WASHINGTON -- The former head of a U.S. military team in Libya has told a congressional committee that security was "weak" at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi before the September 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on October 10 that the facility was not adequately guarded.
"The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there," Wood said. "The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April, there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there."
That assessment was contradicted by the State Department official responsible for security at U.S. embassies around the world.
Deputy Secretary of State Charlene Lamb told lawmakers, "We had the correct number of [security] assets” when the attack happened.
She said the assailants were able to break through the compound's defenses because the assault was "unprecedented in its size and intensity."
Other State Department officials who testified at the hearing also said the number of U.S. security personnel and local guards was in keeping with what consulate officials had requested.
The hearing was convened by chairman Darrell Issa (Republican-California) to investigate what some members of Congress believe were security lapses at the consulate. But the meeting had heavy political overtones, reflecting partisan tension in advance of the November 6 national election.
Republicans, including presidential candidate Mitt Romney, have accused the White House of failing to safeguard U.S. diplomats abroad, downplaying the nature of the attack, and mishandling intelligence reports.
But the committee's most senior Democrat, Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, also accused Issa of playing politics with the issue by shutting Democrats out of the investigation and not telling Democratic committee members about a trip to Libya until it was too late.
"It's a shame that [Republicans] are resorting to such petty abuses in what should be a serious and responsible investigation of this fatal attack," he said.
Eric Nordstrom, the State Department official charged with overseeing the security of U.S. officials in Libya, told lawmakers he believed that superiors in Washington had "conducted themselves professionally" in providing for the Benghazi's mission's safety.
Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy was questioned about statements made by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice shortly after the attack, in which she described the incident as a “spontaneous” reaction to an anti-Islamic video circulating on the Internet.
"If I, or any other senior administration official, would have been on that television show other than Susan Rice, we would have said the same thing, because we were drawing on the intelligence information that was then available to us," Kennedy said.
He continued, "This has been, as you all know, a very much evolving situation. What we knew that first week and that first weekend has evolved over time, so we know much more now than we knew then."
The White House now says it believes militants linked to Al-Qaeda carried out the attack.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama's top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, was in Tripoli as part of the U.S. investigation into the attack.
A White House statement said Brennan met with Libyan President Mohamed Magariaf to discuss the investigation and the search for the perpetrators.