State Department and military officials painted a horrific picture for lawmakers on Wednesday as they detailed a series of refused requests for added security at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Testifying before the House, the officials said they were denied multiple requests for more protection at the consulate, which was attacked last month on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, killing the U.S. ambassador and three others diplomats.
“And the question that we would ask is: how thin does the ice have to get before someone falls through?”
The Army’s Lt. Col. Andy Wood, who led a 16-person security team in Libya for six months, echoed Nordstrom’s remarks, telling members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he equated officials who oversaw U.S. operations in Libya with the Taliban, because they did so much damage to the safety of Americans in the region.
“You know what’s the most frustrating [thing] about this assignment,” Wood recalled telling his boss at the time. “It’s not the hardships; it’s not the gunfire; it’s not the threats.
“It’s dealing and fighting against the people, programmers, and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me,” he said. “For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.”
Republicans have pointed to comments by the two whistleblowers as evidence that the administration did not respond to the consulate’s fear of being attacked.
But Nordstrom partially shot holes in the GOP argument on Wednesday by acknowledging to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), that even with the additional security forces, the attack wouldn’t have been prevented.
“The ferocity and intensity of the attack was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service,” Nordstrom said.
“Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra-half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault,” Nordstrom said at Wednesday’s hearing.
Fingers as to who was responsible for the denied security requests increasingly pointed to Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs Charlene Lamb, who was the stateside officer in charge of fielding appeals for more resources.
Nordstrom’s requests were reportedly rejected by Lamb because she wanted to keep the U.S. security presence “artificially low,” according to a memo released by committee Democrats ahead of the hearing.
Lamb testified, under a line of questioning from Issa, that the consulate had enough security resources given what officials detected as known threats to the U.S. facility.
Issa said Lamb’s comment “somehow doesn't seem to ring true to the American people,” because there had already been an attack on the consulate earlier this year and U.S.’s radar should have been on high-alert given that it was the 11th anniversary of 9/11.
But Lamb said two of her supervisors — assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security Eric Boswell and the principal deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security and director of the Diplomatic Security Service Scott P. Bultrowicz — signed off on the decision to withhold the security forces.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), one of Issa’s top lieutenants who is helping to lead the investigation, said that if the State Department had granted the request, it would have saved the lives of every diplomat serving in Benghazi.
“I believe personally, with more assets, more resources, just meeting the minimum standards, we could have and should have saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other people,” said Chaffetz, who visited Libya last weekend on a congressional trip.
Grilled by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) about the instability in Libya and the growing al Qaeda threat following the U.S. intervention to topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year, Wood testified that, "their presence grows every day. They are certainly more established than we are.”
He also said that some 10,000 to 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles are missing from Libyan arsenals.
The Obama administration has come under intense criticism over the attack, particularly for its initial argument — made popular by the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice — that the attack spun out of a protest against an anti-Islam film.
Officials now say the incident was a terrorist attack. And Republicans are calling for Rice to come to Capitol Hill to testify about what led her to claim the attack was the result of a protest.
On Wednesday, State’s undersecretary for management Patrick Kennedy said those assessments were most likely based on multiple intelligence reports the administration had been receiving. He told lawmakers that he could not detail the contents of the reports in an open hearing. Issa indicated he would be holding a classified briefing next week on the matter.
Republicans and Mitt Romney's campaign have used the Libyan attack to showcase their argument that President Obama is in over his head when it comes to foreign policy and national security, which has been mostly a political strength for him.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has sought to defuse tensions with congressional Republicans by pledging to cooperate fully with Issa requests for witnesses. She has also directed an outside board to conduct its own investigation of the events that led up to the attack.
Democrats, led by Rep. Elijah Cummings (S.C.), lobbed criticism at Republicans on Wednesday, seeking to put blame the House’s majority party for reducing funding for embassy security, while accusing Issa of conducting a partisan investigation by refusing to share Wood as a witness and documents it received from other whistleblowers.
Nevertheless, Cummings told reporters after the hearing that he thought it went well and that it put a wrench in Republicans’ attempt to condemn the administration with a broad brush.
"[Nordstrom] went on to testify that 'the vast majority' of his requests were considered seriously and listed a litany of security improvements that were made in both Benghazi and Tripoli,” said Cummings.
“He certainly disputed the claim that more security would have prevented the attack. That was very, very clear. So now, I think what we need to do is ... have a very thorough and complete investigation and ... put partisanship aside."
This story was last updated at 6:31 p.m.