WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Infighting and bureaucratic jealousies between the State Department and the Pentagon may have played a role in lax security arrangements prior to the deadly attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, congressional sources said.
Evidence of the bureaucratic rivalries, not previously reported, is contained in unpublished documents being studied by congressional investigators and is referred to in a classified version of a report on the attacks in Libya, which was turned over to Congress earlier this week, the sources said.
Two sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the friction between the Defence and State departments included, but was not limited to, the State Department’s unease over its reliance on a 16-person Pentagon security unit, known as a Site Security Team (SST).
The team’s mission was allowed to expire in August, and there are disputed accounts over whether it could have done a better job of protecting U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans who died in the September 11 Benghazi attacks.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, alluded to the inter-agency tensions at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday on the unclassified report by a State Department review board.
Corker, referring to the State Department’s refusal to extend the Site Security Team’s tenure in Libya, told two top State Department officials: “You had 16 people there free from the Defence Department.”
The SST, he said, was funded from the Pentagon, rather than the State Department budget.
The State Department did not respond to a request made on Thursday for comment on the allegations of bureaucratic feuding.
One source familiar with the unpublished State Department material said it indicated that some officials in Washington felt it was “embarrassing” to rely on Pentagon assets for security in Libya. The documents show State officials believed money which went to the Pentagon for such operations should have been given to the State Department, the source said.
‘GROSSLY INADEQUATE’ SECURITY
The unclassified version of the State Department-appointed inquiry, known as an Accountability Review Board, released late on Tuesday, described security precautions at the U.S. mission in Benghazi as “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
U.S. Embassy staff in the Libyan capital of Tripoli indicated their desire that the SST, comprised of Pentagon special-operations soldiers, remain on station beyond August, when it was scheduled to be withdrawn from the country, according to information which surfaced at a congressional hearing in October.
But a witness told Congress the State Department in Washington made clear such a request would not be granted.
After the Benghazi attacks, the Department argued publicly that because the team had operated almost exclusively in Tripoli, it not would have been much help in repelling the Benghazi attacks. It also said the team’s withdrawal had no impact on the number of U.S. security personnel, because State Department Diplomatic Security personnel were deployed in its place.
But two congressional sources familiar with the issue said that one of the functions of the team had been to occasionally provide extra security for the U.S. Ambassador if he travelled outside of Tripoli.
Congressional investigators have been told that had the SST’s assignment been extended, it almost certainly would have been involved in protecting Stevens when he made his September visit to Benghazi. One source said that according to the State Department report, there were plans for the team to guard Stevens on an earlier visit to Benghazi, which had been scheduled for the summer. That visit never took place.
The classified version of the report, unlike the public version, also identifies militant factions whose members U.S. officials believe were implicated in the attacks, one of the sources said. Assailants targeted both the diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA base.
U.S. government sources said privately that within hours of the attacks, members of Ansar al Sharia, a Benghazi-based militia, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, were suspected of involvement.
U.S. lawmakers also are digging for more information on possible ties between the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, a Benghazi militia assigned to protect the U.S. diplomatic mission there, and Ansar al Sharia.
A congressional official said investigators were seeking to learn whether some February 17 members may have had advance warning from Ansar al Sharia about the impending attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound, warnings which were not passed on to American officials. However, two officials said that so far no hard evidence of this has surfaced.
The unclassified State Department report hints at similar concerns. “Over the course of its inquiry, the Board also learned of troubling indicators of February 17’s loyalties and its readiness to assist U.S. personnel,” it said.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Andrew Quinn; Editing by Warren Strobel and David Brunnstrom