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.

Alex Brandon/AP
A locked canvas bag labeled 'SCCI' arrives for a closed oversight hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the circumstances surrounding the deadly attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Capitol Hill Thursday, in Washington.

Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle say they want to get to the bottom of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, so that lessons can be learned – and performance improved – concerning the mitigation of risks involved in carrying out diplomacy in dangerous places.

It’s just not clear that the intensely politically charged atmosphere surrounding the investigations into the assault that killed four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya, will allow that to happen.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing Thursday that sought to begin to understand what happened in Benghazi in order to avoid similar tragedies in the future. But the hearing, only one of several congressional meetings this week on Benghazi to be held in public, was marked by the same political attacks and recriminations that dominated the Benghazi debate prior to the Nov. 6 election.

Republicans on the panel railed against President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for “lying” to the American people about what happened in Benghazi, while Democrats accused their Republican colleagues of “hypocrisy” for blasting the State Department over lax security provisions after having cut the department’s security budget requests.

Responsibility for the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, diplomat Sean Smith, and CIA security contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods falls “squarely on the shoulders of the secretary of state and the president,” said Republican committee member Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, who accused the administration of “turning a blind eye … to the dangers in the area.”

In response, Democrat Gary Ackerman of New York said the “stench of hypocrisy” wafted from the House majority, which he said had cut hundreds of millions of dollars from State Department budget requests for security. “If you want to know who is responsible in this town” for the Benghazi deaths, he added, “look in the mirror.”

The hearing did reveal that Secretary Clinton will testify before the committee, probably next month. Committee Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Clinton has committed to testifying before both her committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on a report expected soon from a panel Clinton named to investigate the Benghazi attack.

The five-member Accountability Review Board is expected to finish up its work and deliver its report by early to mid-December. Ms. Ros-Lehtinen said.

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.

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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