WASHINGTON – A State Department official assured members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Wednesday that the agency has made significant progress in implementing recommendations to provide the nation’s diplomatic corps with greater protections in the future.
Greg Starr, the assistant secretary for diplomatic security at Foggy Bottom, said 22 proposals issued by an independent accountability review board in wake of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the agency’s consulate in Benghazi, Libya, have been fully implemented and the remaining seven are in different stages of completion.
Starr informed the panel that though his agency can never fully eliminate the risk involved in some posts, “we want to keep our people safe.”
“Today we’re better prepared, better protected and informed to manage the risk,” Starr said.
Four people, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the Benghazi onslaught, leading to a series of congressional investigations looking into the actions taken by the Obama administration both before and after the assault. The tenor of those probes created a rift between Republicans and Democrats, who accused the House majority of playing politics with the tragedy. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ultimately elected to create a special panel to resolve the outstanding issues.
Despite Starr’s assurances regarding improved safety, one expert called by the committee maintained that the State Department is dawdling in fulfilling some of the recommendations.
Todd Keil, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Homeland Security Department, questioned whether the U.S. should assign personnel to especially dangerous hotspots around the globe and insisted that, in any case, a risk management process should be put in place to assess potential perils.
Keil also noted that the agency has yet to create the position of undersecretary for diplomatic security, a post that he said would have the effect of making diplomatic safety a higher priority.
“Clear the smoke,” Keil said. “Remove the mirrors. Now is the time for the Department of State to finally institutionalize some real, meaningful and progressive change.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the committee chairman, also questioned whether the department is acting on the proposals with appropriate haste.
“We do not suffer from a lack of recommendations,” Gowdy said. “We do suffer from a lack of implementing and enacting those recommendations and that has to end. To those who believe it is time to move on, to those who believe that there is nothing left to discover, that all the questions have been asked and answered and that we’ve learned all the lessons that there are to be learned, we have heard all of that before, and it was wrong then.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member, appeared to agree with much of the criticism and recommended that the panel arrange to call a State Department official in December for an update on implementation of the security procedures. Gowdy quickly agreed.
“I think it’s an excellent idea and I will pledge to you it will be done,” Gowdy said.
The cooperative spirit surrounding the hearing came as something of a surprise. Earlier sessions focusing on the Benghazi issue, primarily conducted by the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, often devolved into head-butting between Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the panel chairman, and Cummings. Democrats at one point considered not participating in or cooperating with Gowdy’s panel.
Instead the session was void of conflict. In fact, the subject of the opening session was suggested by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and readily embraced by Gowdy, who thanked Cummings and others for their cooperation.
“I remain hopeful there are still things left in our country that can transcend politics,” Gowdy said in his opening remarks. “I remain convinced our fellow citizens deserve all of the facts of what happened before, during, and after the attacks in Benghazi and they deserve an investigative process worthy of the memory of those who died and worthy of the trust of our fellow citizens.”
Gowdy said the American public yearns “to see the right thing done, for the right reasons, and in the right way.”
“They want to know that something can rise above the din of politics,” he said. “They want to trust the institutions of government. So to fulfill the duties owed to those we serve and in honor of those who were killed perhaps we can be what those four brave men were: neither Republican nor Democrat. We can just be Americans in pursuit of the facts, the truth, and justice no matter where that journey takes us.”