Around the Region

Flashing red: The bottom line in Benghazi

By U.S. Sen. Susan Collins

Susan Collins    While our country spent September 11, 2012, remembering the terrorist attacks that took place eleven years earlier here at home, brave Americans posted at U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya were fighting for their lives against a terrorist assault. When the fight ended, four patriotic Americans, including our Ambassador, were dead. While we mourn their deaths, it is also crucial that we examine the circumstances of the attack in Benghazi.

    As leaders of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) and I recently released the findings of our bipartisan report on the terrorist attack in Benghazi, which has also been shared with the administration.

    First, our report finds the threat level was “flashing red” in Libya, and Benghazi particularly, as Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy told us. The thousands of pages of classified and unclassified documents we reviewed and interviews we conducted depict a rising crescendo of evidence from both the intelligence community and State Department personnel on the ground saying, effectively, “This place is dangerous, and we’re not adequately protected.”

    Second, the terrorists essentially walked into the compound unimpeded and set it ablaze due to the extremely poor security. This stark reality shaped our investigation as we sought to understand how each layer of security typical at diplomatic posts around the world broke down so completely and quickly in Benghazi. The closed-circuit television video of the attack, which shows this failure in real time, should be released to the public because it will make clear how unprepared the State Department was for this attack.

    Tragically, the reaction to the flashing red indicators in a city awash with dangerous weapons and extremists was woefully inadequate to address the clear and present danger there. There was an unjustified trust that the Libyan government — which is friendly to the United States – would protect our diplomats according to longstanding international law, despite clear indications that the government did not have the capacity to do so. The replacements — a local security guard company and a hired militia — also had questionable loyalties.

    Meanwhile, State Department personnel in Washington either ignored or responded incompletely to repeated pleas for more security from those on the ground in Libya. Physical barriers that could have slowed attackers and given our personnel time to prepare were not in place despite previous recommendations for their installation at high-threat posts following a 2004 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Saudi Arabia that left six dead. Installing these barriers and accompanying gear costs $55,000 or less on average according to the State Department Inspector General. Further, after failing to fill the security vacuum left by the absence of host nation security, State Department officials neglected to make the one decision that remained: to temporarily close the Benghazi facility until security could be implemented to protect the Americans assigned there.

    Third, what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. This fact was clear to the intelligence community and to key State Department personnel almost immediately after the attack. Nevertheless, unclear and contradictory statements made by some Administration officials contributed to the unnecessary confusion about what happened.

    Americans should know that they have a very devoted and brave corps of diplomats in the nation’s Foreign Service. We were struck and humbled by the willingness of our Foreign Service officers to assume the risks associated with representing our country, our values, and our interests around the world, including in very dangerous locations.

    Nevertheless, we feel an equally strong obligation to ensure that demonstrations of such courage are reserved for truly unanticipated circumstances, rather than circumstances in which the danger was evident and reasonable, time-tested security precautions are simply absent.

    Forty-five years ago, a mob attacked a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi after rumors spread that the U.S. military was bombing Cairo, Egypt. Armed U.S. military personnel fought off the attackers with tear gas and hand-to-hand combat while diplomats took refuge in a vault. The chief concern on the mind of the principal diplomatic officer, John Korman, was that the attackers would find the gasoline on site and burn the building and all its occupants. Though the attackers lit the building on fire, they did not use gasoline, and the Americans were finally rescued by the British. After the 10-hour attack, Mr. Korman was able to come to the aid of two Americans stranded in the city. He later described how moved he was when he arrived at the location of an American woman and her child: “Addressing me by my surname in the candlelight, she said, ‘Thank God, I knew you’d come. … Her words were as fine a commentary as I have ever heard on the faith our citizens place in their Foreign Service.”

    In 2012, in the same city, when armed attackers stormed the U.S. facility on the anniversary of 9/11, there were no troops, no tear gas to fend off the attackers, and the British had already left after their ambassador survived an assassination attempt. Unfortunately, this time, the attackers found and used fuel to create a deadly fire. With insufficient security in place, the American diplomats in Libya were left to fend for themselves. Why were we so unprepared to respond to such a crisis?

    We hope our report helps answer that question and assists the administration and Congress in working together to bring about needed reforms and prevent future attacks on our diplomatic facilities from resulting in the same tragic outcome. We expect the State Department to carefully review our report and consider whether other officials need to be held accountable. But the real accountability, of course, will be for the administration and Congress to make sure that when another diplomatic post of the United States is in a location that is flashing red, as Benghazi was on September 11, 2012, that something is done about it.

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.