By Elise Labott
Amid accusations from Libyans and leading senators on Capitol Hill that the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi, Libya, was not adequately protected, top State Department officials offered the agency's most vigorous defense yet of security measures taken to fortify the post in the months before last week's deadly attack on the compound.
The sources, who spoke on the condition they only be identified as senior State Department officials because of the sensitive nature of the information, agreed to speak to CNN to respond to claims the United States did not respond to warnings about the dangerous conditions in Benghazi.
The September 11 attack on the compound, which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, has led to questions about whether proper precautions were taken to protect diplomatic personnel in an area where there was growing concern about extremism.
There also have been questions as to whether the post in eastern Libya should have been closed.
CNN's Arwa Damon reported earlier this week that the Libyans had a meeting just three days before the attack with senior employees from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. They talked about the rising threat against western interests in Benghazi.
Jamal Mabrouk, a member of the February 17th Brigade, a militia connected to the government but not part of Libya's armed forces, told CNN that he and a battalion commander attended the meeting, which was about economic matters but turned to the deteriorating security situation.
"The situation is frightening, it scares us," Mabrouk said he told the American delegation.
Jalal Bushala, a spokesman for the February 17th Brigade, said Libyans specifically highlighted the point that the Libyan government could not control these militias and advised the Americans to decrease their presence in Benghazi until they could ensure better security.
He added that at no point did the Americans ask for the Libyans to provide additional security as host nation, nor did they offer it.
But the senior State Department officials said a recommendation to close the post was never passed up the chain of command at State Department headquarters, either on behalf of the Libyans or U.S. diplomats in Benghazi.
"Never at any time did we discuss closing," one of the senior officials said. "We were engaging in important activities in eastern Benghazi and that was our platform to engage. Nobody recommended that we close and we were not closing."
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said on Wednesday there were "previous warnings of pending attacks – in every way."
McCain told reporters on Capitol Hill that he was not getting adequate information from U.S. government officials about what happened in Libya and was relying on alternate sources to get information.
"Other sources of information was that security was very much lacking, now whether that is absolutely true or not I cannot say yet," McCain said, though he did not elaborate on where he got the information. "We have information that there was - and I do not know if it's totally accurate - that there were previous warnings of attacks, there was a very extremist militia and that there was very lax security at the consulate, but I have no official corroboration."
The senior State Department officials said they were told of the meeting but there was no mention to those in Washington of the security concerns expressed by the Libyans. The officials said there were "no such recommendations" to State Department leadership, nor a request for additional resources.
State Department officials knew about the dangers in the area but the decision was to "keep on top of the situation and we would remain open."
Several top American officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have said the United States had "no actionable intelligence" that an attack on the Benghazi mission was being planned.
National Counterterrorism Director Matthew Olsen told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that while the threats of militias with al Qaeda and other sympathies in Libya were well known, there was no specific intelligence that the Benghazi post faced an imminent attack.
But security had been enhanced at the post after a number of incidents earlier this year, the sources said, including a failed bombing attempt against the compound in June.
"We took the place and made improvements to it in a continued fashion," one of the senior officials said, adding that a pre-September 11th review of base security deemed the post to be adequately secured given the threat.
The threat assessment was based in part on the June attack and previous attacks on other foreign targets, which included the attempted kidnapping of a Red Crescent staff member, a bomb attack on a United Nations convoy, a rocket propelled grenade attack on a International Committee of the Red Cross facility, and a similar attack on the British ambassador's convoy.
Such attacks, the officials noted, were small in nature and inflicted few injuries or physical damage.
The protections in place reflected the State Department's understanding of the threat which, the officials said, based on the previous incidents did not suggest a swarming attack of the embassy by a militia.
"Notice the pattern there," one of the officials said. "Stand-off attacks with no follow up. This (September 11) assault represented a whole paradigm shift for which there was no prior intelligence and there was no context to put in related to what was going on."
The officials said over the past few months, several security enhancements were made to the compound, including additional barriers and barbed wire, increased lighting, chain link fences, additional sand bags and closed circuit television.
Every U.S. building on the compound was also fitted with a safe room with a steel door, although the officials recognize the room was not fire-proof. Stevens and the other Americans killed in the attack are believed to have died of asphyxiation from heavy smoke.
The officials noted there were three regular armed U.S. security officers detailed to the Benghazi post on the day of the 9/11 attack in addition to two armed American guards serving as a private detail for Stevens.
Several armed Libyans from the February 17th militia also lived on the compound to help protect the facility. The group was one of the Libyan militias with close ties to the government and was considered friendly to the United States.
A "Quick Response Force" of several other armed security officers was also stationed in Benghazi at another facility, which came to the site during the attack to help fend off the gunmen, the officials said.
Sen. Susan Collins, the Republican vice chair of the Senate Homeland Security Committee said Wednesday she was "stunned and appalled" to find out U.S. Marines were not guarding the mission, that foreign nationals were mostly responsible for security.
But the officials noted the sustained assault on the consulate by a large force of heavily armed assailants was comparable to attacks until now only aimed at U.S. military bases. More guards, or even a Marine detachment, the officials maintained, could not have curbed the lethal attack.
"The lethality and ferocity of this assault is nothing that has been witnessed in Benghazi in previous attacks, and hard for us to think about another event that is similar," added a second official, saying that it was unclear additional armed guards could have prevented the onslaught.