WASHINGTON — The State Department took nearly three weeks to formally request U.S. military protection for FBI agents assigned to investigate the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the U.S. ambassador to that country and three other Americans, according to a senior U.S. official and a person familiar with the matter.
A State Department spokesman denied that the request took that long, but the fact that the FBI team arrived only Thursday in Libyas second largest city while journalists have been there since the day after the assault has added to what lawmakers and others criticize as a disorganized response by the Obama administration to the deterioration of security there.
U.S. officials apparently took few steps to fortify the Benghazi consulate, despite growing signs that the city had become a dangerous place. The consulate was the target of a bomb in June, and Great Britain and the International Committee of the Red Cross withdrew their representatives from the city over the summer after they were targeted in separate incidents. After the Sept. 11 attack, the Obama administration offered a version of what took place that was sharply at odds with that offered by the Libyan government and witnesses to the attack.
Benghazi remains perilous. The Islamist militants blamed in the attack have returned to the city after being driven out by tens of thousands of demonstrators in the days after the consulate assault, and they have attacked police and soldiers in recent days.
The senior U.S. official said that U.S. military assets were moved into the Libya region very soon after the attack to support whatever other U.S. agency sought assistance, but the State Department didnt make its request to the Pentagon for protection for the FBI investigators until recently.
Those assets included two U.S. destroyers and U.S. troops with Operation Juniper Spear, a counterterrorism effort against al Qaida in the Maghreb, or AQIM, according to the person familiar with the matter. AQIM is an al Qaida affiliate that has seized control of the northern half of Mali and is branching out into other parts of North Africa.
The senior U.S. official and the person familiar with the matter requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue and the frictions that it has created between the State and Defense departments.
Some 120 assailants firing assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the consulate on the evening of Sept. 11 and then attacked a consulate annex where 25 to 30 U.S. personnel had taken refuge. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and Sean Smith, a State Department computer specialist, died from smoke inhalation in the consulates main building, which the attackers had set on fire. Two U.S. security contractors, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were shot and killed when the annex, where the local office of the CIA was based, came under attack.
Stevens death marked the first slaying of a U.S. ambassador since 1979.
FBI agents assigned to investigate the killings were under temporary duty mission, meaning that they are under the authority of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland refused to discuss the FBI investigation on Thursday, though she acknowledged problems, particularly in securing the buildings. Reporters for various news agencies have been able to visit the abandoned mission, where they have examined sensitive, though not classified, documents that remain strewn throughout the buildings.
We have had some challenges securing the site, Nuland said. We are continuing to talk to the Libyan side about that.
It was unclear how long the FBI agents would remain in Benghazi after their arrival Thursday 23 days after the attack or how freely they will be allowed to pursue the investigation.
In the days after the attack, Benghazi residents rose up in anger against suspected Islamist militants suspected in the attack, but the citys respite from their influence was short-lived.
A week ago, a police station near Benghazis Al Jalaa hospital was attacked by a mob of supporters of the principle group blamed in the consulate attack, Ansar al Shariah. The attackers threw grenades at the police station and sprayed gunfire at four police vehicles. Two of the gunmen were allegedly wearing suicide bomb vests.
On Tuesday, six police officers were injured during several attacks, although the exact details remain sketchy. Two other policemen from the Gar Younis police station were injured when a bomb was thrown at the station.
Another four police officers were reported to have been wounded in two separate attacks near a childrens hospital the same day. In a separate incident, two military personnel were wounded in an explosion from a rocket-propelled grenade shortly after midnight Tuesday, one seriously. A grenade attack against a police checkpoint took place several hours later.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said that the U.S. military had provided protection and transport for the FBI agents, but he offered few other details of the agents arrival in Benghazi. When asked how reporters were able to visit the compound on many occasions since the attack while it took the U.S. military three weeks to arrive, he said the military went to Benghazi at the request of the State Department.
The U.S. military has been willing to consider requests at various points, Little said. This is really a question best directed to the State Department and FBI.
Little described the deployment as a support mission only. He declined to say how many U.S. troops were providing security and would not say how many FBI agents had been sent to Benghazi.
Little also noted that everyone involved had been anxious to get the investigation moving. He called the investigation aggressive.
Weve not been sitting around waiting for information to come to us, he said.
McClatchy special correspondent Mel Frykberg contributed to this story from Cairo.