Lawmakers split sharply along partisan lines Thursday on the need for Congress to boost funding for diplomatic security in the wake of the September attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya.
State Department officials testified Thursday in the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees that they would be seeking increased funding to cover personnel and construction costs to improve security, per the recommendations of an independent review of the Benghazi attack released publicly on Tuesday night.
The department has already sent a request to Congress asking to reprogram $1.4 billion for fiscal 2013 to cover the costs of additional Marine deployments to overseas posts determined to be high risk; increases in diplomatic security personnel by 5 percent; and physical security upgrades — all responses to the assault in Benghazi, which killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said at the hearing that “there’s no question in my mind that we need additional resources in a significant way.”
“Times are changing” and foreign missions’ “needs are changing,” observed Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “And as much as people like to say, ‘Well, it’s not the money,’ it’s the money.”
Indeed, among the 29 recommendations from the review panel — known formally as the Accountability Review Board — was one calling for Congress to restore to “full capacity” a State Department program started in 1999 to upgrade the security of diplomatic facilities around the world. The review board’s report says the Capital Security Cost Sharing Program, as it is called, should be funded at “approximately $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2015, including an up-to 10-year program addressing that need, prioritized for construction of new facilities in high-risk, high-threat areas.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has promised to implement every one of the recommendations made by the panel, which was appointed by the State Department and headed up by retired diplomat Thomas R. Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.
Focus on Additional Money
But Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., expressed reservations Thursday about all the talk of new funding.
“I’m dismayed that this hearing has already centered on additional money,” Corker said. “We have no idea whether the State Department is using its money wisely or not.”
Corker, who is expected to become the ranking Republican on the committee next year, said that the report of the Accountability Review Board makes clear that the State Department is not using its existing resources efficiently and not doing a good job prioritizing needs.
Given the deteriorating security situation in Eastern Libya over the summer, “I don’t understand why you didn’t send a notification up ... asking to shift funds for security to Benghazi,” he said.
And he noted that the State Department could have kept a team of 16 military personnel in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, paid for by the Pentagon, but rejected a request to extend their stay shortly before the attacks took place.
“This has nothing to do with money,” Corker said.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., echoed those sentiments in the House’s hearing on the ARB report Thursday afternoon.
“I know there will be an attempt to shift the responsibility for this tragedy to a shortage of resources,” Ros-Lehtinen said in her opening remarks. “But budgetary constraints were not a factor in the Department’s failure to recognize the threats and adequately respond to the situation in Benghazi. The problem was and is about misplaced priorities.”
Specifically, she pointed to department funds “being lavished on global climate change, culinary diplomacy programs, and other favored projects.”
And Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., noted at the hearing that “when it comes to resources, authorities and funds have been increased . . . over the past dozen years” for diplomatic security.
Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Nides testified Thursday that the State Department and the Pentagon have teamed up to begin a worldwide review of the United States’ security posture at its embassies and other facilities around the world. They have deployed five teams to assess security at 19 posts in 13 countries considered particularly high risk, and plan to update Congress about what sort of additional funds and authorities may be needed as soon as that assessment is complete.
One key shift both Nides and Undersecretary of State William J. Burns highlighted was that going forward, the State Department is preparing to shoulder more responsibility for its security in certain host nations that are either incapable or unwilling of guaranteeing it themselves, as they are obligated to do under international law.
“For more than 200 years, the United States — like every other country around the world — has relied on host nations to provide security for our embassies and consulates. But in today’s evolving threat environment, we have to take a new and harder look at the capabilities and commitment of our hosts,” Nides testified on Thursday.
“We’re dealing with a new normal,” he added.
One of the main issues in Benghazi was the failure of the weak Libyan government and a loosely affiliated Libyan militia that the State Department was relying on for additional security to protect the consulate. The country, fresh off an Arab Spring-inspired revolution, is still deeply fragmented and has had trouble reigning in its many independent militias into one centralized, government-run armed force.
“The world’s really changed over the last 200 years,” Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said Thursday morning. “You get a real sense of incompetence” from the local guards tasked to guard U.S. embassies in many locales.
“Generally those people are confused, most of them you wouldn’t meet going into a theater here in the United States,” Risch said. “We really need to discriminate amongst countries as to what kind of effort we put forward.” He also said he hoped that in the future, U.S. Marines could be tasked with protecting diplomats, not just U.S. documents and other assets overseas, as they are now.
“A big chunk of the responsibility is on the Libyan government,” Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., added Thursday afternoon. “The fact is, this is a government that is a coalition that includes, or at least countenances, some of the most evil jihadist elements imaginable.”
Posting more Americans Marines or other security guards to protect U.S. facilities and personnel abroad, however, will involve greater costs.
“You can’t even implement all of an accountability review board’s recommendations if one of the recommendations, a significant part of it, is about resources, and you don’t have the resources provided by the Congress,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., observed on Thursday morning.
“We need to take this in the context of making sure, collectively, both State and the Congress, looks at its responsibility to protect our embassies and our diplomatic personnel abroad,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.