The demotions of four senior State Department officials in the aftermath of the deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, a year ago were either “serious steps toward accountability” or a “pathetic” move that merely “reshuffles the deck chairs” -- two key observations from lawmakers at a House hearing Wednesday.
Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee probed for answers from Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, at its fourth hearing on the controversial Benghazi incident, in which four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed. Kennedy gave little ground on the continuing attacks from Republicans upset that President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not receive more blame for the confusing chain of events in Libya, but he praised Congress for providing $1.4 billion in extra funding for embassy security.
“There’s been a troubling lack of accountability in that one year later, no State personnel have been held accountable for the failure to protect at Benghazi,” said panel chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif. “The department was asleep on that 9/11 day. Yet no one was fired and no one missed a paycheck. Sometimes accountability is painful.”
Royce criticized the independent accountability board that reviewed the tragedy for failing to interview and consider action against then-secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He also faulted the department for the lack of an arrest in the case, despite Obama’s promise to do everything to apprehend the perpetrators.
“This is unacceptable and appalling,” added Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. “Even in the IRS scandal two people resigned. It’s not a question of funding or capability, but that people failed to do their job.”
Ranking minority member Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., asked committee members to stop the finger-pointing and look to the future. President George W. Bush “wasn’t blamed for 9/11 and President Reagan wasn’t blamed” for the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 242, he said, noting that Congress had cut funds for embassy security.
Kennedy said the department “must have robust global presence” in its 285 locations worldwide, but warned that “we can never eliminate all risks. The maximum goal is to mitigate the risks.” Calling the Benghazi event “a tragedy for the four who died, for State and for the nation,” he said federal officials are committed to finding the perpetrators and preventing a repeat of such events in the future. “But the risk to the U.S., however, is greater if we withdraw,” he said.
Since the Accountability Review Board released its recommendations in December, State has created a new deputy assistant secretary for high-threat posts to assure that protective equipment is available where needed, Kennedy said. The department has launched a 10-week Arabic language training program and worked with the Defense Department to add 35 Marine guards to the force. State also is adding some 151 personnel to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. “But that won’t stop terrorists from mounting attacks in all cases,” he said.
Security personnel are now included in regular morning briefings on threats, according to Kennedy. “It is inherent in a culture of security that it is not only a management responsibility but extends to all elements,” he said. “That was a bell rung” by the review board’s report.
As for prosecuting the attackers, Kennedy said “the president and the secretary of State, working with the FBI and intelligence agencies are making every effort and are engaged in a full court press to bring these individuals to justice.” But U.S. law enforcement access depends on the government of Libya, which is not in control of all of its territory, he added.
Royce insisted the review board was not as independent as advertised, saying its members were selected by Clinton and many had prior relationships with its leaders, retired ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen. “These relationships can affect impartiality,” Royce said, adding that reassigning the four employees faulted for their handling of Benghazi “doesn’t cut it.”
Kennedy said the board members and staff were all experienced in the field and that many had worked for decades for both Republicans and Democrats. He said removing the four from senior posts is a serious statement of accountability. They were not immediately fired because “an essential element of American fairness that a person is entitled to a review,” he said.
Other Republicans resurrected long-standing questions about where Obama was on the night of the attack, whether State had turned over all requested documents, why U.S. military forces stationed in the region in such sites as Djibouti couldn’t respond in time to save the diplomats’ lives.
“We’ve heard these questions a thousand times,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y. “People just don’t want to hear the correct answers.”
Kennedy denied suggestions by several lawmakers that someone had issued a stand-down order that prevented U.S. troops from a rescue mission, or that State had required officials involved in the tragedy to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Rep. Gerry Connelly, D-Va., disagreed with Republican assertions that money wasn’t a factor in the security shortfalls at the U.S. facility in Benghazi, saying that Republicans proposed embassy security spending cuts of $327 million in fiscal 2011, $200 million in 2012 and $145 million in 2013 “before we came to our senses and restored it.”
Another Benghazi hearing is scheduled for Thursday at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.