The State Department signed a six-figure deal with a British firm to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya just four months before a sustained attack on the compound killed four U.S. nationals inside.
Contrary to Friday’s claim by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland that “at no time did we contract with a private security firm in Libya,” the department inked a contract for “security guards and patrol services” on May 3 for $387,413.68. An extension option brought the tab for protecting the consulate to $783,000. The contract lists only “foreign security awardees” as its recipient.
The State Department confirmed to Danger Room on Monday that the firm was Blue Mountain, a British company that provides “close protection; maritime security; surveillance and investigative services; and high risk static guarding and asset protection,” according to its website. Blue Mountain says it has “recently operated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, the Caribbean and across Europe” and has worked in Libya for several months since last year’s war.
A representative for Blue Mountain, reached at its U.K. offices Monday, said no one was available to comment.
The State Department frequently hires security companies to protect diplomats in conflict zones. It usually is done through what’s known as the Worldwide Protective Services contract, in which a handful of approved firms compete to safeguard specific diplomatic installations. In 2010, State selected eight firms for the most recent contract. Blue Mountain wasn’t among them, and the State Department did not explain why the Benghazi consulate contract did not go to one of those eight firms.
It isn’t known how the Blue Mountain contractors performed Tuesday when the consulate came under sustained attack by small arms fire. In an official account provided Wednesday by the Obama administration, embassy security staff — both American and Libyan — failed to break the assault. They required help from Libyan security forces, assisted by a sympathetic Libyan militia, to regain control of the consulate’s main building and end a pitched battle that raged for 4.5 hours.
Nor is it clear if two former Navy SEALs killed in the assault were Blue Mountain employees. One of them, Glen Doherty, told ABC News last month that he was part of a mission sent to Libya to lock down Moammar Gadhafi’s missiles to prevent them from reaching the black market. Blue Mountain’s contract doesn’t refer to safeguarding thousands of rockets and missiles that have gone missing in the aftermath of the 2011 war.
But the call for contract security came at an opportune moment. Shortly after the department issued the contract, extremist elements active in Libya began targeting U.S. and allied installations. On June 5, the consulate sustained a rocket attack shortly after news spread that Abu Yahya al-Libi, a Libyan member of al-Qaida, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. Another rocket attack in the city attempted to kill the visiting British ambassador on June 11. (Both attacks allegedly were by the same extremist organization, the Imprisoned Omar Abdul Rahman Brigades, which may have played a role in last week’s consulate assault.)
The final modification to the contract came on June 15. It is unknown when Blue Mountain contractors arrived to help secure the consulate. The State Department would not specify how many guards Blue Mountain had posted in Benghazi during last week’s attack. (A department official said that Nuland misspoke about State not hiring private guards in Libya.)
Blue Mountain representatives have yet to respond to an inquiry about the contract. UPI reported in December that the firm “has been operating with Western companies in Libya for several months.”
Much remains unclear about the attack on Benghazi. But the presence of private security guards in the lightly-defended compound helps explain how approximately 25 to 30 diplomatic staff held out for over four hours against a crowd of possibly hundreds armed with rifles, rockets and other small arms without massive loss of life.