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Diplomatic Security: What Went Wrong In Benghazi


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jacki Lyden in Washington; Neal Conan is away. It's been just more than two months since the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked. Four Americans died there, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Congressional committee hearings resume today, on the handling of the attack.

Last week, the Pentagon released a timeline with new details - from when the armed assault began, to when the military was deployed to help. Countless questions have been raised about the security at the consulate, how the State Department assesses the situation and environment, and whether the U.S. military or CIA could have done more to protect the Americans and others there.

If you work, or have worked, at an embassy or a consulate, what was in place to keep you safe? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And later in the program, we'll turn to the Opinion Pages for the latest on General David Petraeus admitting to an extramarital affair. We want to hear from you: Why does this story matter? Email us, talk@npr.org. But first, what happened in Benghazi. And we start with David Kirkpatrick, Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, and he joins us by phone from Cairo. David, nice to have you with us.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Good to be here.

LYDEN: So would you please take us back to that night in Benghazi? It's been a couple months. It had an election in the interim. Tell us again, who's inside, what date this happens, September 11th, who's outside, who's armed, who isn't. Just paint a picture of that evening, please.

KIRKPATRICK: You know, you make it sound so easy, but the events of that night have been so thoroughly obscured in rhetoric from the political campaign, it's pretty hard to reconstruct it as clearly as it should be. But in fact, in Benghazi it's a relatively transparent event.

The events start, if you want to be honest, they start in Cairo around 6:30 P.M. A mob had formed around the U.S. embassy in Cairo, angry over a specifically Egyptian video that was mocking the Prophet Muhammad, and at 6:30 P.M., the breached the wall. A couple of hooligans breached the wall of the embassy. That was on the pan-Arab cable networks around the region.

Three hours or so later, sometime between 9:30 and 10 P.M. a mob attacks the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Inside are a handful of Libyan guards, a couple of American security people, a tech guy and the ambassador, Christopher Stevens. The mob of - shows up very quickly. The Libyan guards recall tranquility, you know, the ambassador walks to the gate and says goodbye to another diplomat just moments before, everything's quiet, and then suddenly they show up.

They're attacking with machine guns, with truck-mounted artillery, with rocket-propelled grenades, and son the whole place is on fire. Now, the - from what I know from talking to many witnesses, from my Libyan colleagues, interviewing the guards at the mission, it's fairly clear that the people who attacked - and even interviewing some of the attackers, I should say - the attackers were motivated by this movie.

They probably learned of the film from what happened in Cairo, and Benghazi being a heavily armed city that is full of well-armed brigades just sitting around with nothing to do, it's not at all difficult to pull together this kind of a military force on short order, perhaps three hours or less, to attack a facility like the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. And that's what happened.

LYDEN: I was wondering if you would give us a little physical description of the place, as well. I mean, that was excellent, But Benghazi itself, 600 miles from Tripoli, by the sea. This is a relatively small mission, compared to much larger embassies people might be familiar with.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah, it's kind of a compound with a wall around it on the outskirts, not really the suburbs. It's not so far out of town, but on the outskirts-ish of Benghazi; one big building and a few smaller buildings. One they refer to as a cantina, one is a little guardhouse. The main building, a villa, had a wing that the ambassador used as an office.

It was set back from the road so they could be sure there wouldn't be a car bomb. But basically it didn't look that different than a variety of other properties in the area. Just a regular old house and yard, really.

LYDEN: David, as Cairo bureau chief, you've covered Libya. Would you say, in your estimation, that they were in a precarious situation there in Benghazi?

KIRKPATRICK: Yes, yes, absolutely, absolutely positively. Benghazi is a precarious place because Libya - you've got to really back up here. When the Gadhafi government fell, nothing replaced it. There is a nominal transitional government, but there is really no central authority. There is no effective police force, there is no national army. Everybody depends on these autonomous and self-organized local militias.

That said, they're doing a pretty good job. I mean, it's not unsafe when you walk around the street, but you have to be aware that at any time, any one of these militias could get some idea into its head about what is the best interest of this country, and watch out.

So you're thinking, well, they should have had more security in such an insecure place where all these young men are running around with guns, certainly. But the thing that I think the administration or the State Department would say at this point is well, you can't really have it. If you're going to operate in Benghazi, you can't really have the kind of security that would be prepared to withstand an attack by 200, 100 or 200 heavily armed men with rocket-propelled grenades, and truck-mounted artillery, and Kalashnikovs and some military training.

