WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - The former head of a 16-member U.S. military team in Libya said Wednesday that the attack in Benghazi was "instantly recognizable" to him as a terrorist attack.
Lt. Col, Andrew Wood, a former special forces soldier who commanded the Site Security Team in Libya from Feb. 12 to Aug. 14, said the embassy and consulate endured "numerous" security incidents. The Libya government had lost control of weapons, he said.
"Lawless situation was pretty much the norm," he said. "We did notice an increase in targeted attacks toward Americans," that signaled to him that the security situation was far from secure.
Twice, he said, anti-western militants attacked the Red Cross building there. Eventually the Red Cross and the British moved their personnel out of Benghazi.
"When that occurred, it was apparent to me we were the last flag flying in Benghazi. We were the last target on their list," Wood said.
Wood testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In prepared statements he said the consulate in Benghazi, where U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, never had the forces it needed to protect itself.
He said that U.S. security was so weak that in April, only one U.S. diplomatic security agent was stationed in Benghazi.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and party members of Congress have increasingly sharpened their criticism of the Democratic administration's initial explanation of the attack. They said they never accepted the original explanation.
The committee hearing followed assertions Tuesday night by the State Department that it never concluded that the Sept. 11 attack stemmed from protests over an American-made video ridiculing Islam.
Asked about the administration's initial - and since retracted - explanation linking the violence to protests over the anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet, one official said, "That was not our conclusion."
He called it a question for "others" to answer, without specifying. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter, and provided no evidence that might suggest a case of spontaneous violence or angry protests that went too far.
It was a top administration diplomatic official who is part of the State Department - U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice - who gave a series of interviews five days after the attack that wrongly described the attack as spontaneous.
She said the administration believed the violence was unplanned and that extremists with heavier weapons "hijacked" the protest against the anti-Islamic video. She did qualify her remarks to say that was the best information she had at the time. Rice since has denied trying to mislead Congress.
In statements immediately after the attack, neither President Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned terrorism. And both gave credence to the notion that the attack was related to protests about the anti-Islam video.
"Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," Clinton said on the night of the attack. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."
Wood said in his prepared statement, "The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there.""The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there," he said in his prepared, written testimony. "The RSO (regional security officer) struggled to obtain additional personnel there but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with," Wood added.
The committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, has alleged that the State Department turned aside pleas from its diplomats in Libya to increase security in the months and weeks before the attack in Benghazi.
Eric Nordstrom, the former chief security officer for U.S. diplomats in Libya, testified Wednesday that it was clear when he arrived in Libya that the transitional government was too weak and fragmented to provide consistent diplomatic security. The State Department, he said, recognized this weakness.
"Libyans wanted to help, but they had very limited capabilities to do so," Nordstrom said.
Nordstrom earlier told the committee that his pleas for more security were ignored.
Nordstrom addressed the diplomatic security issue in an Oct. 1 email to a congressional investigator. He said his requests for more security were blocked by a department policy to "normalize operations and reduce security resources."
A memo Tuesday by the Oversight Committee's Democratic staff provided details of Nordstrom's interview with the panel's investigators. In that interview, Nordstrom said he sent two cables to State Department headquarters in March 2012 and July 2012 requesting additional diplomatic security agents for Benghazi, but he received no responses.
He stated that Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for international programs, wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi artificially low. He said Lamb believed the Benghazi facilities did not need any diplomatic security special agents because there was a residential safe haven to fall back to in an emergency.
At Wednesday's hearing Nordstrom said that in Benghazi, a militia loyal to the Libyan government, the 17th February Brigade, provided diplomatic security and lived on the compound. Diplomatic Security agents rotated into Libya on temporary duty, making it difficult to set long-term procedures and forge relationships, he said.
"Our confidence in 17th February Brigade was reaffirmed by their performance in response to a series of incidents" at the Benghazi consulate, he said. "While I'd love to have had a large secured building and tons of security personnel in Benghazi, the fact is that the system we had in place was regularly tested and appeared to work as planned despite high turnover" of diplomatic security agents on the ground.
Nordstrom testified that the "ferocity and intensity" of the Sept. 11 attack surpassed any he had seen in Libya and in his 14 years in the Diplomatic Security Service.
"I'm concern that this attack will signal a new security reality," he said. "It is critical that we balance the risk mitigation with the needs of our diplomats to do their job in dangerous and uncertain places. The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker."
In a cable sent from the embassy in Tripoli in March, Nordstrom said his responsibilities for security had increased as relations between Libya and the U.S. normalized. He asked for more permanently assigned security officers and an increase in the number of temporary personnel who rotate into the country.
He said he requested 12 temporary agents for 45 to 60 day rotations in Tripoli, and five temporary agents for 45 to 60 day rotations in Benghazi.
"Post is extremely grateful for the extraordinary support provided by (Diplomatic Security) as we transition to normalized security operations," he wrote.
He noted that the transitional government then in place had made some efforts to demobilize the independently operating militias that the "security environment remains uncertain and unstable."
Anti-government revolts in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere have left weakened governments and turmoil in their wakes, providing an opening for radical Islamist groups, said James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation.
"Unfortunately one of the bitter fruits of the so-called Arab spring is the space offered to al-Qaeda and other radical Islamist extremists to exploit the breakdown of authority," Phillips said.
While the administration has portrayed al-Qaeda as on its heels, al-Qaeda is growing in strength in North Africa and Yemen, he says.
"It will take time to create stable, representative governments, but until the governments can consolidate control over their territory Islamist extremists will have room to maneuver," Phillips said.
He said the Obama administration needs to be more realistic about the threat al-Qaeda poses and use financial and other aid as a leverage to get Arab governments to assist the United States in combating al-Qaeda.
Daniel Serwer, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a think tank, says
Libya is not a breeding ground for al-Qaeda.
He says what is happening is that there are radical groups in the country able to exploit the lack of law and order, and points out that the Islamists did poorly in elections in Libya.
"To say al-Qaeda is strong in Libya gives a false impression," Serwer said.
However, various radical groups are able to exploit the power vacuum.
"Without a proper law enforcement authority it becomes very difficult to keep tabs and control these guys," Serwer said.
Serwer said the administration is on the right track by supporting efforts to promote democracy in Libya and the establishment of law enforcement.