Report: White House, State Dept Failed to Recognize Security Situation in Benghazi

Report finds military left inadequately prepared to respond to terror attacks

Charred vehicle at the entrance of the U.S. Conulate, in Benghazi, Libya / AP
February 11, 2014

The White House and State Department failed to recognize the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Benghazi, Libya, and left the military inadequately prepared to respond to the terrorist attacks there, according to a new report.

Lawmakers continue to review the actions of U.S. officials regarding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

The Senate Intelligence Committee found in a bipartisan report released last month that the "attacks were preventable." It faulted both the State Department and intelligence community for not increasing security at the diplomatic facility and sharing information about a nearby CIA annex.

A report released Tuesday by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) focused on the Department of Defense’s (DOD) response to the Benghazi attacks.

While the report noted that military commanders could have taken more steps to prepare for an extended operation during the attacks, the authors largely determined that White House officials "failed to comprehend or ignored the dramatically deteriorating security situation in Libya" and did not "direct a change in military force posture."

The interim government that took control after strongman Muammar Gaddafi was deposed in October 2011 struggled to curtail violent infighting among militia groups, the report said.

British and United Nations diplomats were attacked—prompting the United Kingdom to close its diplomatic mission in June 2012. Additionally, the U.S. intelligence community circulated "hundreds" of reports in the months before the Sept. 11 attacks warning that militias and al Qaeda-linked groups could strike U.S. facilities.

A White House press statement said on Sept. 10, 2012, that President Barack Obama met with his national security staff and discussed their review of the U.S. security posture ahead of the 11th anniversary of the 2001 attacks.

However, the HASC report said "this description may have overstated the extent of the White House involvement and the rigor of its posture analysis."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the committee that neither he nor then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered specialized military units to shorten their potential response times after the security review by White House staff.

Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, at the time of the attacks, also told the committee that he felt the weakening Libyan government "created opportunities for al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations to, in some cases, reinsert themselves or operatives into Libya."

Actions by the Obama administration did not appear to address the security concerns of military officials, the report said.

"Administration decision makers were apparently reluctant to discuss publicly the deteriorating security situation in Libya or make changes in the U.S. diplomatic presence or military force posture that might have mitigated the dangers there," the report said.

Additional U.S. military forces were dispatched to Yemen per a State Department request before Sept. 11—a "stark contrast" to "the inaction in Libya," the report added.

Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the White House’s National Security Council (NSC), said in an email that the administration’s focus is on apprehending the perpetrators of the attacks and improving security at overseas facilities.

"As we have said many times now, what happened in Benghazi was a tragedy—not a political issue," she said. "We must continually strive to improve our security and respond to evolving threats, by upgrading our facilities, building new embassies, and enhancing our security training. We welcome Congress’ assistance in that effort."

The HASC report questioned why the State Department in August 2012 requested a reduction in the Site Security Team (SST), a Special Forces unit, at the embassy in Tripoli from 16 to four members.

Ham told the committee that the Africa Command "did not receive any direction to provide U.S. military forces to augment security for U.S. personnel in Libya" despite the worsening security conditions.

"Rather than continuing to assign a Site Security Team indefinitely, DOD believed that the State Department would beef up its own diplomatic security forces, request the assignment of a Marine security guard detachment, or work with DOD to develop some other long-term solution," the report said.

A State Department official told the Washington Free Beacon on background that the SST in Tripoli was based "600 miles from Benghazi" and that its "mission was not to provide personal security for the ambassador."

The official noted that a six-member response team, including DOD personnel, did deploy from Tripoli to Benghazi after the initial attacks occurred.

Another finding of the HASC report was that defense officials almost immediately believed the attacks were committed by terrorists. Their testimony conflicts with claims by administration officials days after the attacks that they were a "spontaneous" response to an anti-Muslim video.

Ham told the committee that "it started to become pretty clear that this was certainly a terrorist attack" after he learned about the attackers’ use of rocket-propelled grenades and targeted small arms fire.

The report said DOD is working to correct weaknesses revealed by the Benghazi attacks but expressed concerns about more than $800 billion in defense cuts in the last four years.