The air was a little tense as witnesses began testifying at the first open hearing the House Select Committee on Benghazi held on Wednesday.
The five committee Democrats seemed weary of the ongoing debate and stuck to questions about security effectiveness. Lurching forward in their seats at times, the seven committee Republicans looked eager to pick fights and uncover evidence of wrongdoing, somewhere, anywhere.
But the committee didn’t always retread old ground or air new accusations.
Instead, lawmakers spent much of their three-plus-hour hearing pressing witnesses over whether the State Department had revamped its early-warning and emergency response communications in the wake of the 2012 attack on a U.S. special mission in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Some of those requests for the State Department included more Marine detachments for high-risk mission areas, rigorous “tripwires”— diplomatic speak for triggers and warning cables about threats to U.S. installations abroad — and Arabic and Urdu language classes for diplomats and security personnel.
One of the witnesses, Todd Keil, a member of the panel that proposed the recommendations and former assistant secretary with the Department of Homeland Security, said he and other panel members felt “disappointed” with the agency’s failure to follow through with the creation of a high-level State Department chief responsible solely for embassy security overseas.
Another, Greg Starr, assistant secretary for diplomatic security at the State Department and a onetime U.N. undersecretary general, said he felt the State Department had “made tremendous progress” in seeking to fulfill those recommendations.
‘Long History’ of Lessons Not Learned
That didn’t stop lawmakers from bickering or using the facts to pry useful sound bites out of witnesses. Several blasted the State Department for past recommendations that followed terror attacks but never made it into practice.
Early in the hearing, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) cited State Department reports that counted more than 500 attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities in 92 different countries for nearly half a century.
“We seem to have a State Department that has a long history of repeat recommendations,” Brooks said.
“What’s it going to take?” Jordan asked, turning to address chairman Trey Dowdy (R-S.C.). “What’s it going to take for the State Department to implement practices that will save American lives?”
For their parts, Starr and Keil held to positions that the State Department and security and intelligence agencies could only do so much to prevent attacks on American personnel and facilities abroad.
They said U.S. policymakers had to weigh the risks when sending American diplomats and security personnel to some of the world’s most conflict-prone countries.
“We need to ask the question, ‘Why are we in the most dangerous places?’” Starr said. “What is our national interest in being there? Why should we have this high-risk post?”
He added that the State Department is currently reviewing 30 high-risk embassies and special missions around the world to ascertain risk levels.
Cummings: Embassy Security Needs ‘Vigilant’ Congress
Even when the hearing was constructive, lawmakers on both sides seemed to overlook critical information about another challenge that U.S. embassies and facilities sometimes face overseas — namely, an ongoing war on funding for international affairs programs.
Experts say U.S. diplomatic security remains chronically undervalued on Capitol Hill as a share of the total international affairs budget enacted each year.
In releasing their report earlier this year, the Accountability Review Board noted that the attack on the U.S. special mission in Benghazi illustrated how the State Department continues to “struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work.”Embassy and diplomatic security expenses account for 1/5 of 1% of the entire international affairs budget.
The report’s authors themselves called on Congress to pony up the funds needed to help the State Department “address security risks and meet mission imperatives.”
A look at the administration’s 2015 budget proposal outlines how much of a priority officials make international affairs. Embassy and diplomatic security expenses account for just one-fifth of one percent of the entire $50-billion international affairs budget — a drop in the bucket compared with, say, the $513 billion in defense spending approved by Congress earlier this year for 2015.
According to their most recent proposal, House Republicans would slash foreign and overseas spending even further next year. Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget would shrink next year’s international affairs budget to about $39 billion, with a proposal that — if passed as is — would reduce and even outright eliminate the funding for several aid and development and peace-building organizations.
Asked about the need to better fund embassy security, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), said in an interview for IVN that Benghazi made the issue a “definite wake-up call.”
Congress has “got to be very vigilant with regard to making sure the State Department has everything it needs,” Cummings added.
Image: U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. / AP