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State Dept. extended security team in Libya

Oct. 8, 2012 - 08:29PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 8, 2012 - 08:29PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, requested — and received — a four-month extension of a 16-member security team, a February request that showed just how dangerous the situation in the country had become for American diplomats.

The commander of the security team, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, told ABC News that slain U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens had wanted the team to stay even longer — past the end of its extended deployment in August.

A senior State Department official confirmed to The Associated Press that the initial extension request was granted, but said that despite Wood's comments, a request for an extension past August was never made.

Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is preparing for a hearing Wednesday on whether the State Department refused repeated requests for more security in Benghazi.

The embassy request for an extension of the security team through August was in a February memo to department officials, obtained by the AP from a government official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to release the document.

The State Department will send two officials to testify at the hearing, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has named an agency review board to determine whether security was lax. The FBI also is investigating the attacks, which Obama administration officials initially described as a spontaneous protest but now acknowledge was an act of terrorism.

The State Department official said that after the team remained through August, it was replaced by an equal number of personnel with the same skill sets. Had the security support team still been in Tripoli at the time of the attack in Benghazi, it wouldn't have made any difference, the official said.

"They had nothing to do with Benghazi, zero," the official said. "They were based in Tripoli and they were not a quick reaction force jetting around the country."

However, State Department emails show that the 16-member security team did play a role in Benghazi, even though its main mission was to provide security at the embassy in Tripoli. A State Department security official who was temporarily assigned to Benghazi thanked Wood for members of the team escorting U.S. officials to a dangerous area outside of Benghazi and also for providing training to members of a Libyan quick reaction force, teaching a tactical medicine class and reviewing defensive tactics.

Another email from a security official in Benghazi said the staff there had spoken to Wood when he visited about equipment needed for the Benghazi mission.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said late Monday that the Security Support Team was "enlisted to support the reopening 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 the departure of the SST had no impact whatsoever on the total number of fully trained American security personnel in Libya overall, or in Benghazi specifically."

While the February memo referred to conditions in Tripoli, the description also generally described the security situation in Libya.

"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 memo said.

The memo added, "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 said the 16-member team was an integral part of the mobile and fixed site security protections. The team's duties beyond securing diplomatic facilities included training local guards, being a quick response force, and providing medical support, communications, and disposal of explosives.

The force also supplied security for visits from government officials, including deployment of 13 of the 16 members for a congressional delegation led by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.

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