at more than 275 diplomatic facilities across the globe. “The agents made a final search for the Ambassador before leaving in an armored vehicle.”
With lawmakers and the country asking for answers about how Stevens and three other Americans were murdered, Lamb and other officials offered the first public account of the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2012.
During an often tense back and forth between lawmakers and State Department officials, Lamb admitted that only one agent defended Stevens as the siege turned violent.
Three additional agents, she said, attempted to locate Stevens after retrieving their weapons and evading militants.
“Three agents regrouped, made their way to a nearby armored vehicle, and then drove over to assist the agent on the roof and to search for the ambassador and Mr. Smith,” recounted Lamb, who later admitted that she had never travelled to Libya. “Despite thick smoke, the agents entered the building multiple times trying to locate the ambassador and Mr. Smith.”
“After numerous attempts, they found Sean Smith and, with the assistance of a member of the U.S. quick reaction security team, removed him from the building,” she continued. “Unfortunately, he was already deceased. They still could not find the Ambassador.”
Security personnel finally returned to the compound “in the early morning,” and again faced mortar fire.
“It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded,” Lamb said. “A large number of Libyan government security officers subsequently arrived in more than 50 vehicles and escorted the remaining Americans to the airport. While still at the airport, we were able to confirm reports that the Ambassador’s body was at the Benghazi General Hospital.”
Other officials who testified during the hearing included the State Department’s undersecretary for management, Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, as well as Eric Nordstrom, a Regional Security Officer at the State Department.
During a contentious question-and-answer session with Lamb and the other officials, lawmakers questioned why additional security personnel were not sent to the embassy despite Washington’s knowledge of various threats against Stevens.
Asked if Stevens has requested additional security as a leaked diplomatic cable had revealed, Lamb replied: “We had the correct number of [security] assets in Benghazi on the night of 9/11.”
“That doesn’t ring true to the American people,” replied Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif), chair of the Oversight Committee.
Lamb revealed that State Department officials closely evaluated the request for increased personnel.
“We’ve evaluated it, I evaluated it with Eric Nordstrom and a senior [regional security officer],” Lamb said. “I asked them to do a serious assessment of the number needed there.”
Kennedy stated that “any career official” would have claimed that it was spontaneous and the result of an anti-Islam video.
While this narrative was quickly proven false, Kennedy maintained that it was the proper course of action for the Obama administration.
“If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, Sept.16, they would have said what Ambassador [Susan] Rice said,” Kennedy stated, referring to an interview in which Rice claimed the attack was “spontaneous.”
“The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” Kennedy said. ”As time went on, additional information became available.”
Kennedy defended the administration’s security decisions in the lead up to the attacks.
“Our facilities must be protected, but not all are fortresses,” he said in his testimony. “I want to be clear: The Department of State regularly assesses risk and allocation of resources for security; a process which involves the considered judgments of experienced professionals on the ground and in Washington, using the best information available.”
Republican lawmakers bristled when confronted with the officials’ answers.
“With more assets, more resources … we could have, should have saved the life of Ambassador Stevens,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah). “How can they justify this video caused this attack? This was a terrorist attack. Let’s be honest about it.”
“The overall level of security did not meet the threat existent or the standards” under any “reasonable [threat] assessment” for a facility in an unstable local, Issa said.
Andrew Wood, a former Site Security Team (SST) Commander in Libya, agreed that the State Department’s security measures were inadequate.
“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there,” he said in his testimony. “The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak.”
In April of this year “there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there,” he added. “The RSO struggled to obtain additional personnel there but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with.”