U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens wanted a Security Support Team, made up of 16 special operations soldiers, to stay with him in Libya after their deployment was scheduled to end in August, the commander of that security team told ABC News.
The embassy staff's "first choice was for us to stay," Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, 55, told ABC News in an interview. "That would have been the choice of the embassy people in Tripoli."
But a senior State Department official told ABC News that the embassy's Regional Security Officer never specifically requested that the SST's tour be extended past August, and the official maintained there was no net loss of security personnel. The Regional Security Officer "asked for a number of U.S. shooters because of the pending SST redeployment and he was at that number," said the senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing internal investigation.
The State Department issued a statement Monday, saying, "The SST was enlisted to support the re-opening of Embassy Tripoli, to help ensure we had the security necessary as our diplomatic presence grew. They were based in Tripoli and operated almost exclusively there. When their rotation in Libya ended, Diplomatic Security Special Agents were deployed and maintained a constant level of security capability. So their departure had no impact whatsoever on the total number of fully trained American security personnel in Libya generally, or in Benghazi specifically."
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had already asked for - and received - an extension of the SST earlier in the year. A February draft request for a 120-day extension, obtained by ABC News, stated that the team is "an integral part of our mobile and fixed site security functions," augmenting the security escort work done by the Mobile Security Detachment, protecting the embassy, training local guards, serving as a Quick Reaction Force, providing "vital medical, communications, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), as well as, command and control enablers that are critical to post's security effort."
The embassy request stated: "Quite simply, we cannot maintain our existing levels of Embassy operations, much less implement necessary staffing increases, without a continued SST presence."
Wood, a member of the Utah National Guard who ordinarily works in security for the Department of the Interior, is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee hearings on Wednesday.
Asked for comment to the memo and Wood's comments, a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee told ABC News: "Diplomats working in Libya viewed security provided by highly trained Americans as critical to their safety and mission. The Oversight Committee's investigation continues to seek answers about why - even as threats against Americans increased - senior State Department officials erroneously decided such security was no longer needed."
Investigators are exploring whether anyone at the State Department told the Embassy specifically not to request another extension.
In his interview with ABC News, Wood did not argue that his and the Security Support Team's presence would have made a difference for Ambassador Stevens and the other three Americans killed at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
"That's way speculative; I don't even know the facts of what happened" that night, Wood said.
Stevens didn't typically travel to Benghazi during Wood's rotation in Libya, Wood said, though the ambassador made some attempts to travel there in June and Wood said that the Security Support Team was planning on accompanying him for protection during that planned trip.
Ultimately, plans fell through and Stevens' schedule kept him in Tripoli.
The senior State Department official said that Ambassador Stevens traveled with agents of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and that the SST was based in Tripoli and would have been in Benghazi that night. There were five DS agents on the Benghazi compound that night; three of them previously stationed there and two having traveled with Stevens from Tripoli to Benghazi. There were also a few officials with a Quick Reaction Force outside the compound supporting Stevens' movement, two of whom were killed that night.
The February draft report from the embassy in Tripoli to the State Department paints a picture of the Security Support Team as far more vital to security than the senior State Department official portrayed the group.
The draft was circulated by Joan Polaschik, the deputy chief of the mission in Libya, and emailed to members of the diplomatic corps, the SST team members, and Wood.
"Overall security conditions continue to be unpredictable, with large numbers of armed groups and individuals not under control of the central government, and frequent clashes in Tripoli and other major population centers," the embassy's request reads. The continued presence of the Security Support Team's was "essential," the report states, "to support our daily moves and a continuing high volume of senior-level visits, provide static security in the absence of an appropriate Local Guard Force … and assist our Mobile Security Detachment (MSD) colleagues in the training of our newly hired LGF members and locally engaged bodyguard force."
Key to understanding the February request and its context is the fact that after it was made, security in Libya devolved even more when it came to the targeting of Westerners.
Polaschik referenced in her February memo how Western targets had not yet been hit, but within months that would change, with an IED thrown into the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi on April 6, an RPG attack on the Red Cross in Benghazi in May, another IED attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi in June, an RPG attack on the convoy of the British ambassador to Libya Dominic Asquith a few days after that, and another attack on the Red Cross - this time in daylight - causing that relief organization to leave Benghazi.
In February, the embassy reported to the State Department that the "security environment in Tripoli remains uncertain and unstable. Although there has been a marked decrease in the number of militia checkpoints around Tripoli, the Transitional National Council (TNC) has not yet succeeded in demobilizing the multiple militias or bringing them into a centralized command and control structure. There continues to be large numbers of weapons throughout Tripoli, with gunfire heard throughout the city on a daily basis."
Many militia clashes "appear to be rooted in political, economic or property disputes among the militias and do not seem to be any sort of organized campaign against the TNC or westerners," the report states. "While not targeted against U.S. interests or personnel, these clashes pose a serious danger particularly as the fledgling national police and military forces do not yet have a proven capacity to respond to these clashes - or to any calls for help from the Embassy."
The report also notes a general "increase in violent crime, including homicides, carjackings, and armed robberies," and suggests it "is likely that the Libyan government will not make any significant progress in demobilizing the revolutionary militias or establishing any credible national security structures until after the election for the constitutional assembly and formation of a new government - a point that senior Libyan leadership, including TNC Chairman Jalil, has begun to acknowledge both publicly and privately. Until these militias are off the streets and a strong national police force is established, we will not have a reliable, host government partner that is capable of responding to the Embassy's security needs. It is likely that we will need to maintain a heightened security posture for the foreseeable future."
The February memo outlines the considerable challenges facing Ambassador Stevens and the diplomatic corps.
"In the midst of this uncertain and unstable security environment, Embassy Tripoli has been tasked with a large and growing mandate to support Libya's transition and rebuild the Embassy facilities," the report says. "This policy and management workload translates into a large number of movements that require security support."
Not including the movements of Ambassador Stevens and Deputy Chief Polaschik, from September 2011 through February 2012, the various U.S. security forces supported 1,028 movement requests to 2,099 venues - requiring an average of 10 security agents, including those drawn from the Security Support Team. In addition, the security teams supported 15 VIP visits, including four cabinet-level visits.
The State Department pushed the American diplomats to develop plans to transition its security staffing to one that incorporated more locally based assets, but its ability to do so was "severely limited by a number of factors," the February memo states, including inconsistent support from the Libyan government, no reliable "armed, uniformed host government security at our residential and office compounds," no "real progress on the policy framework required to support a transition to an armed locally engaged body guard force," silence from the Libyan Minister of Interior when it came to formal U.S. "requests for firearms licenses, training sites, or static, host nation security."
The request concludes: "Given the unstable security environment, projected staffing increases, lack of physical and technical security upgrades in place and continued high volume of VIP visits, Embassy Tripoli requests an extension" of the Security Support Team for four months, which "will allow us to implement the security transition plans recommended by the Department. A loss of SST now would severely and negatively impact our ability to achieve the Department's policy and management objectives at this critical time in Libya's transition."
But ultimately the SST left and "they just had to make do with less security," Wood told ABC News.