By Jamie Crawford and Jill Dougherty
The State Department earlier this year denied a request by the security team at the U.S. Embassy in Libya for continued use of a plane for security personnel and diplomatic business, according to an internal State Department email provided to CNN.
While the presence of the plane in Libya would not have stopped the deadly September 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, questions are emerging over whether the agency properly heeded security concerns and requests like this one from their diplomats in Libya.
The email, provided to CNN by a U.S. government source, was signed by Miki Rankin of the Near East Bureau (NEA), which oversees State Department operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed along with three other Americans in what U.S. intelligence believes was a terrorist assault on the Benghazi post, is copied on the May 3 email.
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The email was first reported by ABC News on Friday.
In the message, Rankin tells Stevens and other officials whose names were redacted, that Patrick Kennedy, under secretary for management, "has determined that support for Embassy Tripoli using the DC-3 will be terminated immediately."
The State Department considered the request of the Security Support Team at the embassy, however "it was decided that, if needed, NEA will charter a special flight for their final departure."
Security support teams are U.S. Special Forces deployed to high threat areas to protect American diplomats. The State Department works in cooperation with the Defense Department to determine deployments.
When asked about the denial spelled out in the email, the State Department said the decision was not extraordinary.
"This is a very common practice in places where there's no commercial airline service," Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters on Friday. "When commercial service was subsequently established, we then moved that asset back to other State Department business."
But he said the agency essentially uses its aircraft when there are no commercial flights available.
Toner said the aircraft had been moved to Libya from Iraq.
A senior administration official told CNN that a chartered aircraft was delivered to assist with the evacuation of American personnel on the evening of the Benghazi attack.
"So [the] assertion that it affected our real-time response doesn't really ring true," the official told CNN.
CNN reported previously that security at the diplomatic mission was enhanced due to concerns prompted by previous incidents in Benghazi.
After a U.N. convoy was attacked in Benghazi last April, a small team of U.S. Special Forces commandos was sent to the consulate to assess security, an Obama administration official told CNN's Barbara Starr last week.
The U.S. military team recommended a number of changes that included sandbag reinforcement of guard positions at the site. They also conducted training for local Libyan security personnel.
Analysts who follow the situation said the aircraft denial by the State Department likely springs from tension between a finite level of resources and budgetary constraints around the globe.
"It looks like someone made a funding decision just based on what I can read into this," Fred Burton, a former diplomatic security agent with the State Department, told CNN.
"At the end of the day, people don't like to realize this but it is a fact of life," Burton, now with Stratfor, a security research firm, said. "There are operational costs to these kinds of protection requirements that nobody really cares about until there is tragedy, and then someone says why wasn't there a plane there? Maybe at that moment in time they couldn't afford to have it there."
Such planes add to the operational capabilities for diplomatic missions. In the early days of the revolution that overthrew Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, the planes were used to fly in cash from neighboring Tunisia to pay U.S. embassy staff in the absence of a formal banking structure in Libya.
Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this week outlining 13 instances in the six months prior to the Benghazi attack that represented a "clear pattern of security threats" that justified increased security for U.S. personnel and facilities there, the letter said.
Clinton pledged full cooperation with committee's investigation. The Oversight panel is scheduled to hear from two State Department officials involved with security in Libya at a hearing next week.
Separately, the State Department has launched a review board led by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering to investigate the attack. The board has 90 days to deliver its findings to Congress.