WASHINGTON -- In the weeks leading up to the attack last month on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, diplomats on the ground sounded increasingly urgent alarms.
In a stream of diplomatic cables, embassy security officers warned their State Department superiors of a worsening threat from Islamic extremists, and requested that the teams of military personnel and State Department security guards who were already on duty be kept in service.
The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli -- not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away.
And State Department officials testified this week during a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing that extending the tour of additional guards -- a 16-member military security team -- through mid-September would not have changed the bloody outcome because it was based in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
The handling of these requests has now been caught up in a sharply partisan debate over whether President Barack Obama's administration underestimated the terrorist threat in Libya.
In a vice-presidential campaign debate Thursday night with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Vice President Joe Biden said White House officials were not told about requests for any additional security. "We weren't told they wanted more security again," Mr. Biden said.
Mitt Romney's campaign pounced Friday on the conflicting statements, accusing Mr. Biden of continuing to deny the nature of the attack. The White House scrambled to explain the apparent contradiction between Mr. Biden's statement and the State Department officials' testimony at the House hearing.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that security issues related to diplomatic posts in Libya and other nations were dealt with at the State Department, not the White House. Based on interviews with administration officials, as well as in diplomatic cables and congressional testimony, those security decisions appear to have been made largely by midlevel State Department security officials, and did not involve Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or her top aides.
While it is unclear what impact a handful of highly trained additional guards might have had in Benghazi, were they able to deploy there, some State Department officials said it would probably not have made any difference in blunting the assault from several dozen heavily armed militants.
"An attack of that kind of lethality, we're never going to have enough guns," Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, said at Wednesday's hearing. "We are not an armed camp ready to fight it out."
A senior administration official said the military team, authorized by a directive from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, was never intended to have an open-ended or Libya-wide mission. "This was not a SWAT team with a DC-3 on alert to jet them off to other cities in Libya to respond to security issues," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the matter's delicacy.
Security in Benghazi had been a growing concern for U.S. diplomats this year. In April, the convoy of the United Nations special envoy for Libya was attacked there. In early June, a two-vehicle convoy carrying the British ambassador came under attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Militants struck the U.S. mission with a homemade bomb, but no one was hurt. In late June, the Red Cross was attacked, and the organization pulled out.
"We were the last thing on their target list to remove from Benghazi," Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who was deployed in Tripoli as leader of the U.S. military security unit, told the House committee.
But friends and colleagues of Stevens said he was adamant about maintaining a U.S. presence in Benghazi, the heart of the opposition to Moammar Gadhafi's government.
"Our people can't live in bunkers and do their jobs," Ms. Clinton said Friday. "But it is our solemn responsibility to constantly improve, to reduce the risks our people face and make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs."
At U.S. diplomatic facilities overseas, the host nation is primarily responsible for providing security outside the compound's walls. Inside the compound, the State Department is in charge, relying on a mix of diplomatic security officers, local contract guards and Marines. The Marines are responsible for guarding classified documents, which they are instructed to destroy if there is a breach of the compound. Senior diplomats are protected by diplomatic security officers, not a detachment of Marines, as Mr. Ryan asserted in Thursday night's debate.
In deciding whether to extend a military security team, the State Department often faces a difficult financial decision at a time when its security budget is under severe pressure. The department must reimburse the Pentagon for the cost of these soldiers, an expense that can quickly run into the millions of dollars. For that reason, the State Department typically pushes to make the transition to local contractors, who are much cheaper.
In their debate, Mr. Biden responded to Mr. Ryan's attacks by accusing him and his fellow House Republicans of cutting the administration's request for embassy security and construction by $300 million.world