On September 11, 2012, four Americans, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith and American security officers Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were brutally attacked and murdered at an American compound in Benghazi, Libya. At the time, the administration blamed this senseless attack on a protest in reaction to an obscure internet video and failed to acknowledge what it really was – an act of terrorism.
We know that within twenty-four hours the White House knew it was a terrorist attack but took almost two weeks to admit this fact to the American people. Instead of being honest, the administration spent $70,000 on PR in the Middle East and an apology tour, all while blaming budget cuts for their denial of additional security requests in the months leading up to the attack in Libya.
Last Wednesday, the Government Oversight and Reform Committee held a hearing designed to shed light into the events that left Ambassador Stevens and other security personnel unable to defend against this attack.
We learned that in the thirteen months leading up to the September 11th consulate attack there were 230 reported security incidents in Libya. Preceding the attack and following reports of rising threats, the State Department increased hazard pay for their employees in Libya while simultaneously reducing personnel available in the region and denying pleas for additional help from staff on the ground.
Prior to the hearing, administration officials attempted to blame their failure to send additional resources to Libya on budget concerns, however under questioning at last week’s hearing, State Department officials said finances were not an issue. The officials present at the hearing instead blamed lack of specificity in requests from American security workers in Libya. This accusation came despite numerous cables, entered into the record, from our forces serving in Libya that outlined the dangers on the ground and repeated requests for more security.
From unstableness in the region, growth in al Qaeda presence and repeated requests for more security, the hearing also showed that the State Department should have anticipated threats to American interests in Benghazi. Instead, they ignored all the signs and cables from those serving there and prematurely turned their focus toward a policy of normalization, treating diplomatic security and operations in Libya as they would in Canada or Italy.
As the Arab spring continues, America must be prepared to deal with times of transition like those occurring in Libya and Egypt. We must also be prepared for regime changes that may result in new governments hostile to American interests like what happened in Iran under President Carter. The only way to deal with these changes is from a position of strength. Whether it is supporting diplomats with adequate security or protecting interests in the area, America cannot be perceived as an easy target.
State Department officials and the Obama Administration must also be honest with the American people. The delay in acknowledging the true nature of the attacks and resulting delay in re-assessing the security risks posed by al Qaeda to Diplomats and those supporting them may be a factor in the growing list of casualties. Most recently in Yemen, Qassem Aqlani, Yemeni security official for the U.S. embassy was killed.
Witnesses at last week’s hearings were unable to reassure Congress steps have been taken to make sure we have adequate security for our personnel abroad. Was it a maze of red tape that prevented additional forces from being sent to Libya? Was there a political agenda for rushing normalization of relations that caused the failure? Finally, what can be done to make Americans serving abroad more safe?
The Oversight and Government Reform committee exists to shine light onto entrenched government bureaucracies to force government to be more accountable and more transparent. This investigation goes far beyond political parties and partisan politicking; we need to ensure that no matter the administration, Americans serving overseas can be guaranteed their government is looking out for them. In our investigation, we found major failings at the State Department in the months leading up to the attack that should be fixed immediately to ensure the safety of those who serve us abroad.
From the attacks in Benghazi to Operation Fast and Furious, there are too many examples of government failing those who put their life on the line every day to protect us.
Originally published in “The Hill Congress Blog.”