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Lawmakers Say Report On Benghazi Attack Raises Tough Questions

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll CAll File Photo
Corker, who is expected to become the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress, said improving security for America’s diplomats abroad will require all branches of government to step up.

An independent review of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, renewed debate on Capitol Hill on Wednesday over diplomatic security funding. The report, which was sharply critical of the State Department and its assessment of diplomatic security needs in Libya, also said Congress needs to be more supportive of Foggy Bottom’s budget requests for security.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said after a briefing with the authors of the review Wednesday morning that they projected the State Department will need “about $2.5 billion a year over a number of years” to “strengthen our security status in various critical places.”

A State Department-appointed Accountability Review Board assessed the response to the attack and the security failures leading up to it. The department released the unclassified section of its report late Tuesday, while members of the board briefed the Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees Wednesday morning on its findings. Open hearings on the report are scheduled in both committees Thursday.

The panel, headed by retired diplomat Thomas R. Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department” contributed to an “inadequate” security posture at the consulate, technically called a “Special Mission,” in Benghazi. But it also called for “a more serious and sustained commitment” from Congress to support State Department needs when it comes to funding diplomatic security.

“Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives,” the report concludes, noting the funding for diplomacy represents a small percent of both the overall budget and what the country spends on national security.

Thinking It Through

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who is expected to become the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee in the next Congress, confirmed that “numbers were thrown out” on diplomatic security funding during Wednesday’s closed briefing.

But he added, “I don’t know how anybody could possibly be in a position to analyze that yet without beginning a top-to-bottom review of the department itself.”

Corker said the Foreign Relations Committee should conduct such a review “to make sure that the resources that are already there are being used in an appropriate way.”

Only then can Congress determine “what the appropriate resource allocation should be,” he said.

House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., flatly rejected any assertion that the State Department needs more funding.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of funding, as we will see in the open hearing tomorrow,” she said after her committee’s briefing with members of the review board. “If they would not spend money on programs like climate change, there are funds available. Any requests for additional security in Benghazi would have been taken care of, and no such requests were made.”

Ros-Lehtinen said the report reflected “systematic failures of the State Department and all agencies.”

But Corker said that improving security for America’s diplomats abroad will require all branches of government, including Congress, to step up.

“I think we can all do a better job, in fairness,” Corker said. “We as a country need to determine what we want to do with expeditionary setups like this, where we’re in a place where the country does not have control of the country itself.” One of the things the review board found was that the weak Libyan government and a loosely affiliated Libyan militia the State Department was relying on for additional security were both woefully unequipped to assist the United States in protecting its facilities in the country, which is fresh off an Arab Spring-inspired revolution.

“And we need to understand what the value to American diplomacy is of having people in a place like Benghazi,” Corker continued.

The Weak Spots

Democrats and Republicans alike hailed the independent panel’s report as serious, comprehensive and frank. And they applauded Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for saying she would implement all of the panel’s recommendations, and more.

The ARB report made clear that Foggy Bottom, and specifically the State Department’s Diplomatic Security and Near Eastern Affairs bureaus, did not properly coordinate or respond adequately to security concerns in Benghazi, a city in Eastern Libya that was the heart of the uprising that toppled longtime Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. The Associated Press reported that three senior State Department officials resigned Wednesday morning as a result of the report, including Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell and Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security.

The report said the physical security and personnel at the consulate were “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place,” which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The consulate’s perimeter wall, the report noted, was scaled “immediately” by dozens of armed attackers, members of an Islamist militia.

“Washington showed a tendency to overemphasize the positive impact of physical security upgrades, which were often field-expedient improvements to a profoundly weak platform, while generally failing to meet Benghazi’s repeated requests to augment” its security personnel, the report said.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., accused the administration of trying to mislead the American people on some of the details related to the attack.

“I am deeply concerned that the unclassified report omits important information the public has a right to know,” Issa said Wednesday in a written statement. “This includes details about the perpetrators of the attack in Libya as well as the less-than-noble reasons contributing to State Department decisions to deny security resources.”

Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla., a member of the House Intelligence panel, said the review board’s report made clear that the episode was a “failure of leadership.”

“We need stronger leadership at the State Department, we need the administration to heed warnings from the intelligence community, and we need significantly better security at our diplomatic posts around the world,” he said Wednesday in a written statement.

But the report also rebuts claims by some Republicans that the military and CIA hesitated in responding to the unfolding crisis in Benghazi, saying in both cases the response was immediate but ultimately insufficient given the speed and overwhelming force used in the attack.

Deputy Secretaries William J. Burns and Thomas R. Nides are scheduled to testify Thursday on the Hill. Clinton herself was supposed to testify to Congress on the report and the State Department’s response but withdrew last week after suffering a concussion from a fall. Senators said Wednesday they still hope to hear from Clinton at a later date.

“I have made that clear to her chief of staff that it is our expectation as soon as she is able to testify, she will be appearing before our committee,” Ros-Lehtinen said Wednesday. “That is my expectation and I hope that she will comply with that.”

Corker said it would be very helpful “to fully understand ... from her perspective some of the cultural issues the department is dealing with.”

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