WASHINGTON — The State Department pledged Thursday to bulk up security at diplomatic posts in dangerous areas in response to the fatal attack on a lightly guarded compound in Libya, as one top official acknowledged that “we fell down on the job.”
In several hours of questioning before the Senate and House foreign affairs committees, department leaders said bureaucracy and tight budgets combined to shortchange security at frontline posts.
The sessions were billed as examinations of an independent investigation’s findings about what went wrong in the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. The report issued this week recommends additional money for embassy security along with a hard look at a State Department habit of miserliness that the report said was born of repeated budget cuts.
Congressional Republicans focused on security lapses exposed by the assault and on whether the Obama administration deliberately played down the terrorist origins of the attack.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is asking Congress for an additional $750 million to hire about 150 more security officers, a deputy said. She had been scheduled to testify Thursday about the outside investigation but canceled because of an illness. She said she will testify in January.
The Pentagon has agreed to send about 225 more Marine guards to medium- and high-threat diplomatic posts, Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“We need to learn from this,” he said.
Clinton’s other senior aide, Deputy Secretary William Burns, told a House committee later that the department will be “relentless” in trying to follow through on investigators’ recommendations to keep diplomats safer.
“We clearly fell down on the job with regard to Benghazi,” he said.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., suggested that the State Department might do better to examine its priorities before asking for more money.
“We cannot expect the same bureaucracy at State, whose management failures are now manifest, to objectively review the department’s organization, procedure and performance,” she said. “Nor can we have any confidence in their assessment of what went wrong and what actions are needed to prevent a repeat.”
The Accountability Review Board report on the attack released Tuesday found that “grossly” inadequate security and reliance on local militias left U.S. diplomats and other personnel vulnerable.
The State Department security chief resigned Wednesday in response. The department said three other managers will be disciplined.
Clinton’s launch this year of a flashy initiative to send American celebrity chefs on goodwill tours abroad seems especially misplaced in a time of tight budgets, Ros-Lehtinen said.
That prompted an angry retort from Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who is retiring after 30 years in Congress. He apologized to Nides and Burns for “being used as foils to the conflicting intentions of some people on our committee and others in Washington, for partisan political purposes.”
“My great fear as I leave here is that we have become a partisan, bickering bunch of grousing old people trying to exploit whatever we can to our own political advantage,” Ackerman said. “We’ve become a group of small people with press secretaries. We’ve become people who want to exploit any kind of national calamity to our political advantage.”
Ros-Lehtinen cut him off at the end of his allotted time for opening remarks.
“Mr. Ackerman, we all aspire to your purity,” she said with apparent good humor. “The flesh is weak.”
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said the Accountability Review Board’s report glosses over the security failures in Benghazi and lets the Obama administration off the hook. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., then gestured to Johnson and other Republicans and mocked them as conspiracy theorists.
Feigning a prosecutorial style, Connolly demanded to know whether Nides and Burns had been at secret meetings where the White House banned the word “terrorism” until after the presidential election and worked out how to “lie” about the attack.
“No such meeting,” Burns said with an embarrassed smile.
The Senate hearing earlier Thursday quickly centered on the question of money and how much is needed to protect U.S. diplomats in challenging environments worldwide.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said some in the State Department did not “see the forest for the trees” as security conditions worsened in Benghazi.
“There were clear warning signs that the security situation in Libya had deteriorated,” before Ambassador Christopher Stevens traveled to Benghazi in September, Kerry said. “We need to do a better job of ensuring a free and open dialogue among ambassadors, their embassy security personnel and officials in Washington, where decisions on security staffing levels and funding are made.”
Kerry, widely expected to be President Barack Obama’s choice to succeed Clinton in Obama’s second term, did not identify any individuals at fault. Instead, he said Congress bears responsibility for stinting on foreign affairs budgets. He welcomed the recommendation of independent investigators to spend $2.3 billion annually for a decade to upgrade overseas operations.
Congress has cut some funding for embassy security, and the State Department has pared back upgrades to save money. Both Democratic and Republican senators urged the department on Thursday to ask for what it really needs.
“Maybe the next secretary of state can help with this,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., a wry reference to the speculation that Kerry will be appointed.