The House Select Committee on Benghazi’s much-anticipated first public hearing Wednesday produced few partisan fireworks, as members of both parties grilled a top State Department official about improvements to embassy security in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack that left America’s ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead.
Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr told the panel the State Department has made “tremendous progress” on the 29 recommendations from the department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) that probed the Benghazi attack, completing 22 reforms with seven in progress or nearing completion.
“While I am there, while [Secretary of State John F.] Kerry is there, we are going to make sure that every single one of these recommendations is fulfilled,” Mr. Starr told the committee.
It was a low-key start to an investigation that has sparked angry partisan exchanges on Capitol Hill, with Republicans insisting that many questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the incident have yet to be answered, and Democrats at one point questioning whether they would even participate in the probe.
Fixes already implemented include increased training for overseas staff and an increase in diplomatic security personnel around the world, as well as a new validation process to better weigh the benefits and risks associated with staffing overseas diplomatic posts such as the U.S. mission in Benghazi.
Mr. Starr, who started work in his current position in November 2013, testified that after the Benghazi attack, the State Department now ranks their 30 “highest-threat, highest-risk” posts and examines threat-level information every single day.
But he also conceded that such preparations can only go so far.
“One of the critical lessons we learned from Benghazi is that there are many times — and we know this from times past — that we don’t get specific threat information before an attack,” he said. “If we did, we would thwart the attack.”
Many Democrats have cited the handful of investigations into the attack that claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, as evidence that a new investigation isn’t warranted — a sentiment Rep. Trey Gowdy, the select committee’s chairman, acknowledged Wednesday.
“But the mark of a professional — indeed, the mark of character — is to do a good job with a task even if you don’t think the task should have been assigned in the first place,” said Mr. Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and a former prosecutor.
The panel’s work, including sensitive topics such as the White House “talking points” immediately after the attack and the role of President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as the attack was proceeding, are expected to stretch well into next year.
Mr. Gowdy made a point of reading State Department recommendations issued in response to embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 that similarly called for heightened security and threat awareness.
“You can’t predict everything that’s going to happen, but some contingencies maybe you can plan for,” Mr. Gowdy told reporters after the meeting.
Mr. Gowdy also pledged to hold additional public meetings. At the suggestion of ranking member Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, he said he’d invite Mr. Starr back in December to provide an update on how the department is doing implementing the remaining changes. Mr. Starr had characterized some issues as “evergreen,” like one calling for increased language training for overseas personnel.
Mr. Cummings pledged afterward to “hold the State Department’s feet to the fire,” citing an obligation to the victims of the Benghazi attack.
“I don’t want a situation where we have discussions but no results because, after all, the families of Chris Stevens and Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty and Sean Smith — they expect us to make things better for those who are courageous enough to serve as a part of our diplomatic corps across the world,” Mr. Cummings said.
Other witnesses to testify Wednesday were Mark Sullivan and Todd Keil, two members of a “best practices” panel that was an outgrowth of the State Department’s review.