By Nancy A. Youssef McClatchy Foreign Staff
CAIRO — In the month before attackers stormed U.S. facilities in Benghazi and killed four Americans, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens twice turned down offers of security assistance made by the senior U.S. military official in the region in response to concerns that Stevens had raised in a still-secret memorandum, two government officials told McClatchy.
Why Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation in the first of two attacks that took place late Sept. 11 and early Sept. 12, 2012, would turn down the offers remains unclear. The deteriorating security situation in Benghazi had been the subject of a meeting that embassy officials held Aug. 15, where they concluded they could not defend the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The next day, the embassy drafted a cable outlining the dire circumstances and saying it would spell out what it needed in a separate cable.
“In light of the uncertain security environment, US Mission Benghazi will submit specific requests to US Embassy Tripoli for additional physical security upgrades and staffing needs by separate cover,” said the cable, which was first reported by Fox News.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, then the head of the U.S. Africa Command, did not wait for the separate cable, however. Instead, after reading the Aug. 16 cable, Ham phoned Stevens and asked if the embassy needed a special security team from the U.S. military. Stevens told Ham it did not, the officials said.
Weeks later, Stevens traveled to Germany for an already-scheduled meeting with Ham at AFRICOM headquarters. During that meeting, Ham again offered additional military assets, and Stevens again said no, the two officials said.
“He didn’t say why. He just turned it down,” a defense official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, told McClatchy.
The offers of aid and Stevens’ rejection of them have not been revealed in either the State Department’s Accountability Review Board investigation of the Benghazi events or during any of the congressional hearings and reports that have been issued into what took place there.
Stevens’ deputy, Gregory Hicks, who might be expected to be aware of the ambassador’s exchange with military leaders, was not asked about the offer of additional assistance during his appearance before a House of Representatives committee last week, and testimony has not been sought from Ham, who is now retired.
Both Hicks and Ham declined to comment on the exchange between Ham and Stevens. Hicks’ lawyer, Victoria Toensing, said Hicks did not know the details of conversations between Stevens and Ham and was not aware of Stevens turning down an offer of additional security.
“As far as Mr. Hicks knows, the ambassador always wanted more security and they were both frustrated by not getting it,” she said.
Some Republican lawmakers expressed surprise when told that Stevens had turned down such an offer.
“That is odd to me because Stevens requested from the State Department additional security four times, and there was an 18-person special forces security team headed by Lt. Col. Wood that Gen. Ham signed off on that the State Department said no to,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been among the most vocal critics of the Obama administration on Benghazi. “The records are very clear that people on the ground in Libya made numerous requests for additional security that were either denied or only partially granted.”
But a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, indicated that some lawmakers may have been aware of Stevens’ exchange with Ham.
“Decisions conveyed by Ambassador Stevens were made on behalf of the U.S. State Department,” the spokesman, Frederick Hill, said in an email. “There were certainly robust debates between State and Defense officials over the mission and controlling authority of such forces. The lack of discussion by the public (Accountability Review Board) report about the role interagency tension played in a lack of security resources remains a significant concern of the Oversight Committee.”
One person familiar with the events said Stevens might have rejected the offers because there was an understanding within the State Department that officials in Libya ought not to request more security, in part because of concerns about the political fallout of seeking a larger military presence in a country that was still being touted as a foreign policy success.
“The embassy was told through back channels to not make direct requests for security,” an official familiar with the case, who agreed to discuss the case only anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject, told McClatchy.
Still, the offer from Ham provided Stevens with a chance to plead for more assistance, an opportunity he apparently did not seize.
Congressional hearings into the Benghazi attacks – there were in fact two, one on a compound often referred to as the consulate, where Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith died, and a second hours later on a nearby CIA annex, where two security contractors, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed – have focused primarily on the events during the night of the attacks and subsequent statements by Obama administration officials.
There have been fewer questions, however, about the months leading up to the attack and how the State Department, the CIA and defense officials addressed a growing security problem. Among the questions that have not been probed is why the Benghazi mission, with its large CIA contingent, remained open when other Western countries, most notably Great Britain, had pulled out of Benghazi in the weeks preceding the attacks because of security concerns.
Officials have publicly referred to Ham’s phone call before. In his Feb. 7 testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was aware of the Aug. 16 cable and that someone had turned down Ham’s offer.
Referring to the cable, Dempsey said: “I was aware of it, because it came in, in Gen. Ham’s report. Gen. Ham actually called the embassy to, to see if they wanted to extend the special security team there and was said – and was told no.”
Dempsey said the State Department never requested more from the military.
“We never received a request for support from the State Department, which would have allowed us to put forces on the ground,” Dempsey told the committee.
The Aug. 16 cable remains classified. But Fox News has quoted liberally from it, reporting that State Department officials convened a meeting a day earlier to discuss security, which the cable described as “trending negatively.”
“RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound,” the cable said, according to Fox News.
The Accountability Review Board investigation, commissioned by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and released in December, placed blame for the Benghazi attack in large part on the State Department for not answering repeated calls for more security.
But the report also is peppered with references to Stevens and how well the embassy made the case to Washington for more security. In a news conference at the time of the release of the board’s finding, Adm. Mike Mullen, one of the board’s two chairmen and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, referred to the failing of the embassy.
“As the chief of mission, he certainly had a responsibility in that regard, and actually he was very security conscious and increasingly concerned about security,” Mullen said. “But part of his responsibility is certainly to make that case back here, and he had not gotten to that point where you would, you might get to a point where you would be considering, ‘It’s so dangerous, we might close the mission.’ “
The embassy Stevens oversaw in Tripoli “did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security” in Benghazi, the report stated.
Traditionally, State Department officials have depended on the State Department’s own Diplomatic Security Service, local police and military forces and security contractors to secure embassies around the world. U.S. military personnel at embassies consist usually of Marines whose job it is to guard the perimeter of a compound and to protect classified documents and equipment inside. It is rare that U.S. forces would be called upon to guard embassy personnel traveling outside embassy grounds.
Any increase in U.S. military force would have required State Department approval. It’s unknown if Stevens might have passed on Ham’s offer and been turned down, or whether he believed that the security team Ham offered would not provide the kind of security he needed.
Officials familiar with the exchanges between Ham and Stevens said they did not know whether Ham offered any other support than the security team.
“It was a brief conversation,” the defense official said.