Libya attack: Congressmen casting blame voted to cut diplomatic security budget

Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Darrell Issa claim the Benghazi consulate sought more security before the deadly attack. They also both voted to cut the State Department's embassy security budget.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah (left) and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California, both claim the Benghazi consulate sought more security before the deadly Sept. 11 Libya attack, voted to cut the State Department's embassy security budget.

Who's to blame for the Sept. 11 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi?

If you believe Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the answer is the State Department. He complained in an interview with The Daily Beast yesterday that US guards were replaced with Libyan nationals in the months before the attack.

"The fully trained Americans who can deal with a volatile situation were reduced in the six months leading up to the attacks," he told the website. "When you combine that with the lack of commitment to fortifying the physical facilities, you see a pattern.”

Mr. Chaffetz has been among those leading the Republican effort to pin the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on the Obama administration. Earlier claims from Chaffetz and fellow Republican Congressman Darrell Issa that the administration ignored pleas for more security from Libya embassy officials should be treated with caution until there's some proof.

But it's certainly true that US embassy security is under strain around the world. Foreign nationals increasingly replace US citizens in everything from visa offices to security details. The new consulate in Benghazi, just over a year old, would have been particularly top-heavy with US nationals to start. Some reduction in US staffing was inevitable.

After I wrote a piece earlier this week about the political gain being sought from the deaths of Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, a number of diplomatic acquaintances of mine emailed to say I should have looked at the State Department's security budget. Two of them had unprintable things to say about Congress.

Who can be blamed for that? Well, Chaffetz and Issa among others.

Since retaking control in 2010, House Republicans have aggressively cut spending at the State Department in general and embassy security in particular. Chaffetz and Issa and their colleagues voted to pay for far less security than the State Department requested in 2011 and again this year.

A bit rich

Is that responsible for the tragedy in Benghazi? Probably not, at least not entirely. Usually when security goes wrong, it's down to a cascade of small failures piling up. But it's a bit rich to complain about a lack of US security personnel at diplomatic missions on the one hand, while actively working to cut the budget to pay for US security personnel at diplomatic missions on the other. 

It would have been Ambassador Stevens' call as to whether he made that visit from Tripoli, with advice from his regional security adviser. If they thought there was a high likelihood of an attack, they wouldn't have gone. They sadly got it wrong. A glaring intelligence failure? A cavalier attitude towards security? Or simply bad luck, in a dangerous country that the US is eager to see stabilized? 

To be sure, the embassy security budget has been under the knife for years. “During both the latter years of the Bush presidency and throughout the Obama presidency, the administration has recommended boosting spending on foreign aid and [State Department] foreign operations, including security, and Congress has always cut it back,” Philip Crowley, a former State Department spokesman under President Obama, told the Washington Times in late September.

What's the gap between security budget requests from State and the actions of Congress?

Scott Lilly, who spent three decades as a senior staffer for Democrats in Congress, often working on budget matters, and now a fellow at the Center for American Progress in DC, says the cuts sought by Congress have been steep since the new House sat in 2011.

The Worldwide Security Protection program (WSP), which the government says provides "core funding for the protection of life, property, and information of the Department of State," and a separate embassy security and construction budget, which in part improves fortifications, have both been under fire.

"In 2011 they came in and passed a continuing resolution for the remainder of that fiscal year. The House proposed $70 million cut in the WSP and they proposed a $204 million cut in Embassy security," says Mr. Lilly. "Then the next year, fiscal 2012, they cut worldwide security by $145 million and embassy security by $376 million. This year's bill is the same thing all over again. The House has cut the worldwide security budget $149 million below the request."

Roughly 260 installations

That's not the actual budget – simply the negotiating position of Congress. The Senate and the President have sought more money than the House for embassy security, but the horse-trading means that the State Department ends up with less than it requested. For instance, in the fiscal 2012 budget, the cuts over the State Departments' request were "whittled back by the Senate," he says, to $109 million for WSP and $131 million for embassy security. 

"We've got something like 260 embassies and consulates around the world, and there's a remarkable number of them that aren't anywhere close to Inman standards and are still particularly dangerous," says Lilly. "Inman standards" refers to the report written by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman on US building security abroad after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut that left 241 US troops and 58 French soldiers dead.

Nearly 30 years later, many US missions abroad don't meet the code. Lilly recalls traveling to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on a congressional delegation years ago and finding the embassy, in a crumbling old Soviet party building, cramped and nowhere near a safe offset from the road to guard against attacks. "They had file cabinets on landings of stairways because they had so little room, the building was barely five feet off the road," he  says. "It was so bad I got Bob Livingston, who was chairman of the appropriations committee at the time, to cancel an event and go look at it. He was so upset that he put an earmark in a bill to fix it."

I suggested to Lilly that if there weren't enough trained personnel for diplomatic protection in Libya, then maybe Stevens should have reined his operation in and done a lot less. Basically bow to the limitations.

He pushed back on that idea: "If the foreign service took that attitude, a hell of a lot less would get done. They know they're taking risks just by living in these places. They're pretty adventuresome and they've got to get out and do the job," he says. "Benghazi is a critical point in creating a stable environment in Libya, and Stevens knew he had to get out and work it."

To be sure, US missions abroad are much safer now than they were years ago, thanks to the Inman standards and a major overhaul of security measures after the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on three US embassies in Africa.

Adam Serwer at Mother Jones wrote earlier this week on embassy security in a piece that has a chart on attacks on US diplomats going back to 1970. It shows that annual attacks have declined sharply since over 30 in 1991.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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