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Libya hearings: Will political vitriol squelch effort to improve security?

One main purpose for congressional hearings into the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, is to find out how to improve security for US diplomats. But political point-scoring could get in the way.

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Also on Thursday, the House and Senate intelligence committees were to hold closed-door sessions with senior administration intelligence officials. Then on Friday, former CIA Director David Petraeus, who abruptly resigned last Friday over an extramarital affair, is set to testify to both congressional intelligence committees in closed-door sessions.

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Diplomatic and security experts appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that the State Department can do a better job of reducing the risks that diplomats face, but they also emphasized that risk is an understood part of a job that in the 21st century entails being on the ground in more and increasingly dangerous places.

Michael Courts, the acting director for international affairs and trade at the General Accounting Office, told the committee that the GAO had made a number of recommendations to the State Department in 2009 after completing a review of diplomatic security provisions. But he said some of the key findings went unheeded.

“The State Department has not done the strategic review of diplomatic security we recommended,” he said. But Mr. Courts repeatedly told committee members he could not draw conclusions about Benghazi from that report, since it was completed in 2009, before the US had a diplomatic post in Benghazi and when Libya was still under the rule of Muammar Qaddafi.

But another expert, James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, said that while risk for diplomats can never be eliminated, the information widely available about conditions in eastern Libya – including the presence of Al Qaeda-affiliated extremist groups – suggested there was a “predictable threat.”

Looking to the future, Mr. Carafano said Al Qaeda and its offspring organizations can be expected to try to replicate the Benghazi attack. “Once they succeed, they return to that tactic again and again,” he said, adding that the State Department has to prepare for this kind of assault.

Others focused on the chilling effect to diplomacy they said could come from reacting to Benghazi by limiting the ability of American diplomats to put their boots on the ground.

Ryan Crocker, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars in those countries, was not at the House committee hearing, but said at an event in Washington this week that he is concerned the US will learn the “wrong lessons” of the Benghazi tragedy. He noted that his colleague, Ambassador Stevens, knew the dangers in a country like Libya but also knew that only by getting out of the embassy in Tripoli could he help Libya move forward.

Also testifying at the House hearing was Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, who said whatever reforms are reached in Washington in response to Benghazi should not hamstring diplomats.

“We have to leave enough room for people in the field to make their own decisions,” he said.

One thing he said members of Congress and other Americans rightly concerned about what happened in Benghazi should not lose sight of: “It was Ambassador Stevens who made the decision that he should travel to Benghazi.”

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