The House Select Committee on Benghazi got off to a relatively subdued start Wednesday, though the panel's Republican chairman and ranking Democrat managed to take a few veiled jabs at each other in their opening statements.
Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., pushed back at Democrats who have argued the hearing is just a rehash of questions about the 2012 terror attack that killed four Americans.
"Some question the need for this committee," he said. "I respect your right to disagree, but the mark of a professional, indeed the mark of character, is to do a good job even if you do not think the task should have been assigned in the first place."
Maryland Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking Democrat who has been at the forefront of those questioning the need for another round of hearings, responded a few minutes later.
"Too often over the past two years, the congressional investigation into what happened in Benghazi has devolved into unseemly partisanship. Today, we have an opportunity to focus on reform," he said, reading from prepared remarks.
Here is Cummings' complete statement as prepared for delivery:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding today’s hearing. I know every Member of this panel is dedicated to ensuring that our work honors the memories of the four Americans who were killed in Benghazi—Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty. I want to thank our colleague, Representative Schiff, for proposing the topic of today’s hearing. Too often over the past two years, the congressional investigation into what happened in Benghazi has devolved into unseemly partisanship. Today, we have an opportunity to focus on reform. How can we learn from the past to make things better in the future? This kind of oversight can be productive, it can be critical, and it can sometimes even be tedious, but it can also save people’s lives. I sincerely hope the Select Committee will stay on the course of constructive reform and keep this goal as our North Star. It would be a disservice to everyone involved to be lured off this path by partisan politics. Today, we will review the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board, which was chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During our previous investigation in the House Oversight Committee, Chairman Gowdy and I heard directly from both men about how seriously they took their roles. Ambassador Pickering called it a “debt of honor.” Their report was independent, it was adopted unanimously by all Board members, and it was a blistering examination of what went wrong at the State Department. They made 29 recommendations, and Secretary Clinton accepted all of them. After they issued their report, the State Department Inspector General issued his own report finding that “the Department wasted no time addressing the recommendations.” The Department has been working on implementing these recommendations for the past year and a half, and Congress should ensure that it finishes the job. Today, I would like our witnesses to provide an update on the status of several of the Board’s recommendations. First, the Board found that the Department’s response to the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi was “inadequate.” It was inadequate at the post in Benghazi, at the Embassy in Tripoli, and here in Washington. Ambassador Pickering explained that the post did not take action despite crossing several “tripwires” that should have caused officials to review security more closely and develop a stronger response. The Board recommended that the Department change its procedures to make sure that security breaches are reviewed immediately. Today, the Department reports that it has created a new process that requires posts to report “tripwires” as soon as they are crossed so security officials can review them immediately and take action if necessary. I want to know if this process is now fully operational, and, if so, how it has been working so far. The Board also found that we should not have relied so heavily on local militia groups, like the February 17 militia, to protect our post. The Board called this reliance “misplaced,” and it found that these security forces were “poorly skilled.” The Board recommended that the Department strengthen security “beyond the traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts.” Today, the Department reports that it has 17 new Marine Security Guard Detachments and another new Marine unit to enhance security in changing threat environments. In addition, the State Department is now using new funding from Congress to hire 151 new personnel in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, or DS. I want to hear from our witnesses about whether these actions are sufficient, or whether we need to do more. The Board also found fault with a Deputy Assistant Secretary within DS who denied repeated requests for additional security in Benghazi. At the time, this official oversaw the security of all 275 diplomatic posts around the world. To address this problem, the Department created a new position to focus exclusively on the security needs of roughly 30 posts experiencing the highest threats. The Board praised this action, stating that it could be “a positive first step if integrated into a sound strategy for DS reorganization.” Today, I want to hear from the State Department specifically about how this new position is working and whether they believe we should make additional changes. Everyone understands that diplomacy, by its nature, sometimes requires us to be in very dangerous places. Our diplomats work in high-threat environments, and although we cannot eliminate every risk, we must do everything we can to keep Americans as safe as possible when they are serving overseas. With that, I want to conclude by recognizing the tremendous sacrifices that are made every single day around the world by our diplomatic corps, the intelligence community, and our military servicemembers on behalf of the American people.
Here is Gowdy's complete statement, as prepared for delivery:
A little over two years ago, four Americans were killed serving our country in Benghazi, Libya. Two were killed when a facility emblematic of our country was set on fire. Two were killed because they dared to fight back and defend themselves and others. Sean Smith, Chris Stevens, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty represented us. They represented our country and our values. We sent them to do that. They were killed in an attack rooted in the animus some people hold toward us, simply because we are us. To the family, friends, and loved ones of those killed, we can never adequately express our condolences and gratitude. As you have helped us understand, the four killed were more than just pictures on a TV screen. They were sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, and friends. And they were our fellow Americans. I remain hopeful there are still things left in our country that can transcend politics. I remain convinced our fellow citizens deserve all of the facts of what happened before, during, and after the attacks in Benghazi and they deserve an investigative process worthy of the memory of those who died and worthy of the trust of our fellow citizens. Some question the need for this committee. I respect your right to disagree, but the mark of a professional, indeed the mark of character, is to do a good job even if you do not think the task should have been assigned in the first place. Given the gravity of the issues at hand, I am willing to risk answering the same question twice rather than risk not answering it once. I am willing to reconsider previously held beliefs in light of new, additional, complimentary or contradictory evidence. I am willing to approach anew witnesses previously interviewed in light of the real possibility that additional questions may be warranted. As we are keenly aware, all documents responsive to congressional requests have not been produced. Moreover, there are witnesses with information or access to information with whom no committee of Congress has spoken. I am optimistic the vast and varied backgrounds of our colleagues can be put to great use on behalf of our fellow citizens. The House of Representatives constituted this committee to find all of the facts, and I intend to do so fully and in a manner worthy of the people we serve. Our fellow citizens have legitimate and high expectations: (1) They expect us to protect and defend those we send to represent us, (2) They expect us to move heaven and earth to help those representing us who are in harm’s way; (3) They expect government to tell the truth in the aftermath of a tragedy; (4) They expect we will not continue to make the same mistakes over and over again. Which leads to this hearing. Benghazi was not the first time our diplomatic facilities and people have been attacked. The barracks in Beirut, our facilities in Tanzania and Kenya are a few that come to mind amid too many others. And after those attacks, groups came together and made recommendations on how to prevent future attacks. That is the process seemingly followed. An attack takes place, we commission a group to study how to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we pronounce it is time to move on and yet it happens again. So to those who believe it is time to move on, that there is nothing left to discover, that all questions have been asked and answered, that we have learned the lessons to be learned— we have heard that before. And yet the attacks and the tragedies keep coming. It is stunning to see the similarities in the recommendations made decades ago and the recommendations made after Benghazi. If you doubt that, compare the recommendations made nearly 25 years ago with those made after Benghazi. We do not suffer from a lack of recommendations. We do not suffer from a lack of boards, commissions and blue ribbon panels. We suffer from a lack of implementing and enacting those recommendations. That must end. So it is appropriate to review the recommendations of the most recent ARB and Rep. Adam Schiff is to be credited for suggesting we do so. It is also fair for us to ask why have we not done a better job implementing recommendations made decades ago. Why does it take an attack on our people and facilities for us to make recommendations? Why not evaluate the threat before the attack? Why not anticipate rather than react? The people we work for yearn to see the right thing done, for the right reasons, and in the right way. They want to know that something can rise above the din of politics. They want to trust the institutions of government. So to fulfill the duties owed to those we serve and in honor of those who were killed perhaps we can be what those four brave men were: neither Republican nor Democrat. 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