POMED Notes: Benghazi – The Attacks and Lessons Learned
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on Thursday (12/20) entitled “Benghazi: The Attack and the Lessons Learned.” The hearing featured testimony by William Burns, Deputy Secretary of State, and Thomas Nides, Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, with Senator John Kerry (D-MA) presiding. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was originally scheduled to appear, but was unable to attend due to illness.
For full notes continue reading, or click here for a PDF.
Senator John Kerry opened the session by alluding to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s commitment to appear before the committee, and said she looks forward to giving her testimony in January. He recognized Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans who lost their lives, thanking them for their service and sacrifice. Kerry said that Congress shares the blame for shortcomings abroad, noting that gridlock and lack of revenue has not allowed them to appropriately address foreign policy objectives. He thanked Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen for putting together a quality report that tackles head-on the questions of Congress. Kerry pointed out that the international affairs budget is less than one-tenth that of the Department of Defense. He concluded saying, “We need to make certain that we are not pennywise and pound-foolish in supporting America’s vital overseas interests. Allocating funds to international affairs is not spending; it’s investing in our long-term interests in order to enhance our diplomacy.”
Deputy Secretary William Burns pointed out that the State Department had taken three steps to address the Benghazi attack. “We took immediate steps to further protect our people and posts, intensified a diplomatic campaign aimed at combating the threat of terrorism across North Africa, and Secretary Clinton ordered an investigation to determine exactly what happened in Benghazi,” he said. Burns indicated the Accountability Review Board (ARB) recommendations were already being implemented in order to fix problems of security. He said the State Department understands diplomacy must be practiced in dangerous places, and Chris Stevens fully accepted that mission.
Deputy Secretary Thomas Nides said the State Department has a responsibility to provide security to their diplomatic staff, accepts all recommendations of the ARB, and will pursue steps above and beyond the report. He stated that an internal task force had identified 60 action items and that will be implemented by the end of the calendar year. He referenced a review of threat assessments at U.S. embassies around the globe as indication that commitment to security improvements was a high priority, and asked that Congress give it support to the State Department’s efforts.
Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) asked if the State Department would submit a security request that truly reflects its needs. Nides responded saying that embassies will need additional Marines, money for construction, and increased funding for diplomatic security. He pointed out that the Vienna Convention requires host countries to provide security for diplomatic missions, prompting Boxer to request more information on embassies which rely heavily on local militias for protection.
Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) said the ARB report indicates that the “State Department does not think outside of the box.” He wondered why the State Department did not ask for more funding for diplomatic security in Libya prior to the attack. He pointed out that the Department never asked for more personnel. Corker noted that 18 ARBs have been commissioned, none of which have been fully implemented. He said, “The culture at State has to change; the committee and maybe the next Secretary of State can help with this issue.”
Senator Robert Menendez (R-NJ) asked how the State Department could address the problem of confusion over responsibilities on diplomatic security, and hoped that the new threats indentified in the review would be included along with funding requests in the future. Nides said the State Department is working to ensure that communications between headquarters and the field are correct, and committing a lot of “eye balls” to investigate the issues.
Senator James Risch (R-ID) suggested that every host country be treated differently, that rules of engagement ought to be reviewed, and discrimination between countries on security details should be instituted.
Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) said dangerous posts should allow for a division of responsibility for security issues, and should not fall solely on the head of the mission. He asked how the State Department could institutionalize that careful attention to security issues across the board. Burns said the intelligence on violence in Eastern Libya was intra-Libyan, and that the embassy did not expect to be attacked. “W made the mistake of focusing on credible threats, and our shortcomings were highlighted by the ARB,” he added. Nides said there has been an unprecedented cooperation between Department of State and Department of Defense. He went further saying the use of additional Marines would be extremely helpful, and that the State Department is also asking to build barracks for Marines on their compounds.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) said he was puzzled that the report placed much of the blame on low-level management and didn’t understand why Libya was not more of a priority given the recent U.S. military action there. Burns said there was no specific discussion on security needs in his meetings with officials in July or September of 2012, but emphasized the importance of security capabilities for Libyan government. He acknowledged that memos had been circulated and there was a general knowledge of security threats beyond the Assistant Secretary level. Burns said the State Department “worked hard to push the Libyans to improve their security forces.”
Senator Bob Casey (R-PA) asked about the timelines for implementation of the ARB recommendations. Burns said development of security institutions for transitional governments is extremely weak and a great challenge, but the State Department is determined to help them grow stronger. Nides said the State Department has asked for additional funding, formed teams to assess threats, took the 29 recommendations and divided up 60 tasks with deadlines, in addition to naming a deputy secretary for high-risk posts.
Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) asked, “What is inhibiting our ability to take action on these security issues?” Nides pointed to the process of contracting, bidding, and oversight as the main obstacle to deliver speedy responses. He suggested the departments be given additional authority to expedite security related concerns.
Senator John Barrasso (R-WY) closed by asking if the State Department had identified the terrorists responsible for the attacks. Burns said the question could be best discussed in other settings; however, he pointed out that the FBI is leading the investigation. He maintained that the State Department is very committed to this effort saying, “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we are working hard to find them.”