By Mark Hosenball
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. intelligence efforts in Libya have suffered a significant setback due to the abandonment and exposure of a facility in Benghazi, Libya identified by a newspaper as a "CIA base" following a congressional hearing this week, according to U.S. government sources.
The intelligence post, located 1.2 miles from the U.S. mission that was targeted by militants in a September 11 attack, was evacuated of Americans after the assault that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Three other Americans died in the attacks on U.S.-occupied buildings, including two who were hit in a mortar blast at the secret compound.
The publication of satellite photos showing the site's location and layout have made it difficult, if not impossible, for intelligence agencies to reoccupy the site, according to government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The post had been a base for, among other things, collecting information on the proliferation of weaponry looted from Libyan government arsenals, including surface-to-air missiles, the sources said. Its security features, including some fortifications, sensors and cameras, were more advanced than those at rented villa where Stevens died, they said.
The sources said intelligence agencies will find other ways to collect information in Libya in the aftermath of last year's toppling of long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"Benghazi played a critical role in the emergence of the new Libya and will continue to do so. It makes sense that we would return there to continue to build relationships," one U.S. official said.
Public discussion of the top-secret location began with a contentious Wednesday hearing of the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which was investigating whether security lapses put Americans at risk.
The State Department displayed a satellite photograph showing two locations - the rented villa that served as a special diplomatic mission and the compound that officials had cryptically described as an "annex" or "safe house" for diplomatic personnel.
Both compounds were attacked by militants believed to be tied to al Qaeda. After the diplomatic complex was overrun, U.S. and Libyan personnel rushed by car to the second site, where they fought off two more waves of assaults, officials said.
Charlene Lamb, a top official in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security, told lawmakers that the secret compound took "as many as three direct hits."
Two U.S. security officials, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed there in what U.S. officials described as an unlucky mortar strike. As many as 37 people eventually escaped to Benghazi's airport.
When the satellite photo was displayed, a senior committee Republican, Representative Jason Chaffetz, complained that the discussion was drifting into "classified issues that deal with sources and methods," and the photo was removed from public display. No one at the hearing used the term "CIA base" to describe the facility.
The next morning, Dana Milbank, a Washington Post columnist, wrote that the committee's "boneheaded questioning" of State Department witnesses left little doubt that the compound in the pictures was a "CIA base."
The Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with ties to the Obama White House, followed up with a blog post accusing Republicans of revealing the "Location Of Secret CIA Base."
On Friday, Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, accused Republicans of mishandling secret information.
Spokespeople for the State Department and White House had no comment. The CIA also had no comment.
Oversight committee spokesman Frederick Hill said committee Democrats made matters worse by asking questions about the satellite photos. "Even after Republicans objected, Democrats continued to ask questions that led State officials to put even more sensitive information about who worked there into the public realm," Hill said.
The dispute over who was responsible for identifying the base is the latest case in which intelligence agencies - particularly the CIA - have been dragged into a political fray over the Benghazi attack.
The Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks has become fodder for criticism from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan ahead of the November 6 election.
Intelligence officials are not happy at being drawn into the political battle. Paul Pillar, one of the CIA's former most senior analysts, said the agency is sure to be dismayed at how its sensitive work has been dragged into the debate.
"They're trying to do the best they can with fragmentary and incomplete information. No doubt they are very unhappy that this issue is now being exploited for political purposes," Pillar said.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Will Dunham)