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MCCAIN, GRAHAM AND AYOTTE: Critical questions still unanswered on Benghazi

Susan Rice withdrawal will not end scrutiny

- - Saturday, December 22, 2012

With U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's withdrawal from consideration for the position of secretary of state, some have assumed that Congress will now be less insistent on a full accounting of the facts surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi that resulted in the murder of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.

This is wrong, for one simple reason: The president of the United States is ultimately responsible for the safety of Americans serving our nation overseas. Regardless of whom the president nominates for national security positions in his administration, the American people deserve to know what happened three months ago in Benghazi - and why.

The release this week of the State Department's Accountability Review Board (ARB) shows widespread failure within Mr. Obama's administration.

Contrary to Mrs. Rice's assertion after the attack, the ARB found that security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi was "grossly inadequate" - the result of "systemic failures" of leadership and management. The report thoroughly discredits the administration's narrative - pushed for two weeks after the attack - that the murder of four Americans was a result of a "spontaneous" protest to an offensive video.

While the ARB report sheds important light on some of the failings within the State Department, many important questions still remain unanswered, including:

Did the president's national security staff make him aware of the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that occurred in April and June of this year and the assassination attempt on the British ambassador in Benghazi around the same time? If the president was informed, why did he not take the lead, which is the president's responsibility, to ensure that our consulate and our people were better protected?

What were the president's and the secretary of state's activities during the 7-hour time period that our consulate was under attack?

When did Secretary Hillary Clinton become aware of the previous attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya, and what steps did she take to protect State Department officials in Benghazi?

On the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, after multiple attacks this year on U.S. and Western interests in Libya, and with rising insecurity in countries across the Middle East, why were American military units and assets in the region not ready, alert and positioned to respond in a timely fashion to what should have been a foreseeable emergency? After all, two of the four people we lost in the Benghazi attack were killed seven hours after the fighting began.

Why were the testimonies of the U.S. personnel who were evacuated from Benghazi on Sept. 12 - eyewitnesses who knew there never was a demonstration outside the consulate - not immediately factored in to the judgments of our intelligence community? Does this failure reflect obstacles that still exist to the free sharing of information across executive branch agencies, which was a key concern of the 9/11 Commission?

Why do we still not have clear answers on the internal process that produced inaccurate talking points several days after the attack?

Perhaps most importantly: Why did the administration not do more to support and assist the new Libyan government that took power after the fall of Qaddafi as al-Qaeda, affiliated groups and local militias established sanctuaries in the ungoverned spaces of eastern Libya - a development that directly impacts U.S. national security interests, and which is the real explanation for why four Americans lost their lives in Benghazi?

This last is perhaps the most troubling question of all. The pattern of violent extremist activity in eastern Libya was well documented for months leading up to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012, yet the administration did too little to support our Libyan partners. These partners were grateful for America's help in their fight for liberation. They elected a pro-American government in July, and they sought greater U.S. assistance to treat their war wounded, train their national security forces, secure their borders, build their democratic institutions and expand the rule of law. Libyans do not want al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and militias running amok in large parts of their country. Sadly, that is the reality they now face. This is the broader failure of the administration's "light footprint" approach toward Libya.

Until answers are provided to the questions that still remain, we will continue to demand them, and the lessons that should be learned from them, to better protect our citizens in a dangerous world.

John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are Republican senators.