Libyan Guards May Have Faltered At U.S. Consulate

Sep 13, 2012
Originally published on September 13, 2012 11:19 pm
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From that same reporter in Benghazi, we also heard that Libyans are blaming their government for failing to control the spread of weapons after the civil war and for failing to protect the U.S. consulate. Here in the U.S., there are also questions about whether the State Department could have done more to defend its diplomats in Libya. NPR's Tom Bowman has that story.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Here's what officials say happened. The shooting started around 10:00 at night in Benghazi. Dozens of men armed with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades assaulted the American consulate in what U.S. officials say was a coordinated attack. They quickly overran the Libyan guard force. The American security team retreated to an annex building.

In the chaos, they lost touch with the ambassador. Finally, hours later, both the Libyans and the American security forces beat back the attack, which raises the question, could the consulate have been better protected? Fred Burton is a former special agent for the State Department's diplomatic security service, which protects diplomats abroad. He's investigated such attacks and he places much of the blame on the Libyan government.

FRED BURTON: What I see is a complete breakdown of post-government protective responsibility.

BOWMAN: That means a local government must provide the right number of competent guards to protect any foreign embassy or consulate.

BURTON: It's the Libyan government's responsibility to prevent those folks from coming over the walls or firing RPGs into a motorcade or setting the buildings on fire.

BOWMAN: Should the American diplomatic security folks have seen the lax security from the host government and said, well, either you beef up security or we'll beef it up?

BURTON: That's absolutely correct. The responsibility of the diplomatic security service senior agent at post to say, look, these folks just are not up to speed. We need to start looking at other alternatives.

BOWMAN: The Libya's deputy interior minister defended his government's response. Wanis al-Sharif said the Libyan government advised the Americans to either pull out its personnel from Benghazi or increase security. For months in Benghazi, there have been attacks against American, British and Egyptian diplomats with rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs.

State department spokesman Victoria Nuland dismissed the notion there was lax security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. There was a Libyan guard force, a perimeter wall around the compound.

VICTORIA NULAND: And then there was a robust American security presence inside the compound. This is absolutely consistent with what we have done at a number of missions similar to Benghazi around the world.

BOWMAN: Nuland wouldn't define a robust security presence because she didn't want to reveal defense procedures and she wouldn't say whether the U.S. requested more Libyan guards prior to the attack. Could the State Department have sent in more American security personnel? Possibly, but the diplomatic security service has about 2,000 guards to cover all consulates and embassies worldwide. Again, Fred Burton.

BURTON: You're usually dealing with a lack of resources, unless you're in a host like Iraq or Afghanistan, where they've allocated adequate headcount from the get-go.

BOWMAN: Questions about responsibility and missteps and the right number of security forces will all be reviewed by the State Department. Under law, the department must review any security incident where a diplomat is killed or wounded. That typically takes anywhere from three to six months. In the meantime, more American security forces are being sent to Libya, but not from the State Department. Fifty Marines arrived yesterday to guard the embassy at Tripoli.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.