I mean, it's not - it's just not feasible to have a commensurate amount of American military force at a facility the ambassador visits every once in a while.

LYDEN: And you also wrote a piece last month about some of the other players in the region. You just, you know, you reminded us what the security situation has been like since the fall of the former Libyan government. You wrote back in October about Ansar al-Sharia and a militant group and its leader. What have we learned about their part in the attack?

KIRKPATRICK: It's an interesting question. Now, what Ansar al-Sharia is a - one of these local militias that styles itself as a kind of Islamist social group. They do - they protect the hospital, they do social work in the area, and they have an armed wing. And they're rather hard-line. They don't like democracy. They think women should be veiled. They don't like mixing of the sexes. All those things you associate with truly hard-line Islamists.

Now, witnesses who were there - including a Libyan journalist working with us - saw them there. They drove up to the compound in trucks marked with their logo. Fighters said, yes, we're here with Ansar al-Sharia. So we know they were involved. Now, that's not to say that Ansar al-Sharia was alone, and it's not even to say that the fighters who were there in their Ansar al-Sharia trucks, might not have had divided loyalties because membership in one militia or brigade, in Benghazi, is sort of fluid.

A while back, I interviewed a person in Benghazi, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who many witnesses saw there, leading - in some way - the attack, one of the ringleaders of the attack; considered himself to be the leader of another brigade, which sort of overlaps significantly with Ansar al-Sharia, that's called the Abu Ulbaidah idn al-Jarrah Brigade, named after an early companion of the Prophet. So that's what we know, of who was involved. And I don't - but I don't want to say that in a definitive, limiting kind of a way. It's very hard to know who else might have been involved.

LYDEN: Or assess exactly how organized people were, out there.

KIRKPATRICK: Yeah. You know, later on that night, as events unfold, you know, the attack died down at that first facility; and the whole thing moved to a second facility that I think we're going to hear more about; the - is - they refer to it as "the annex." That was a CIA facility, where the CIA was doing - we're not exactly sure what, yet, with a large number of people.

And it was not a facility that - the location of which was widely known, or even known at all. And in the wee hours of the morning, there's a much more - well, a different kind of an attack, an attack on that facility by - I believe - the same people. You know, I can't say all my sources on this, but I'm pretty sure it was the same people. And they used mortars to attack that facility just as American security forces were arriving - a handful of American security forces were arriving, to remove the people from the embassy. So they had a well-timed attack, in the early hours of the morning. So they had set up in advance, and were waiting to fire their missiles at the facility.

LYDEN: Yes, in the second attack. Well, David, if you would stand by. David Kirkpatrick is the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times, and thanks for that excellent description. And joining us now, in Studio 3A, is Ambassador Christopher Hill. He's the former ambassador to Iraq and several European nations. He's currently the dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, at University of Denver. Welcome back to the program.


LYDEN: So you've been listening to David Kirkpatrick's assessment. When you're in a newer consulate like this one in Benghazi, is it difficult to assess what the security profile should be?

HILL: There is no question that it's difficult, and it's especially difficult when you're in a hurry to get in there. And I would say that the trend has been in the last 10, 15 years, where the State Department has tried to get in there early with the understanding that the earlier you get in there, the earlier you establish contacts, the better will be your capabilities of moving the society from conflict to peacetime.

So I think all of these kind of immediate post-war situations really confronts these problems of militias. How do you disarm them? How do you integrate them into national structures? And it's fairly clear now that in the case of Libya, it was especially difficult to do so. These militias, as David said, were really kind of all over the map in terms of ideology. They were very sort of loose organizations. You can be a member of on Tuesday, and you switch to another on Thursday.

So it was clearly very difficult. It was a real tough task that our mission was trying to do there.

LYDEN: Ambassador Hill, Ambassador, we have worried before about the security situation in Benghazi. There were requests, apparently, for extra security. If you have made a request for more security, would you have expected in the consulate to receive it?

HILL: Well first of all, there is going to be, you know, a full report of all this done by the Accountability and Review Board under Ambassador Pickering, who knows a thing or two about diplomatic security, had some, like, seven posts. So I think it's important to be a little patient and wait for that full report.

But I will say with respect to requests for additional security, it kind of depends on how they're made. Usually when an ambassador comes in in a first-person message and says I need X, there is a lot of effort in the State Department to get him X. But if we're just talking about a wish list of things, that's another matter.

