Congressional hearings on the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, fell into partisan bickering Thursday, with Democrats blaming the incident on a lack of security funding and Republicans accusing the State Department of misspending the funds it has received.
Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Congress bears some responsibility for security failures at diplomatic outposts because lawmakers have “the power of the purse.”
The State Department’s annual budget, roughly $50 billion a year, is “less than one-tenth of the Pentagon‘s” $650 billion a year, said Mr. Kerry, who is expected to be tapped to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state.
“For years, we have asked our State Department to operate with increasingly lesser resources to conduct essential missions,” he said in opening remarks during a committee hearing. “Our diplomats don’t wear a uniform, but they swear the same oath as the men and women of our armed forces, and their sacrifice is no less important.”
But on the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Iliana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the State Department cannot blame “its long string of failures on inadequate funding.”
“Budgetary constraints were not a factor in the department’s failure to recognize the threat and adequately respond,” the Florida Republican said. “The problem was and is about misplaced priorities.”
The State Department should have funded security personnel and training using the money “being lavished on global climate change, culinary diplomacy programs and other favored projects,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said.
The divergent partisan perspectives came in response to the report on the State Department’s internal probe of the consulate attack. The report blamed “grossly inadequate” security at the diplomatic mission on “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” of State Department headquarters, where officials turned down repeated requests for more security from diplomats in Libya.
U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed in the onslaught, which was carried out by Islamic extremists on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
‘This has nothing to do with money’
The report, which was produced by a mandatory investigative panel called an Accountability Review Board, calls for an additional $23 billion in diplomatic security spending over the next 10 years. Mrs. Clinton asked Congress this week to provide the first $1.3 billion of that sum in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
On Thursday, two deputy secretaries of state — Thomas R. Nides and William J. Burns — testified before both committees about the report, of which a classified and an unclassified version were released late Tuesday.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who will become the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee next year, expressed skepticism about the department’s promise to implement all the board’s 29 recommendations.
Mr. Corker noted that 18 review boards have looked into attacks on U.S. diplomats or facilities since the investigative process was made mandatory in the 1980s.
“Y’all never fully implemented [the recommendations of] one yet, not one,” he said. “The culture within this State Department needs to be transformed.”
The report’s findings highlight a dilemma with which the State Department has wrestled for years: how to protect diplomats while allowing them to interact with foreign governments to promote U.S. interests and values.
Mr. Corker called the effort to blame the lack of diplomatic security on funding “amazing.”
“Every time there’s an issue, we start talking about more money,” he said. “This has nothing to do with money.”
He said the State Department has shown no sign of spending its existing funds properly.
“What I saw in the report is a department that has sclerosis, that doesn’t think outside the box, that is not using the resources that it has in any kind of creative ways, is not prioritizing,” Mr. Corker said.
The report found that the State Department had been “for many years … in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work.” This created a culture in which some State Department managers tend to “favor the restriction of resources as a general orientation” — defaulting to “No” when asked for more money, the report said.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said during the House committee’s hearing that State Department officials had assured him in October that a lack of resources was not the reason a series of requests for additional security in Libya had been rejected.
“I wanted to get a specific answer — were budget considerations any part of [the] decision as to what level of security they should have at the Benghazi consulate, and [the] answer was an emphatic ‘no,’” Mr. Rohrabacher said.
He also raised questions about how Obama administration officials described the attack in its immediate aftermath, telling Mr. Burns at one point during his testimony that “your statement that the president and
Secretary Clinton made clear that it was a terrorist attack right afterwards is not true. It’s not accurate.”
Several Republican lawmakers have accused the administration of initially attributing the attack to spontaneous protests over a U.S.-made anti-Islam video in order to maintain the president’s foreign-policy image before Election Day and not undermine his campaign message that al Qaeda had been decimated.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice became the lightning rod for criticism because she trumpeted that line on the Sunday TV talk shows five days after the attack. Last week, Mrs. Rice withdrew her name from consideration to replace Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state.
Several Republicans on Thursday sharply questioned the State Department officials about why investigators apparently did not interview Mrs. Clinton or President Obama, and asked why more was not done to get military forces into Benghazi after the first wave of the attack.
“It appeared as if the incident was dying down” after the first wave, said Mr. Burns, noting the report had concluded: “The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders. Quite the contrary.”
But Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, said the board might have reached that conclusion because it did not question the right people.
“With due respect to Ambassador [Thomas] Pickering, the ‘Partial Accountability Review Board‘ he chaired has apparently failed to answer or even ask pertinent questions of top leadership, including and especially Secretary Clinton,” Mr. Smith said.
Meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that the department had relieved of their duties four senior officials criticized by the report, and accepted the resignation of one of them: Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security.
Mrs. Nuland declined to name the others, but administration officials identified two of them as Charlene Lamb, Mr. Boswell’s deputy who was responsible for embassy security around the world, and Raymond Maxwell, a deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the North African nations of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
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Shaun Waterman is an award-winning reporter for The Washington Times, covering foreign affairs, defense and cybersecurity. He was a senior editor and correspondent for United Press International for nearly a decade, and has covered the Department of Homeland Security since 2003. His reporting on the Sept. 11 Commission and the tortuous process by which some of its recommendations finally became ...
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