Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified on Capitol Hill on Wednesday regarding the September 2012 attack against the U.S. consulate in Libya that resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. In her testimony, she laid out the series of events following the attack, provided an explanation of the administrative steps implemented since, including the investigation by the independent Accountability Review Board, and pledged to work with Congress moving forward to increase diplomatic security.
This latest attempt by the Obama administration to address what some are already calling “Benghazi-gate” has predictably fallen short for many congressional Republicans. Yet the line of questioning that Secretary Clinton faced on Wednesday was more indicative of a politically motivated thirst to uncover a “smoking gun” of a massive political deception rather than genuine interest in finding out the elements of the attack that can be used constructively.
The independent Accountability Review Board (ARB) that looked into the circumstances and responses to the attack, led by the highly respected former statesman Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is perhaps the closest objective assessment of the Benghazi attack available. It cited “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department” as a key variable for the failure that allowed the attack to succeed, and also noted that “intelligence provided no immediate, specific tactical warning of the September 11 attacks.” The unclassified version of the report, however, did not find the smoking gun some in Congress were hoping.
Yet instead of focusing on the detailed report and the 24 recommendations it listed as possible responses to the “systemic failures” it outlined, many on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chose instead to engage in political warfare with little input on the substantive factors at play. Among the many testy exchanges occurred with Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who accused the secretary and the administration of deliberately misleading Congress and the public about the nature of the attack.
“With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” Clinton rebutted at Johnson. She continued by saying, “Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?"
“It is, from my perspective, less important today looking backward as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice,” she said.
Indeed, the afternoon proceeded with moments similar to that exchange, with little substantive progress made towards working out the operational details of what failed and what needs to be put into place, as suggested by the ARB. The death of four American government personnel, 11 years to the day of 9/11, reminded us all of the often understated sheer danger diplomats face in hardship posts throughout the world, and the importance of meeting the funding, resource, and operational requirements of adequately protecting them.