AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. The Obama administration has spent weeks defending itself after four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya. Today, the State Department made its defense on Capitol Hill. In a hearing, congressional Republicans hammered the administration; saying it downplayed the terrorist threat in Libya, and changed its story about how the four men, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed.
Initially, U.S. officials said armed men took advantage of a protest and stormed the U.S. consulate. But now, State Department officials say the attack started suddenly on a mostly quiet day. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform says the State Department is finally coming clean about what happened that night in Benghazi, Libya. California Republican Darrell Issa opened his hearing saying it was clear there was never a protest, but that this was a terrorist attack.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONGRESSIONAL HEARING)
REP. DARRELL ISSA: Contrary to early assertions by the administration, let's understand, there was no protest; and cameras reveal that. And the State Department, the FBI and others have that video.
KELEMEN: On the eve of the hearing, one State Department official said that security agents never believed it was a protest gone awry. Officials say when guards first heard gunfire outside the compound, on the night of Sept. 11, they looked at security cameras and saw heavily armed men coming in. The attackers torched the building where the ambassador, Chris Stevens, and another diplomat, Sean Smith, died of smoke inhalation. Two other Americans were killed later that night, in a mortar attack on a nearby annex.
Utah Republican Jason Chaffetz says the Benghazi compound had been targeted twice before; and he accuses the Obama administration of keeping silent about that.
REP. JASON CHAFFETZ: We pretended it didn't happen. Well, guess what? The third time the terrorists came to attack us, they were success - even more successful, killing four Americans. I believe - personally - with more assets, more resources, just meeting the minimum standards, we could have, and should have, saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other people that were there.
KELEMEN: Chaffetz says the U.S. failed to beef up security because it wanted to make things look normal. Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who commanded a security team in Libya, told the committee that security was constant struggle.
LT. COL. ANDREW WOOD: Targeted attacks against Westerners were on the increase. In June, the ambassador received a threat on Facebook, with a public announcement that he liked to run around the embassy compound in Tripoli.
KELEMEN: The Utah National Guardsman says he used to go on runs with the ambassador, and thinks that the security team should have been extended beyond August. Another witness, Eric Nordstrom, who was a State Department regional security officer in Libya, says having an extra half-dozen guards would not have helped with the kind of assault that happened in Benghazi.
ERIC NORDSTROM: I had not seen an attack of such ferocity and intensity previously, in Libya; nor in my time with the diplomatic security service.
KELEMEN: But Nordstrom had been urging the State Department to keep extra security guards in Libya, before he left over the summer. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb told Chairman Issa that Nordstrom had recommended, but not formally requested, more resources. And she says she wouldn't have approved it, anyway.
CHARLENE LAMB: Sir, we had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11, for what had been agreed upon.
ISSA: OK, my time has expired. To start off by saying you had the correct number; and our ambassador and three other individuals are dead - and people are in the hospital, recovering - because it only took moments to breach that facility; somehow doesn't seem to ring true to the American people.
KELEMEN: Democrats accuse Issa of playing politics with this investigation. The committee's ranking Democrat, Elijah Cummings, called for a bipartisan investigation and also suggested that Congress restore hundreds of millions of dollars cut by House Republicans from the State Department's security budget.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Diplomatic security was weak, a former commander of the "site security team" tells Congress. A State Department security aide, though, says "the system we had in place was regularly tested and appeared to work as planned."
Two very different views from two different witnesses today as the House House Oversight and Government Reform Committee opened its probe into the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
From Utah National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, a Special Forces soldier who was Site Security Team commander in Libya from Feb. 12 to Aug. 14:
"The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there. The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there. The RSO [regional security officer] struggled to obtain additional personnel there but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with."
From Eric Allan Nordstrom, supervisory special agent with the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security:
"In Benghazi, the Government of Libya through the 17th February Brigade provided us consistent armed security since the very earliest days of the revolution. A core unit of 17th February Brigade was housed at our compound. ...
"While I'd love to have had a large secured building and tons of security personnel in Benghazi, the fact is that the system we had in place was regularly tested and appeared to work as planned despite high turnover of DS [diplomatic security] agents on the ground."
Nordstrom also offered "personal condolences to the families of these four patriots who gave their lives in the service of their country."
The committee's hearing is being webcast here.
Meanwhile, as The Associated Press reports:
"The committee hearing followed assertions Tuesday night by the State Department that it never concluded that the Sept. 11 attack stemmed from protests over an American-made video ridiculing Islam. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in what the administration now says was a terrorist attack.
"Asked about the administration's initial — and since retracted — explanation linking the violence to protests over the anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet, one official said, 'That was not our conclusion.' "
NPR's Michele Kelemen is due to have much more about today's hearing on All Things Considered later today. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.