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Diplomatic security in Libya 'weak' before attack, former leader of protection team testifies

Two former security offers from the Benghazi consulate where four Americans were killed in a terrorist attack told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that they had requested security assistance but were "fighting a losing battle." NBC's Andrea Mitchell reports.

WASHINGTON — A Special Forces soldier who commanded the security team for U.S. diplomats in Libya until just before the fatal attack there told a congressional hearing Wednesday that there was never enough personnel to protect the consulate in Benghazi.

Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who commanded a 16-member U.S. military team in Libya from Feb. 12 to Aug. 14, told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that U.S. security was so weak that in April, only one U.S. diplomatic security agent was stationed in Benghazi.

"The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there ... Diplomatic security remained weak,'' according to Wood's testimony. "The RSO (regional security officer) struggled to obtain additional personnel there (in Benghazi), but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with," Wood said.

That view was echoed by Eric Nordstrom, is the former chief security officer for U.S. diplomats in Libya, who told the committee his pleas for more security were ignored.

Nordstrom addressed the diplomatic security issue in an Oct. 1 email to a congressional investigator. He said his requests for more security were blocked by a department policy to "normalize operations and reduce security resources."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not testify on Wednesday, but sent two high level department officials to testify at the hearing.

Darrell Issa questions State Dept. officials about the intelligence failures related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi Libya. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

Patrick Kennedy, Under Secretary of State for Management, responded to allegations that the outcome of the attack indicated lax security.

The assault on the U.S. compound was "an unprecedented attack by dozens of heavily armed men," Kennedy said. "There was no actionable intelligence available... indicating that there was a planned massive attack."

He said there are regular assessments of resources required to mitigate risk for employees, but that risk cannot be eliminated.

Another state department official, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Programs Charlene Lamb, added that the state department "had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time," based on recent assessments.  

The Sept. 11 attack on the consulate killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, who chaired the hearing, set the tone for a contentious back-and-forth over whether the attack on Benghazi could have been averted if intelligence and security had been handled differently by the State Department.

"We know the tragedy in Benghazi ended as it did," Issa said. “We know now that it was caused by a terrorist attack that was reasonably predictable to eventually happen somewhere in the world, especially on Sept. 11. Requests for extensions for more security in Libya appear to have often been rejected."

Democrats were concerned that after the attacks, a Republican member of the committee visited Libya to investigate, but no Democrats were present on that fact-finding trip.

They accused Republicans for blocking funding requested by the State Department for beefing up security at outposts throughout the turbulent region.

Republicans expressed frustration that the State Department put out a fairly detailed timeline on the attacks to the press the night before the hearings.

Briefing reporters Tuesday ahead of the hearing, State Department officials were asked about the administration's initial — and since retracted — explanation linking the violence to protests over an American-made anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet.

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In a departure from statement by other administration officials, the officials said the department never believed the attack was a protest gone awry over a film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, while "others" in the Obama administration initially drew that conclusion.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

It was a top administration diplomatic official — U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice — who gave a series of interviews five days after the attack that wrongly described the attack as spontaneous.

She said the administration believed the violence was unplanned and that extremists with heavier weapons "hijacked" the protest against the anti-Islamic video. She did qualify her remarks to say that was the best information she had at the time. Rice since has denied trying to mislead Congress.

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Handling of security and the aftermath of the attack has become an increasingly prominent theme for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republican leaders who say they never believed the original explanation.

Democrats on the committee said that they were left out of the investigation leading up to today's hearing, calling it "completely one-sided and unique."

"Although the chairman claims that we are pursuing this investigation on a bipartisan basis, that has simply not been the case," said ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md. 

Democrats on the committee said they had no access to documents that Republicans claim to have pertaining to the investigation. They also say that they had no access to one of the witnesses, Lt. Col Wood.

Issa was "resorting to petty abuses in what should be a serious and responsible investigation of this fatal attack," Cummings said.

An aide said they did have access to the committee's interview with Eric Nordstrom, who acts as a Regional Security Officer for the State Department, but only because Cummings, assisted with arranging the interview.

Cummings was asked last week if he thought the hearing was political, answering "I think it's a lot politics, come on." He released a statement later saying he supports investigating the attacks in Benghazi, but in a more strategic way.

NBC News staff, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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