WASHINGTON -- The State Department withdrew U.S. security personnel from Libya just weeks before suspected Islamist extremists killed the U.S. ambassador there, despite warnings from the U.S. Embassy that the Libyan government couldn't protect foreign diplomats, according to an email released Tuesday.
The State Department rejected requests to extend the tours of U.S. diplomatic and military security personnel in order to "normalize" embassy operations according to "an artificial timetable," Eric Nordstrom, the embassy's former security chief, wrote in an Oct. 1 email.
The claim is certain to fuel a growing election-year furor over security at the U.S. consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi at the time of the Sept. 11 assault that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made the incident a campaign issue, criticizing President Barack Obama over the administration's first calling the attack a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islamic video on the Internet before acknowledging that it was a terrorist operation possibly tied to al-Qaida. The White House has said its statements were based on U.S. intelligence assessments at the times they were made.
The email and a list that Mr. Nordstrom had compiled while in Libya of 230 security incidents between June 2011 and July 2012 were released by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the eve of a hearing at which Mr. Nordstrom, still a State Department security officer, is scheduled to testify.
Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, who commanded a U.S. military security detail at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, also is to appear. Col. Wood is expected to back Mr. Nordstrom's version of events.
Mr. Nordstrom's list, which he said resulted in a 30 percent increase in pay this summer for embassy staff because of the assignment's risk, recounted a litany of near-daily bombings, shootings, robberies and other violence. Many involved Islamist extremists and local militias that refused to disband after defeating forces of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi in October 2011.
The incidents included a June 6, 2012, improvised explosive device blast that blew a hole in the wall of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. An Islamist extremist group claimed responsibility.
A July 2012 security assessment included in the list was eerily prescient of what befell Stevens and the three other Americans when some 120 assailants, wielding guns and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed the Benghazi consulate just two months later. It warned of a "high" risk that U.S. diplomats, private citizens or business people could be embroiled in an "isolating incident," in which they would be beyond rescue by Libyan security forces.
Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith died from inhaling smoke from fires the assailants set after the Americans were apparently trapped inside the consulate's main building. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, both former Navy SEALs serving as security personnel, were killed in a later assault on a CIA safe house.
The name of the person to whom Mr. Nordstrom sent the email was blacked out in the version the House committee distributed to reporters.
In the email, Mr. Nordstrom noted that his security-incident list included targeting of foreign embassies, underscoring "the GoL's [government of Libya's] inability to secure and protect diplomatic missions."
He wrote that the Libyan government's problems in protecting embassies "was a significant part" of arguments he and the embassy made to the State Department in opposing the decision to withdraw State Department and Pentagon security personnel.
The U.S. security personnel to whom Mr. Nordstrom referred came from the State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security and a Special Security Team, or SST, of 16 U.S. special forces. They were pulled out of Tripoli in August, despite requests that their tours be extended by 120 days, said a congressional aide who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.