The inquiry led by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee into the slaying of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last year has been attention-grabbing, but some senior GOP aides are worried that the partisan overtones are diverting Congress from identifying and addressing the real lessons learned from the attack.
In particular, these aides say key staffers have been overly consumed with chasing down or addressing inaccurate or unfounded accusations emerging from the inquiry.
“We have got to get past that and figure out what are we going to do going forward,” a GOP aide stressed. “Some of the accusations, I mean you wouldn’t believe some of this stuff. It’s just — I mean, you’ve got to be on Mars to come up with some of this stuff.”
In this charged political environment, where some on Capitol Hill have accused the president of a possible cover-up related to the attack just weeks before the 2012 presidential election, defense policy Republicans are trying to refocus attention on core issues and create some good out of the tragedy.
One sign of this focus will come when the House Armed Services Committee starts marking up its annual defense authorization bill Wednesday.
“We’re trying to stay on the substance of it,” one senior GOP aide said. “There has got to be some good that comes out of those fatalities.”
Steps to Correct Shortcomings
Lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee are drafting provisions, which will be included in the chairman’s mark of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill (HR 1960), aimed at pushing the Pentagon to better coordinate with the State Department on plans for embassy and consulate security to address lessons from the attack.
“What you will see is something looking forward perspectively on the status of deployed forces to protect U.S. and economic and diplomatic interests around the world,” said one senior panel aide leading the effort. “Aside from the hyperbole of the debate, the truth of the matter is, had the Department of State put in place sufficient defensive capabilities on the ground, that still doesn’t get you there because I think you look at [how] no embassy or consulate is a castle keep.”
Aides describe embassy and consulate defense as “burn-down plans.” In effect, the State Department’s current security plans are simply aimed at buying time for the destruction of sensitive documents and attempts to keep embassy personnel from harm long enough for support to arrive, particularly from the host government.
“Going forward, we have to have the Department of State have real defensive plans that then match the posture of the Department of Defense,” one senior panel aide said.
The aide stressed that the military was on high alert on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, “but they weren’t on strip alert with forces ready to deploy in an offensive manner. So we’re asking that question: If that is the new norm, how are you going to do it going forward?”
Examinations of the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans found significant problems in planning, particularly between State, the CIA — which had an annex nearby — and the U.S. military, and a failure by State officials to respond to security concerns in Libya.
The State Department on Monday released a fact sheet detailing its own steps to address some of those failures, based on recommendations made by a congressionally mandated panel that Foggy Bottom appointed to investigate the attack and the response.
State has elevated the bureaucrats responsible for diplomatic security and streamlined how and to whom security concerns at various overseas posts are reported. And it established a panel of outside experts, including members of the military, to evaluate how to best to secure high-risk, high-threat diplomatic missions. That review is due by the end of the summer, the fact sheet said.
The State Department has also hired more than 100 additional diplomatic security personnel, with the goal of hiring a total of 151 new security staffers by the close of fiscal 2014.
“We’re working more closely with the Defense Department, with our partners, linking our embassies with various military commands to make emergency extradition more central to our military mission,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday.
The U.S. military already has forces deployed in southern Europe and elsewhere in the region to quickly respond to developments across the sprawling African continent. With the rise of al-Qaida-related terrorist groups in North Africa and elsewhere on the continent, more U.S. diplomatic officials face potential dangers and the U.S. military will be called on to respond.
Discussions of these security issues have, up to now, been overshadowed completely by the flurry of accusations from some Republicans that the president either failed to act out of incompetence, insufficient concern, or for some as yet unexplained political motive. Many of these allegations have surfaced as part of an investigation led by House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Senior GOP aides pointed out that many of the accusations involving security and military forces turned out to be unfounded. One recent example involved a supposed whistle-blower who reported that an armed Predator drone was operating in the area, but was not called upon to respond to the Benghazi attack, an assertion labeled erroneous by Pentagon officials and Hill staffers.
“There are some real issues there and then there is just some crazy stuff,” the senior House GOP aide said. “The crazy stuff is, you know, the airman in Ramstein [Air Base, Germany,] that knew that the Predator [drone] was armed. There are no armed Predators in the region there. The [status of forces agreement] does not allow us to fly them armed, and everybody knows it.”
GOP aides described another criticism aired at a recent House Oversight Committee hearing that there were four security officers at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli who were ordered to remain in the capital for several hours after the first reports of an attack, rather than being scrambled to assist the consulate in Benghazi.
“The stand-down order was for four guys,” the GOP aide said. “When you step back and say how were the people killed at the annex, they were killed by an indirect fire mortar round. Four more M-4s [rifles] inside the annex doesn’t change that outcome. In fact, they might have just created more casualties. We have got to get down to what really happened on the DoD side and for us the DoD side was not properly postured, why?”
Further, there has been some criticism of U.S. military officials in Europe overseeing Africa Command who may not have reacted directly to the attacks. But they are not permitted to launch offensive operations across borders without civilian authorization.
Emily Cadei contributed to this report.