LYDEN: OK, well, we'll revisit that in the next part of the program. David, thank you very much for being with us. David Kirkpatrick, Cairo bureau chief. Ambassador Hill, please stay with us. We're talking about security at our nation's foreign outposts. If you work or have worked at an American embassy or consulate, what was in place there to keep you safe? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. We'll have more in just a minute. I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LYDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Lawmakers are meeting behind closed doors in several hearings this week, asking questions about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, questions like who knew what when, how the State and Defense Departments responded and how we can better protect Americans abroad are all on the table.

So today we're talking about diplomatic security and what we can learn from Benghazi. And if you work or have worked at an embassy or a consulate, we want to hear from you. What was in place - infrastructure, protocols, security - to keep you safe? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION, and call us at 1-800-989-8255 or send an email, talk@npr.org.

And we're speaking with Ambassador Christopher Hill, former ambassador to Iraq. But first let's go to a call, and we're speaking with Jennifer, who is calling us from Greensboro, North Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

LYDEN: So your question, please?

JENNIFER: I lived in Paris in '88, '89. My dad was stationed at the American embassy there. He was in the Air Force. And I - we lived in an apartment that was owned by the embassy but was not on the compound. And I recall that to get into the main embassy building, where I worked as an intern over the summer, you'd go into a gatehouse. You'd have an ID, and then they would verify not just that you have an ID, but they would look at you and wonder, you know, confirm who you were.

There was a Marine stationed there on the outside of the embassy, the main embassy, near the Place de la Concorde, there were Parisian (unintelligible) soldiers with AK-47s looking very armed. And my dad was - actually worked in an annex to the main compound that was in a different part of Paris. It was not marked as an American embassy on the street, but you could walk to it, and then there was a sign on the door.

And that's where the Marines lived, and so there was, again, many Marines that were there. When you came and wanted to get in, they had to confirm that they knew you, and they accompanied people they didn't know, like the cleaning staff were accompanied by Marines as they cleaned the embassy.

LYDEN: So, obviously, Ambassador Hill a different situation with a big European embassy than with the situation in Benghazi.

HILL: Well, I think one of the big differences is there's something called the Vienna Convention. And that essentially sets out the obligation of host countries to protect diplomats. So, even though there's a lot of discussion about the fact that every U.S. embassy has Marine security guards, those Marine security guards are not there to protect the perimeter of an embassy. They are to protect internal controls, make sure people put away their classified material at night.

So the people who protect the perimeter of an embassy are the people that the caller referred to, carrying AK-47s and whatnot. That is, in this case, the French police, although I'm sure they had a different ordnance than an AK-47. The problem in a place like Benghazi is that there was not a reliable host country force.

Now, we know that in Benghazi they used some militia groups to help provide some kind of defense in extremis. But this is the problem in these post-conflict societies, is whether the country in question, which has a myriad of problems they're trying to solve, whether they really have the wherewithal to bring necessary police and security protection for foreign diplomats.

LYDEN: You served as ambassador to Iraq until 2010. Were you asked to make recommendations, even informally, for security in something like the consulate in Benghazi post-conflict?

HILL: Well, if you're an ambassador, you have something called a country team. And one of the members of the country team is your so-called RSO, who is a regional security officer. Now in years gone by, the RSO was not such a senior person. But I can say that in today's embassies, in today's environment around the world, the RSO is a key member of that country team.

So if you as ambassador had some concerns about security, you would bring the RSO with some other senior people, and you'd have a pretty in-depth discussion. And you would find your RSO pretty receptive to ideas you had on what was needed in security terms.

So I would say that in a place like Baghdad, we had lots of really, really superb people. And - but in a place like where I was in Macedonia, where my mission was overwhelmed by a few thousands demonstrators, they burned all our vehicles, burned all our guard posts, we didn't even have an RSO.

And why didn't we have an RSO, people can ask, and the answer was the State Department was managing this effort to put so many new embassies in so many new countries, and sometimes you had to stand in line for some of these requests.

LYDEN: So let's take another call. Obviously, it's a very different situation. I'm fascinated by the Macedonian example because I visited the embassy in Baghdad many times. And, you know, it seemed like a fortress, compared to the kind of situation we're talking about. Let's go to Ralph, who is calling us from Raleigh, North Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Ralph.

RALPH: Hey, thank you. First and foremost, these are some of the embassies that I've worked with. I was a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army, and I had a civil affairs additional skill identifier. Basically, what that means is that I really got to learn the intricacies of both public health, as well as security and working with the embassies to ensure that the security measures were in place.

