BENGHAZI, Libya — More than six weeks after the shocking assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi -- and nearly a month after an FBI team arrived to collect evidence about the attack - the battle-scarred, fire-damaged compound where Ambassador Chris Stevens and another Foreign Service officer lost their lives on Sept. 11 still holds sensitive documents and other relics of that traumatic final day, including drafts of two letters worrying that the compound was under "troubling" surveillance and complaining that the Libyan government failed to fulfill requests for additional security.
When we visited on Oct. 26 to prepare a story for Dubai based Al Aan TV, we found not only Stevens's personal copy of the Aug. 6 New Yorker, lying on remnants of the bed in the safe room where Stevens spent his final hours, but several ash-strewn documents beneath rubble in the looted Tactical Operations Center, one of the four main buildings of the partially destroyed compound. Some of the documents -- such as an email from Stevens to his political officer in Benghazi and a flight itinerary sent to Sean Smith, a U.S. diplomat slain in the attack -- are clearly marked as State Department correspondence. Others are unsigned printouts of messages to local and national Libyan authorities. The two unsigned draft letters are both dated Sept. 11 and express strong fears about the security situation at the compound on what would turn out to be a tragic day. They also indicate that Stevens and his team had officially requested additional security at the Benghazi compound for his visit -- and that they apparently did not feel it was being provided.
One letter, written on Sept. 11 and addressed to Mohamed Obeidi, the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs' office in Benghazi, reads:
"Finally, early this morning at 0643, September 11, 2012, one of our diligent guards made a troubling report. Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission. The police car stationed where this event occurred was number 322."
The account accords with a message written by Smith, the IT officer who was killed in the assault, on a gaming forum on Sept. 11. "Assuming we don't die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police' that guard the compound taking pictures," he wrote hours before the assault.
The State Department declined to comment directly on the documents, citing an ongoing investigation. "An independent board is conducting a thorough review of the assault on our post in Benghazi," deputy spokesman Mark Toner said. "Once we have the board's comprehensive account of what happened, findings and recommendations, we can fully address these matters."
Obeidi, the Libyan official named on one of the printouts, said he had not received any such letter, adding, "I did not even know that the U.S. ambassador was visiting Benghazi." However, a spokesman for the Benghazi police confirmed that the ministry had notified the police of the ambassador's visit. "We did not receive that letter from the U.S. consulate. We received a letter from Ministry of Foreign Affairs Benghazi asking for additional security measures around consulate during visit of the ambassador. And the police provided all extra security which was asked for," the spokesman said.
It is not clear whether the U.S. letters were ever sent, and if so, what action was taken before the assault on the evening of Sept. 11. But they speak to a dangerous and uncertain security environment in Benghazi that clearly had many State Department officials worried for their safety.
Since the fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi's regime, the country's powerful militias have often run roughshod over the police and national army -- and often coopted these institutions for their own purposes. U.S. officials were certainly well aware of the sway that various militias held over Benghazi, given that the consulate's external security was supposed to be provided by the Islamist-leaning February 17 brigade.