By Elise Labott
Amid a growing diplomatic mandate after the revolution and increased concerns about an "uncertain and unstable" security environment, the U.S. Embassy staff in Libya requested a 16-member Special Operations "security support team" remain in the country for several months beyond the end of its scheduled departure in August, calling its work "essential," according to a State Department memo obtained by CNN Security Clearance.
The request was denied.
"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," reads the February 28 document.
"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," it said.
The memo, drafted by Deputy Chief of Mission Joan Polaschik, is being examined by a House Committee questioning whether there was adequate security for U.S. diplomats and missions before Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi on September 11.
It was circulated to members of the diplomatic corps and other security personnel and indicated Stevens would approve the final version.
The team of 16 Special Operations troops was sent to the capital, Tripoli, last year to help the United States establish a presence after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. According to the document, the team was needed to provide security escorts, protect U.S. facilities, train local forces and act as a quick response force.
It was needed for "vital medical, communications, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), as well as, command and control enablers that are critical to post's security effort," the memo said.
The embassy in Tripoli had asked for an earlier extension of the security support team, which was granted. But the February draft asked for another 120-day extension beyond the scheduled departure in August, calling the team "an integral part of our mobile and fixed-site security functions" given the embassy's "large and growing mandate to support Libya's transition and rebuild the embassy facilities.
"This policy and management workload translates into a large number of movements that require security support," the request reads. "Quite simply, we cannot maintain our existing levels of embassy operations, much less implement necessary staffing increases, without a continued SST presence."
The State Department released a statement Monday saying an extension of the team would not have made a difference in protecting the diplomatic post in Benghazi during the attack.
It said the team was "based in Tripoli and operated almost exclusively there."
"The SST was enlisted to support the reopening of Embassy Tripoli, to help ensure we had the security necessary as our diplomatic presence grew," the statement said. "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."
Although the memo specifically asks for the team to remain in Tripoli, it was used to augment security for U.S. diplomats traveling throughout the country.
In the memo, Polaschik noted that she and Stevens moved throughout the country along with other U.S. diplomatic personnel, which translated into U.S. security forces in Libya supporting 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 memo stated.
Although the State Department was encouraging the embassy to develop plans to transition its security staffing to incorporate more locally based guards, the ability to execute these plans were "severely limited" by a number of factors, including inconsistent support from the Libyan government for bringing in weapons and training guards, and unreliable host government security at U.S. facilities.
The document describes an unpredictable and increasingly unstable security environment with "armed militias beyond control of the central government and frequent clashes in Tripoli and other major population centers."
"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," it reads.
"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."
Within months there were a string of attacks in Benghazi. In addition a failed bombing attempt with an improvised explosive device against the compound in June, there was an attempted kidnapping of a Red Crescent staff member, a bomb attack on a U.N. convoy, a rocket-propelled grenade attack on the British ambassador's convoy, and a similar attack on an International Committee of the Red Cross facility that caused the organization to pull out of Benghazi.
In April, U.S. Special Forces troops went to the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi after the attack on the U.N. convoy spurred concerns about security. The U.S. military team went there to assess the situation and train local Libyan forces on how to better protect the facility.
The February document is one of several being examined by the House Oversight Committee, which is investigating the attacks and holding a hearing Wednesday to determine whether adequate security for U.S. diplomats and missions in Libya was available before Ambassador Stevens and the three others Americans were killed in the September 11 attack.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-California, called the hearing after reports from what he called whistle-blowers alleging that the State Department rejected requests for additional security.
Lt. Col. Andy Wood, the head of the security support team, and Eric Nordstrom, a former senior security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Libya, will testify alongside senior State Department officials.
Another internal State Department e-mail - also provided to CNN by a U.S. government source - shows the State Department earlier this year denied a request by the security team at the U.S. Embassy in Libya for an airplane to transport security personnel and for diplomatic business. Stevens was copied on the e-mail, which was signed by Miki Rankin of the State Department's Near East Bureau.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Friday that the decision not to keep a DC-3 plane in Tripoli - and use charter flights, instead, if needed - "is a very common practice" in places where commercial airline service is available.
In the days after the assault, U.S. administration officials offered conflicting assessments on what may have led to the fatal security breach. Senior State Department officials have maintained that despite significant improvements to security at the post over the past several months, the security personnel in Benghazi were outmanned by several dozen heavily armed extremists during the attack and that no reasonable security presence could have fended off the sustained assault the consulate faced.
Officials initially said the violence erupted spontaneously amid a large protest about a privately made video produced in the United States that mocked the Prophet Mohammed.
But the U.S. intelligence community revised its assessment. It now believes the incident was "a deliberate and organized terrorist assault carried out by extremists" affiliated with or sympathetic to al Qaeda.
For the first time, an FBI team spent "a number of hours" last week at the Benghazi attack site, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. They were accompanied by what Little described as a "small footprint of (U.S.) military personnel."
U.S. Special Operations Forces units have been in Libya, as well as nearby countries, to help collect intelligence about the assault, a U.S. military official told CNN last week. The official declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information.
Officials said the military presence was an indication of ongoing security concerns in the region, which is a major reason why it took FBI agents three weeks to visit the attack site. That gap, however, has raised questions about the integrity of the FBI investigation and concerns that sensitive documents may have been left unsecured.
Three days after the attack, CNN Senior International Correspondent Arwa Damon discovered Stevens' journal during a visit to the unguarded, abandoned compound.
Last week, a Washington Post reporter visiting the site found sensitive documents, including emergency evacuation protocols, details of U.S. weapons collection efforts, and personnel records of Libyans who had been contracted to provide security.
The State Department has said no classified documents had been left on the premises.
CNN's Barbara Starr and Jill Dougherty contributed to this report.