Now every time we did stuff, it was always with defense attaches, and whether it was in Sofia, Bulgaria, or whether I was in Latin America and the Caribbean or in Iraq during the surge, there was always the defense attache. But the chief of mission was always the ambassador. And the ambassador was the one who was ultimately responsible for making the decisions about whether to step outside the security perimeter and go into more dangerous places.

And so in this situation, what I noticed is - like, there was a lot of people, you know, that haven't served in the military - meaning, our lawmakers - who don't understand this system of chief of mission. And they were trying to use it - it seems like, to me - as like a political campaign; to not recognize how the chief of mission works with defense attaches, to take calculated risk. And with that, I'll go ahead and let the ambassador make his comments.

HILL: Well, the chief of mission is very often a State Department person who's been selected as ambassador - but not always. There are a number of embassies where the chief of mission can be from another agency of the U.S. government. Or the chief of mission can be a so-called political appointee; that is, someone who worked with the political party in charge. So the chief of mission can be - can come from several places.

But I think it's very important that every chief of mission understands - and he or she does understand - that they represent not just the State Department, but they represent all these different agencies. And so when there are questions about security, you have to have kind of one standard, and you have to have one person at the top to make those decisions.

So the chief of mission will get the input from country team; that chief of mission, she will certain listen to a - Air Force attache, absolutely; the chief of mission will listen to the Army attache; the chief of mission will listen to - especially, the security officer, but also the other State Department people there. And then, as in a lot of things, it can be lonely at the top. And you have to make a decision. You're also in touch with people back in Washington - some of whom are second-guessing you but sometimes, maybe they're second-guessing you for good reasons. So you've got to kind of have your stuff together, and be willing to kind of make your case.

In the case of Macedonia, my concern was that Washington wanted to close down our mission - which on the first day of the Kosovo war, would have been a very bad signal. It would have looked like basically, Milosevic was winning. So I had to make the case that we were buttoned-down enough to keep our people there because first and foremost, the chief of mission is responsible for the people under his or her command.

But I also had to make the political case. So what we did was to try to work as hard - and maybe sometimes, even faster than Washington could work. We put together timelines. We showed what extra measure we were taking. We convened something called an emergency action committee, which consisted of senior people in the embassy. So you do a lot of planning, and you show, essentially - I would say - for an ambassador, this is your moment; to show that kind of leadership, and to listen to a lot of different, conflicting viewpoints.

LYDEN: OK, thank you. Well, let's switch now from State - to the military. We're joined by retired Lt. Gen. David Barno. He was the overall commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, and he's currently with the Center for a New American Security. And he joins us by phone, from the office there. Nice to have you with us, General Barno.

DAVID BARNO: Jacki, thanks. Good to be aboard.

LYDEN: Well, we're glad to have you. So imagine that you're in the room at Africa Command - if you would, for a moment. If you could just put yourself in the shoes of that commander, if you don't mind; and you get this call from the consulate in Benghazi. It's under attack; you're very far away. Give us an idea of your concerns at the moment, and the steps that need to be taken.

BARNO: Yes. Step back a bit, and say he probably isn't going to get the call in the - his command center from the consulate. It's probably going to come through his military channels; maybe back, even, from Washington. But he's going to look - if he gets this, you know, alert that there is a dangerous issue in his part of the world, first thing he's going to do is see what forces does he have available, to apply to the problem? So he's - he'll have an immediate situational lay-down that shows where all of his different capabilities are - from fighter planes to special operations teams, to ships in the Mediterranean - in this case, to Army units that might be nearby, in a training exercise. Then he'll start lining up what his options might be, at that point in time. So that's generally your first, preliminary assessment - is, what have I got? How quickly, then, could they respond? And then, what can I start to put in train, to be ready for what might come next?

LYDEN: And this, of course, we're talking about the decisions that would've been made by AFRICOM's General Carter Ham. Who decides when these quick reaction forces go in, and why are they so far away?

BARNO: Well, typically, the orders to move U.S. military forces have got to go to the secretary of defense. He's got the authority through - the order is processed there to really put forces on alert, although they can be informally alerted to prepare before that time. But to actually move forces around, particularly in between different commands, which this would be moving forces probably from Europe, European Command into the Africa Command Theater, it's going to have to go back to him for some type of ultimate approval. But again, a lot of that preparation can be done as you're working this orders process. This all happens not in sequence but actually in parallel, so a lot of actions are taking place at the same time.

LYDEN: General Barno, we're going to be soon in the middle of both congressional and Senate hearings into this. I mean, are you thinking as a veteran of these kind of things, is there going to be any reassessment about this chain of command or about how close these reaction forces ought to be to - especially far flung consulates like the one in Benghazi?

