We could have learned a lesson from the terrorist attacks on the U.S. embassies in Lebanon and Kuwait in 1983. The State Department did not heed these early warnings. In 1998 terrorists again attacked two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The State Department needed to protect Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, but instead turned a blind-eye on that fateful night in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, when brutal Islamists killed the ambassador and three other Americans. This is a serious matter that needs answers, since the credibility of the White House and State Department are on the line.
After Muammar Gadhafi's downfall, in the chaos that followed, extra security precautions should have been taken by the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service. The U.S.-led incursion into Libya in 2011 to oust Col. Gadhafi led to an unstable environment. Intelligence sources knew that Islamists affiliated with al-Qaeda had infiltrated the region and were taking control of large swaths of eastern Libya. The interim government did not have the capability to provide protection for our diplomats.
The State Department should have assigned additional security personnel to the embassy in Tripoli. Instead in August 2012 temporary security resources were ordered to leave. The "February 17 Martyrs Brigade" militia with ties to al- Qaeda, was hired to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Reportedly members were warned in August of a possible attack on the compound. The State Department's decision to withdraw security staff was a major mistake. Hiring the local Islamist militia for protection in Benghazi was like "inviting a fox into the hen house".
Ambassador Stevens should not have gone to Benghazi without adequate security, since the weak Libyan government could not control the well-armed Islamists embedded in the area. U.S. military resources nearby should have been notified of his travel plans in the event of an emergency, knowing the vulnerability to attacks by the Islamists. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell in a recent discussion noted that Ambassador Stevens was a highly experienced diplomat—a gregarious individual-- who felt comfortable traveling everywhere to meet with people. He knew the culture well and spoke the language, but probably was too trusting under the circumstances. He wanted to connect with the Libyan people, and foster U.S. relations.
The President's Letter of Instruction to Ambassador's states that the Secretary of State "has responsibility for the coordination and supervision of all U.S. government activities and operations abroad" and "must protect all United States Government personnel on official duty". Congressional hearings, and data uncovered regarding the September 11, 2012 attacks revealed that the State Department ignored the danger signals, failing to uphold its commitment to protect the diplomatic corps.
As a former U.S. ambassador I was appalled by then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's insensitive remarks: "What difference at this point does it make...." It makes a big difference, since Ambassador Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed by heavily armed Islamists that overran the Benghazi diplomatic compound and assaulted the nearby CIA annex. Diplomats know the risks of serving in hot spots, but with al-Qaeda's on-going jihad against the United States the State Department needed to be better prepared.
After the 1983 U.S. embassy bombings an Advisory Panel led by retired Navy Admiral Bobby Ray Inman issued recommendations for security upgrades at all diplomatic posts, especially in high risk regions. The report called for the formation of the Diplomatic Security Service (DS) to oversee security at all overseas operations. An assigned regional security officer (RSO) would be the principal adviser at each embassy to oversee protection matters, and to interface with local police and military authorities.
In October 2012, Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb, who oversaw the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, testified that she opposed keeping the temporary security team at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. Ms. Lamb had told the embassy's RSO "not to bother asking for additional help when the security team was sent home [in August]." Mr. Nordstrom had requested that the team of fifteen security staff and a six-agent training team remain until mid-September--after the 9/11 anniversary. Ms. Lamb further noted, "It would not have made any difference in Benghazi" adding, "We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time...."
Gregory H. Hicks the deputy chief of mission (DCM), Eric Nordstrom the RSO, and Mark Thompson the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism (CT) all testified that the State Department failed to protect Ambassador Stevens. During my service I had confidence in the embassy's DCM and RSO, since they would do everything in their power to protect the ambassador.
In Benghazi there had been previous attacks by Islamists on the U.S. consulate and several Western diplomats, so extra security was necessary-- especially since the compound was a neighborhood residence with few security amenities. The Obama Administration had a myopic view of Libya, and the consequences of the international military incursion that had destabilized North Africa and the Sahel region. Islamists have since overrun a number of towns and are attempting to gain control of governments in several countries.
Then Secretary Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, intelligence and military sources all knew in "real time" that Islamist attacks on the consulate were taking place. Yet no help was sent! Disguising the disastrous attacks by the Islamists as motivated by an anti-Islamic video was a political decision. Gross negligence and incompetence would be an understatement for those involved in making this unfortunate decision.
We are living in the most crucial time in modern history since the Cold War. At least then we could see our enemy, which is no longer the case. Today's enemy has no name, no face, no uniform, not even a standing army. The Islamists want to take control under Sharia, the brutal Islamic law. They would like to take us back to the twelfth century when Islam controlled much of North Africa and the Middle East. Al-Qaeda and Islamist affiliates are bent on destroying the Western way of life--with the United States foremost on the list.
The Islamists will continue to undertake terrorist attacks against U.S. interests. The Global War on Terrorism is not over. The message was quite clear after the Benghazi attacks, with signs reading: "America has long been an enemy to Islam" and "Death to America"--which tell a chilling story. The White House and several Congressional leaders have stated, "Why waste any more time on Benghazi...."
We need the Benghazi Select Committee to uncover the real facts, and peel back the layers of deceit. People must be held accountable. The families of the four Americans killed deserve answers--as do all Americans-- as to why our government stood by with blinders on. Hopefully with the lessons learned we can avoid the next major Islamist attack!
John Price served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Mauritius, Republic of Seychelles, and Union of the Comoros from February 8, 2002 to June 17, 2005, and currently serves as a Resident Scholar at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of the book "When the White House Calls", and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Middle East.