With the launch of a new Benghazi investigation, Republicans will once again scrutinize the actions of Hillary Rodham Clinton's State Department in the months leading up to the deadly terrorist attacks in that Libyan port city.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson signaled as much on May 6, 2014, two days before the GOP-led House of Representatives voted to open what by some counts is the eighth Benghazi investigation.
In an opinion article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson alleged that a "dereliction of duty" by Clinton contributed to the deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans.
It wasn’t the first time the Wisconsin Republican took on the Democrats’ front-runner for president in 2016. One of Johnson's high-profile moments in the Senate occurred during a testy exchange with Clinton, then the secretary of state, at a 2013 hearing on Benghazi that led to Clinton’s oft-quoted "What difference does it make" comment.
In his opinion piece, Johnson singled out the State Department leadership in Washington in saying that "the greatest outrages occurred before the attack."
"The State Department not only failed to honor repeated requests for additional security, but instead actually reduced security in Libya. Although no one can say with certainty, I firmly believe a relatively small contingent of armed military guards would have prevented the attack, and those four lives would not have been lost."
Is Johnson right -- that before the attacks, the State Department "failed to honor repeated requests for additional security" and "actually reduced security in Libya"?
Benghazi is where Moammar Gadhafi in 1969 launched a revolution that put him in control of the North African nation. It is also the birthplace of a 2011 revolt that, with the help of NATO warships and planes, deposed and killed the Libyan dictator.
A year later, Benghazi remained chaotic, in the grip of heavily armed militias and Islamist militants, some with links to al-Qaida.
A temporary U.S. mission in Benghazi had been created in 2011 in hopes of encouraging stability and democracy. It was struck by homemade bombs twice in the spring of 2012 -- two of some 20 security incidents involving the facility, British diplomats, the Red Cross or other Westerners in the months before the deadly assaults.
Ambassador Chris Stevens was based at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, 400 miles west of Benghazi. He decided to visit the Benghazi mission on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when U.S. embassies around the world were on alert for terrorism.
There were seven Americans at the Benghazi mission in the hours leading up to the attacks: Stevens, a communications officer and five security agents -- two of whom had accompanied Stevens and three based at Benghazi.
About 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, dozens of armed attackers entered the U.S. compound and set the main building on fire. Stevens and the communications specialist died of smoke inhalation. Early the next morning and about a mile away, mortar fire killed two CIA security contractors at a CIA annex, where Stevens’ body had been taken.
First part of Johnson claim
The first part of Johnson’s claim is that the State Department "failed to honor repeated requests for additional security."
His reference is to requests made by Stevens and other U.S. officials in Libya to the State Department leadership in Washington.
"There are disagreements about whether State acted reasonably, but that it didn't honor requests for additional security is established fact," said Georgetown University adjunct assistant professor Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who is also a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which focuses on foreign policy and national security.
The State Department has acknowledged it rejected requests to provide more security personnel in Libya. It also acknowledged rejecting a request to erect guard towers at the Benghazi mission, but notes that a number of physical security upgrades, such as the installation of concrete barriers to block unused gates, were made during 2012.
The State Department’s own Accountability Review Board concluded that the number of diplomatic security staff in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attacks was inadequate "despite repeated requests" from the Benghazi mission and the embassy in Tripoli for additional staffing.
The Benghazi facility had been projected to have five security agents and there had been multiple requests that five be placed there. But in the nine months before the attacks, the facility had a full complement of five agents on only 23 days.
After the State Department's security staff in Washington rejected the repeated requests, the post became resigned to not having the full complement of five agents and stopped making the requests, the review board found.
A bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee also found that the State Department headquarters did not grant Stevens' requests for more security personnel.
Second part of Johnson claim
The second part of Johnson’s claim is that before the attacks, the State Department "actually reduced security in Libya."
The bipartisan Senate committee found that despite the deteriorating conditions around Benghazi, State Department headquarters decided not to request an extension of service by the Defense Department's Site Security Team, which was scheduled to be redeployed in August 2012, about one month before the attacks.
The 16-member team was based in Tripoli, but spent some time in Benghazi and had provided security resources that the State Department could utilize. The State Department opted not to request an extension of the team, the Senate committee found, because it believed that many of the duties could be provided by State Department security staff and local Libyan security personnel.
The Senate committee also pointed out that less than a month before the attacks, Stevens "declined two specific offers" from the general heading Defense Department operations in Africa to extend the stay of the Site Security Team.
But according to Stevens’ top assistant, Gregory Hicks, that was a few weeks after the State Department had already decided not to request the team’s deployment to be extended.
Because Washington "had refused to extend the special forces security mission, State Department protocol required" Stevens to decline the two offers, Hicks wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Johnson said that before the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, "the State Department not only failed to honor repeated requests for additional security, but instead actually reduced security in Libya."
State Department headquarters in Washington did refuse repeated requests from its ambassador in Libya for more security personnel. And it decided not to accept an offer from the Defense Department to extend the stay of one of its security units in Libya, reducing the level of security that was available.
We rate Johnson’s statement True.
To comment on this item, go to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s web page.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Coverup on Benghazi does make a difference," May 6, 2014
Email interview, Sen. Ron Johnson policy advisor Patrick McIlheran, May 12, 2014
Interview, State Department communications advisor to the secretary Alec Gerlach, May 14, 2014
PolitiFact National, "Fact-checking Benghazi: The rhetoric hasn’t matched up with reality," May 9, 2014
PolitiFact National, "Rand Paul says Hillary Clinton ‘was asked repeatedly to provide security in Benghazi … including direct cables,’" May 22, 2013
PunditFact, "Ronan Farrow says inadequate security funding from Congress leads to tragedies like Benghazi," May 5, 2014
Washington Post Fact Checker, "Fact-checking the Benghazi attacks," May 12, 2014
Associated Press, "For Democrats and Republicans, a look at all that ‘Benghazi’ stands for," May 11, 2014
State Department, Accountability Review Board report for Benghazi, Dec. 19, 2013
Senate Intelligence Committee, Benghazi report, Jan. 15, 2014
Washington Post, "State Dept. acknowledges rejecting requests for more security in Benghazi," Oct. 10, 2012
Email interview, Foundation for Defense of Democracies senior fellow and Georgetown University adjunct assistant professor Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, May 15, 2014
Interview, Cameron University history and government professor Lance Janda, May 13, 2014
New York Times, "Libya warnings were plentiful, but unspecific," Oct. 29, 2012
BBC, "U.S. security ‘cut’ before Benghazi consulate attack," Oct. 10, 2012
Federal News Service, House Oversight Committee hearing transcript, Sept. 19, 2013
House Armed Services Committee, "Majority interim report: Benghazi investigation update," February 2014
Wall Street Journal, "Gregory Hicks: Benghazi and the smearing of Chris Stevens," Jan. 22, 2014
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