(WASHINGTON) — U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens wanted a Security Support Team, made up of 16 special operations soldiers, to stay with him in Libya after their deployment was scheduled to end in August, the commander of that security team told ABC News.
The embassy staff’s “first choice was for us to stay,” Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, 55, told ABC News in an interview. “That would have been the choice of the embassy people in Tripoli.”
But a senior State Department official told ABC News that the embassy’s Regional Security Officer never specifically requested that the SST’s tour be extended past August, and the official maintained there was no net loss of security personnel.
The Regional Security Officer “asked for a number of U.S. shooters because of the pending SST redeployment and he was at that number,” said the senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing internal investigation.
The State Department issued a statement Monday, saying, “The SST was enlisted to support the re-opening of Embassy Tripoli, to help ensure we had the security necessary as our diplomatic presence grew. They were based in Tripoli and operated almost exclusively there. 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.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had already asked for — and received — an extension of the SST earlier in the year. A February draft request for a 120-day extension, obtained by ABC News, stated that the team is “an integral part of our mobile and fixed site security functions,” augmenting the security escort work done by the Mobile Security Detachment, protecting the embassy, training local guards, serving as a Quick Reaction Force, providing “vital medical, communications, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), as well as, command and control enablers that are critical to post’s security effort.”
The embassy request stated: “Quite simply, we cannot maintain our existing levels of Embassy operations, much less implement necessary staffing increases, without a continued SST presence.”
Wood, a member of the Utah National Guard who ordinarily works in security for the Department of the Interior, is scheduled to testify before the House Oversight Committee hearings on Wednesday.
Asked for comment to the memo and Wood’s comments, a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee told ABC News: “Diplomats working in Libya viewed security provided by highly trained Americans as critical to their safety and mission. The Oversight Committee’s investigation continues to seek answers about why — even as threats against Americans increased — senior State Department officials erroneously decided such security was no longer needed.”
Investigators are exploring whether anyone at the State Department told the Embassy specifically not to request another extension.
In his interview with ABC News, Wood did not argue that his and the Security Support Team’s presence would have made a difference for Ambassador Stevens and the other three Americans killed at the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012.
“That’s way speculative; I don’t even know the facts of what happened” that night, Wood said.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio