More than three weeks after attacks in this city killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, sensitive documents remained only loosely secured in the wreckage of the U.S. mission in Benghazi yesterday, offering visitors easy access to delicate information about American operations in Libya.
Documents detailing weapons collection efforts, emergency evacuation protocols, the full internal itinerary of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens's trip and the personnel records of Libyans who were contracted to secure the mission were among the items scattered across the floors of the looted compound when a Washington Post reporter and a translator visited.
The discovery further complicates efforts by the Obama administration to respond to what has rapidly become a major foreign policy issue just weeks before the election. Republicans have accused Obama of having left U.S. diplomatic compounds in Muslim-majority nations insufficiently protected on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and have questioned the security preparations in the leadup to assaults on embassies in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Sudan. Capitol Hill critics have also pressed for an explanation for the slow pace of the investigation that has followed the attack in Benghazi.
Although the gates to the Benghazi compound were locked several days after the attacks, looters and curiosity-seekers were free to roam in the initial chaotic aftermath, and many documents may already have disappeared.
No government-provided security forces are guarding the compound, and Libyan investigators have visited just once, according to a member of the family who owns the compound and who allowed the journalists to enter Wednesday.
Two private security guards paid for by the compound's Libyan owner are the only people watching over the sprawling site, which is composed of two adjoining villa complexes and protected in some places by a wall only eight feet high.
"Securing the site has obviously been a challenge," said Mark Toner, deputy spokesman at the State Department, in response to questions about conditions at the Benghazi compound. "We had to evacuate all U.S. government personnel the night of the attack. After the attack, we requested help securing the site, and we continue to work with the Libyan government on this front."
State Department officials were provided with copies of some of the documents found at the site. They did not request that the documents be withheld from publication.
None of the documents were marked classified, but this is not the first time that sensitive documents have been found by journalists in the charred wreckage of the compound. CNN discovered a copy of the ambassador's journal last month and broadcast details from it, drawing an angry response from the State Department. Unlike the journal, all of the documents seen by The Post were official.
At least one document found amid the clutter indicates that Americans at the mission were discussing the possibility of an attack in early September, just two days before the assault took place. The document is a memorandum dated Sept. 9 from the U.S. mission's security office to the 17th February Martyrs Brigade, the Libyan-government-sanctioned militia that was guarding the compound, making plans for a "quick reaction force," or QRF, that would provide security.
"In the event of an attack on the U.S. Mission," the document states, "QRF will request additional support from the 17th February Martyrs Brigade."
Other documents detail - with names, photographs, phone numbers and other personal information - the Libyans contracted to provide security for the mission from a British-based private firm, Blue Mountain. Some of those Libyans say they now fear for their lives, and the State Department has said it shares concerns about their safety.
"The guys with beards may endanger my life," said one Libyan contractor, referring to the people who attacked the U.S. mission. He spoke on condition of anonymity, but his photograph, phone number, birthday, age, religion, English-language skills, Libyan national identity number, marital status, method of transport to work and first date of employment at the mission were all listed in a document found at the site, along with similarly detailed information about 13 others and basic information about dozens more.
On Tuesday, two House Republicans sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanding more information about the assault on the Benghazi compound. The letter from Darrell Issa (Calif.) and Jason Chaffetz (Utah) said Libyans working as private security personnel at the compound were warned by family members in the weeks before the attacks to quit their jobs because of rumors of an impending attack. The congressmen did not say where they had received the information.
Concerns about safety in Benghazi have confined a team of FBI investigators to the Libyan capital, Tripoli, which is hundreds of miles away, and local security officials say they cannot guarantee that Americans would be safe here.
"We don't have institutions," said Col. Salah bin Omran, the newly-appointed military head of Rafallah al-Sehati, a government-backed militia that is one of the main groups providing security in Benghazi. "The security for normal people is fine. But I don't know. If the Americans come, I'm not sure they'll be completely safe."
FBI spokesman Paul Bresson would not comment on the agents' location Wednesday. "We're continuing with our investigation and we have not commented on the specific location of our agents or resources," Bresson said.
The delays may have significantly complicated efforts to interview or detain members of Ansar al-Sharia, the militant Islamist militia that the U.S. government suspects played an important role in the attack. Late last month, the militia's compound was stormed by angry protesters, and its members have gone underground, taking their weapons with them after living openly in Benghazi for more than a week after the attack on the U.S. mission.
Many of the Libyan contractors, as well as some members of the brigade once tasked with guarding the compound, say they have not been contacted by the Libyan or American governments about their safety concerns. Some say they have tried to contact the Americans but have not received a response.
The Blue Mountain contractors were intended to complement the armed members of the militia. Both groups were present at the mission on the night of Sept. 11.
In the unsigned memorandum from the U.S. mission to the militia, which appears to be a draft, guards "are required to acquire and maintain their own weapons and ammunition," the document states.
The security presence appears to have been bare-bones, with three or more armed militia members on the compound any time the "principal officer" was present - either the head of the mission or the ambassador. A somewhat larger group of unarmed contractors was also hired to guard the site, but was not mentioned in the memorandum with the militia.
When the principal officer was not present, a single militia member was instructed to be at the front gate between 8 a.m. and midnight. Between midnight and 8 a.m., one militia member was scheduled to be on roving patrol. The militia members were supposed to work a minimum of eight hours a day and were to be paid a stipend of about $28 a day, a relatively standard wage. They were housed on the U.S. compound.
The memorandum tells the militia security force to summon more guards from its nearby base if the mission is attacked, suggesting that the Americans there were concerned that the regular guard force would be inadequate in an emergency.
The itinerary of Stevens's trip to Benghazi includes a near-full accounting of his planned movements during what was supposed to be a visit that lasted from Sept. 10 until Sept. 15. It includes names and phone numbers of Libyans who were scheduled to meet with him. Some of those Libyans have not made their contact with Stevens public and could be at risk if it were publicly known.
The meetings include briefings with American officials, a private dinner with influential local leaders, and meetings with militia heads, businesspeople, civil society activists and educators. The highlight of the visit was the opening of the American Space, a centre intended to serve as a hub for U.S. culture and education.
Several copies of the itinerary were scattered across multiple rooms of the compound. One appears to be a page from the ambassador's personal copy; it was on the floor, next to a chair in the bedroom where he had been sleeping.
The compound still reeked of smoke Wednesday, and all of the buildings had been looted. Overturned furniture, broken glass and strewn documents were everywhere. Chandeliers lay on the floor. In kitchens, food was rotting.
But elsewhere on the compound, gardens were blooming and untouched. Guava trees were heavy with fruit; purple grapes were swelling on rows of vines. The newly hired security guards appeared to be living in a small room at the front gate, where a thin mattress lay on the floor, along with preparations for lunch.