BARNO: Well, I think the examination of the timeline and the congressional hearings are going to scrutinize this pretty carefully. But I think one of the factors that we all need to kind of keep in mind is that the U.S. military is spread very thin around the world today and that, you know, the threats on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks were worldwide in scope. I think Secretary Panetta noted he had several hundred reports that he had received, indicating that possible attacks on U.S. facilities around the world were in the making. So with a limited force, with a war still, you know, very robustly going on in Afghanistan, with a lot of forces back in the United States itself, your abilities to have immediate reaction forces stationed all around the world to respond to a huge range of contingencies is got to be limited by definition.

LYDEN: You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's take another call here. We want to hear from people who served in embassies or consulates. And we're speaking with Marianne, and she's calling from Charlottesville, Virginia. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARIANNE: Hello. Yes. This is Marianne.


MARIANNE: Hi. I grew up an embassy brat, so I grew up around embassies in the '60s, '70s and '80s. And we had the Marines, so we felt safe. And then in the early '80s, my father was transferred to Beirut at the end of the civil war there - what they thought was the end of the civil war - to help rebuild the city; and was immediately killed in the first car bombing of any embassy anywhere.

LYDEN: I'm terribly, terribly sorry to hear that, Marianne. Who was your father?

MARIANNE: My father was Albert Votaw.

LYDEN: So sorry. And...

MARIANNE: Thank you. So until then, we felt completely safe. We were in Arab countries but we - but we had the Marines. And, you know, there's just - there's never an issue.

LYDEN: It's a little bit hard to hear you, so this is a tragic situation. But, you know, I was thinking as Marianne was speaking - Ambassador Hill, General Barno - having been a Middle East correspondent myself; the situation is very, very different, and she moved to - the family moved into Beirut. And there you begin to see this modern era of the very small, unknown enemy, people who are taking cues from many different, more shadowy groups that have different agendas and not the kind of organized opposition that had preceded it. General Barno?

BARNO: Yeah. I think we're clearly in a different world now. And her tragic story there dating from the early 1980s, you know, is nothing but reinforced by our experiences on 9/11. And since then, we're going to be dealing with these transnational, non-state actors, the shadowy terrorist groups that come together very, you know, ad hoc, in ad hoc manner, you know, all around the world that we may not have intelligence in front of these attacks. So I think all of our diplomatic outposts around the world are going to have to operate with that in mind. And in many ways in the last 10 years, that's what they've had to do.

LYDEN: I just want to read an email here that just come in from John Miller(ph). Consulates are, by nature, open to the public unlike embassies. We have hundreds of consulates around the world and dozens in the Middle East. This one would have needed 60 defenders, meaning 300 defenders overall, which could be a flashpoint itself. How would we like it if the Chinese stationed 300 Marines at their consulate in Houston? You want to take that one, Ambassador Hill?

HILL: Yeah. I would say that people need to keep in mind always the fact that there is going to be risk. You cannot expect to go on to a post-conflict society and know where all the militias are, know where all the guns are, and in the case of Libya, know where all the heavy weapons are. So this is really a question of managing risk. And I think one of the issues that the Accountability Review Board will look at is a question of whether risk was properly managed in the case of Benghazi. And I don't think we should jump to conclusions about whether it was or was not. I think these are tough issues. But I think, overall, you're going to see a very intrepid American diplomatic corps out in some of these very tough places. And, indeed, we've taken losses before and we'll probably take more in the future.

LYDEN: I just want to - very quickly, though, since we don't have much time left in the segment - you heard, at the beginning of our show, another retired vice chief of the Army called this consulate defenseless. Is that your judgment of it?

HILL: Well, I think they had a plan. They had a defense plan. The question is, was it adequate to the threat out there? And I'm not in the position to judge, but I think accountability review board will be.

LYDEN: OK. And thank you very much for being with us. Christopher Hill is the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, among several other postings. He mentioned Macedonia. He's currently dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, and he joined me here in Studio 3A. It was nice to have you here with us in person. Thanks for coming in.

HILL: Thank you.

LYDEN: And Lieutenant General David Barno served as overall commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. He joined us from his office at the Center for a New American Security. Thank you for being with us. Thanks for your time.

BARNO: Thank you. Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: And coming up, we'll talk about the expanding scandal around General David Petraeus' extramarital affair and why the story matters. Stay with us. Call in. I'm Jacki Lyden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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