WASHINGTON — The Obama administration failed to adequately protect the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before a Sept. 11 attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs said on Thursday at a public hearing.
The administration was warned about deteriorating security in Libya a month before the attack but denied repeated requests for additional protective measures, said Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, committee chair.
Since the attack, the Obama administration has not been forthcoming about what happened, said Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, who serves on the Foreign Affairs committee.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to testify before the committee, but not until early December.
“Because of the way the administration has handled this, almost everything people are wondering about is a possibility because they’ve never answered any questions,” Kelly told the Tribune-Review after the hearing. “You start to wonder as an American citizen, not just a member of Congress.”
Elsewhere on Capitol Hill on Thursday, members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees held closed-door hearings with high-level administration officials about the Benghazi attacks. Former CIA Director David Petraeus, who stepped down last week after admitting an extramarital affair, is scheduled to testify behind closed doors on Friday.
The United States “obviously” has many more soft targets around the world, and officials need to quickly assess what happened in the Benghazi attack, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the Trib.
“The reason it’s so important to get to the bottom of this is bad guys are learning lessons from this just like we should be,” Thornberry said. “So is another ambassador and another underprotected embassy or consulate at risk? Absolutely. They’re trying to figure out how to do this again because they see this as a great success. That makes this a bigger thing.”
The open forum of the Foreign Affairs hearing allowed lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to voice concerns about the attacks, the Obama administration’s response and, at times, even the questioning from other members of Congress.
“Our front-line diplomats should be secure in the knowledge that the United States government will provide for their safety while they carry out their duties on behalf of our country,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Safety must not be sacrificed on the altar of vague and uncertain agendas or other pet projects.”
Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., criticized State Department officials for not doing more to provide security in Benghazi despite what he said were repeated requests. Instead, Burton said, officials have provided excuses.
“This is not only a tragedy; it’s a perfect example of malfeasance at the State Department,” Burton said.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs committee, agreed that the United States must protect its representatives around the world.
“We have a responsibility to help ensure that we better protect Americans serving abroad — not only in Libya, but in all of our nearly 300 diplomatic posts around the globe,” Berman said.
While the United States has greatly increased what it spends on diplomatic security — rising to $1.8 billion in 2008, from $200 million a decade earlier — staffing shortages, inadequate facilities and experience gaps hamper its abilities to provide adequate protection, Michael Courts, an analyst for the Government Accountability Office, testified.
The investigative agency called in 2009 for a strategic review of State Department security measures, but it has not taken place, Courts testified.
“The work that we did found a number of areas where the capabilities of diplomatic security were not where they should have been,” he said.
But if Obama administration officials explain exactly what happened in Benghazi, Thornberry said, lawmakers can work with them to identify shortcomings and seek solutions.
“If they will be completely forthcoming, so there’s no hint of holding anything back, so that we can get to the bottom of the matter factually, we can put an end to the false conspiracy theories, and we can move forward in an atmosphere of trust,” he said.
Andrew Conte is a reporter for Total Trib Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7835.