Investigators looking for lessons from the fatal terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi might want to start on Capitol Hill, where Congress slashed spending on diplomatic security and U.S. embassy construction over the past two years.
Since 2010, Congress cut $296 million from the State Department’s spending request for embassy security and construction, with additional cuts in other State Department security accounts, according to an analysis by a former appropriations committee staffer.
Rep. Michael Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, made clear Wednesday that congressional staff will be looking into the attack, in addition to a probe by the State Department’s inspector general and another State Department investigation required by federal law.
The cuts to the embassy construction, security and maintenance budget was almost 10 percent of the entire appropriation for that account over those two years, said Scott Lilly, now a scholar at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“Anytime we cut that account back, we are putting people’s lives at risk, people who are serving the country” in dangerous places abroad, said Mr. Lilly.
The cuts mean that “a lot of places you’d intended to secure better, you don’t reach” this year, he added.
He said he did not know whether the cuts had impacted security at the Benghazi consulate that was stormed on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks by heavily armed Islamic extremists, who burned down the building and killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
A State Department official told The Washington Times that there was no impact on security in Benghazi from the cuts.
Since 1999, the official said, the department has spent $13 billion on 94 new secure diplomatic facilities “and security upgrades to existing properties that have moved more than 27,000 people into safer, more secure facilities.”
The cuts were the latest in a series of squeezes on State Department spending. Congress has appropriated less money for the department than requested in every year since Fiscal 2007, according to budget figures.
“During both the latter years of the Bush presidency and throughout the Obama presidency, the administration has recommended boosting spending on foreign aid and [State Department] foreign operations, including security, and Congress has always cut it back,” said Philip J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesman.
“There is simply not a constituency on the Hill to increase spending on diplomacy and development. Resources do matter.” said Mr. Crowley, now a fellow at the George Washington University Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.
“Getting the budget request cut is pretty standard for the State Department,” added James Dobbins, a former career diplomat who was a special envoy to a series of global troubled spots under former President Bill Clinton and former President George W. Bush.
But he noted that the State Department has gotten “billions and billions over the years” to rebuild, move and fortify missions around the world since two 1983 suicide truck bomb attacks on U.S. facilities in Beirut.
Following those attacks, a special commission was established by the secretary of state to examine security measures at U.S. embassies. The Inman commission report in 1985 recommended standards for diplomatic facilities like narrower windows, blast-proof walls and “setback” — a distance between the public street and the buildings sufficient to protect the occupants from truck bombs.
“The architecture it required was fortress-like,” according to former State Department counter-terrorism adviser Michael B. Kraft.
He said the standards imposed a “security premium” on embassy construction and refurbishment that added about 10-15 percent to the cost.
Dozens of diplomatic facilities have had security upgraded, often moving to the suburbs to acquire the large plots of land necessary to provide embassy compounds with setback, according to Mr. Dobbins.
He is skeptical that budget cuts might have affected the outcome of the deadly events in Benghazi, noting that up to 100 extremists with rocket-propelled grenade launchers, heavy machine guns and mortars had stormed the compound.
“There are some levels of attack for which no reasonable precautions can prepare,” he said, adding that “any reasonable security presence” would likely have been overwhelmed by the gunmen.
Former Ambassador Charles Ray, who left the foreign service recently, said that he had “on multiple occasions dealt with [situations] … where security upgrades were warranted by conditions on the ground but unfunded.” He did not comment directly on the Benghazi attack.
The separate investigations by Congress and the State Department inspector-general will proceed along with a legally required probe by a specially convened Accountability Review Board. Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appointed career diplomat Thomas Pickering to lead the review board investigation.
On Wednesday, Mr. Rogers said he is not concerned by the possibility of three different probes.
“Another set of eyes is a good thing,” he said, “It’s something we’re going to have to get to the bottom of. I think we’ll have to do our own investigation, we being Congress.”
“Seeing this confusion or lack of concern or at least lack of candor in the details [about the attack] that we had is very, very concerning,” he added.
Initially, when approached by lawmakers last week, State Department Inspector General Harold W. Geisel appeared to balk at the idea of a separate inquiry by his office.
“In view of … our desire not to interfere with investigations by other law enforcement entities or the Department of State, we will offer our support and assistance as needed,” he wrote to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Connecticut Independent, and Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican.
Over the weekend, the senators expressed their dissatisfaction with his position.
“We think there ought to be two investigations,” Mr. Lieberman told C-SPAN.
He noted that the inspector-general at Department of Homeland Security investigated allegations of sexual misbehavior by Secret Service agents in Columbia, even as the secret service was carrying out its own probe.
“If it was justified in the case of Secret Service agents consorting with prostitutes in Cartagena, it’s certainly justified in Benghazi where four Americans were killed,” Mr. Lieberman said.
“I hope [the inspector general will] go forward with his own investigation.”
Mr. Geisel’s office is developing a “scope of work” plan for an inquiry, which would “address the senators’ concerns,” said spokesman Douglas Welty.
“We are trying to do the most efficient and effective investigation, but … there might be some duplication [of the Accountability Review Board probe] to ensure independence and oversight.” said Mr. Welty.
Mr. Kraft, who retired in 2004 and recently wrote the first unclassified guide to the organizational structure of the U.S. counter-terrorism effort, questioned the need for multiple investigations at this time.
“It takes time for the FBI, the intelligence community and the State Department accountability board to get the facts and determine who did it — especially in a difficult environment like Libya,” he said.
” I hope that the multiple investigations focus on different aspects and do not trip over each other or divert the guys on the ground from doing their digging.”
Judith Yaphe, a research fellow at the National Defense University and a former CIA counter-terrorism analyst, saying different agencies were often at “cross-purposes” when investigating terror attacks,
“We tend to fall over each other out there,” she said.
“History repeats itself,” she added. “Those lessons that needed to be learned [from previous attacks] — the mistakes we made, the problems we have — they haven’t changed.”