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AUSBROOK: When politics override accountability

Election-year sensitivities may have triggered the Benghazi cover-up

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When the U.S. government fails to protect its citizens, we must determine why. Such failures can erode public faith in the government's abilities and diminish public trust in its leaders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts to examine the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The 9/11 Commission reviewed the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Congress produced two reports on Hurricane Katrina, and the White House produced a lessons-learned report. These reports reflect a healthy self-examination, and their public nature is intended to restore trust and promote improvement.

With respect to the Benghazi attacks, the State Department's Accountability Review Board report to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and ongoing congressional investigations looking into the Benghazi attack provide important insights into the government's failures. The staggering number and scope of the findings and recommendations suggests more than an isolated security breakdown. They suggest a collapse of policy, operations and decision-making. Such a collapse, in stark contradiction to election-year claims, could explain why State Department and White House officials felt the need to falsify talking points and deceive the American people about events in Benghazi.

Now that it is beyond doubt that Susan Rice's talking points were not only inaccurate but falsified, the most important remaining question is why? What were the talking points trying to cover up? Could it really be that senior leadership in the State Department was worried about being criticized by Congress? State Department emails suggest as much, but only insofar as the agency ignored warnings about these attacks. Still, Congress criticizes agencies all the time. Indeed, congressional oversight, by its nature, casts a critical eye on agency activity.

The failure to heed threat warnings — warnings that emails acknowledge were known to "senior officials" at least in the days immediately after the attack — could have been an embarrassing management mistake, or worse, much worse. It could have been the direct result of a failure to appreciate the strategic threat from al Qaeda and its affiliates — in this case, al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb — and to align and coordinate our intelligence, military and diplomatic resources to meet this strategic threat. During the election season, that could have been perceived as a serious political problem, not just routine criticism.

Even more troubling, testimony at Wednesday's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee suggests that this was not a failure of policy, but this was policy. Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory H. Hicks told a rapt audience that military personnel available to be sent from Tripoli to Benghazi were not authorized to join the fight. State Department counterterrorism official Mark Thompson testified that the State Department (without ever consulting him) did not advocate to the Deputies Committee sending a Foreign Emergency Support Team that both he and the FBI thought could have been made available and had an impact.

While the Accountability Review Board recommendations are presented largely as management reforms, it seems as much an admonition to remember the obvious point that projecting American influence abroad must include the use of force to defend our missions. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her board transmittal letter to Congress that "the decimation of al Qaeda's central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan has led to growing ambitions among the terror network's far-flung affiliates, including [al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb]. These are not new concerns. They have been a top priority of our national security team."

If this was a top priority, it certainly did not look like it. This one board review revealed that the administration needed to make significant improvements to meet this threat. Along with 29 recommendations from the board, here is just a sample of new actions initiated by the State Department:

Requesting that Department of Defense deploy personnel to serve on five Interagency Security Assessment Teams for high-threat posts.

Taking a "harder look" at the capabilities of host countries.

Partnering with the Pentagon to dispatch hundreds of Marine security guards to bolster post security.

Realigning resources in the 2013 budget request to address physical vulnerabilities.

Hiring additional diplomatic security personnel.

Strengthening mutual security arrangements between the State Department and other government agencies in places where they are not co-located.

Like the responses to other government reports and recommendations for remedial action following a crisis, these actions will go some distance toward aligning our assets with our mission. That should address concerns over the government's ability to protect us. How about public trust? The election is over. The question is whether, by falsifying the talking points to cover this up during the campaign season, these remedial steps alone can restore the trust government needs to be successful.

J. Keith Ausbrook served as chief counsel for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, special counsel to a House select committee on Hurricane Katrina, and as executive secretary for the Homeland Security Council in the administration of President George W. Bush.

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