State Dept. Responds to Benghazi Attack by Sinking 'Huge Amount' Into Security in Netherlands, Norway
To mitigate the threat in facilities that can't be properly secured, Starr said, families have been withdrawn, non-essential staff removed and governments have sometimes closed streets to give the diplomatic facility some setback.
"Many of them have done that for several years, but also looked to us eventually to move our facilities so they can reopen their streets," he added. "We work closely in training our personnel, and then trying to train host country forces in anti-terrorism capabilities."
Starr said the "primary driver" of new embassy construction is security. "After 30 years of trying to find land for a new facility in Beirut and start the construction of a new facility, we believe we're going to be successful in the next couple of years," he gave as an example.
But Ranking Member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) noted that "a huge amount of money" out of the department's $1.4 billion construction and enhancement budget, with $800 million more requested, is slated for facilities at The Hague and in Oslo.
"This is a lot of money that's being spent in places that, candidly, the security issues are not necessarily urgent like we have in some of the places I mentioned earlier -- in Pakistan and Sudan," Corker said. "…From the standpoint of the immediate security issues that our personnel has, and all of us, including you, wanting them to be safe, our priorities are not aligned with what it is we're hoping to do for our outstanding foreign service officers."
Starr explained this by saying a lesson learned from the Benghazi terror attack was "how do we increase our fire safety awareness."
"In those places where we can't get new facilities, we're doing security upgrades and working with out host governments the best that we can," he said. "…Today, we know that global terrorism is -- is exactly that: global… The facility in Oslo does not have any setback. It has no blast resistance. It is not bullet-resistant. It provides a very low level of safety for our personnel."
Menendez defended the prioritization, saying "we don't know where the next high-risk post will be, where the movement of a terrorist activity will take place, and then we will all regret that, well, we didn't think that Oslo meant that much."
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said "Oslo is an important ally, a friend."
"I've been to that embassy," he said. "I understand that it's not a high-risk area, but they should have adequate facilities based upon the security needs, as well as the efficiency factors that are important."
Corker expressed doubt that the budget conversation was even touching on the real security issue.
"Just for what it's worth, it does feel that there's a degree of lack of accountability, to put it nicely," he said. "And I just wonder if you might address that also, because you build great facilities, you train well, but if people don't execute and there's not that accountability, we still have breakdowns and people are in situations that they shouldn't be in."
Starr said he has "a great deal of admiration" for the four State Department officials placed on leave, whose fate rests in the hands of Secretary John Kerry.
"It doesn't excuse the fact that we had a terrible tragedy in Benghazi. And I think that the secretary and his staff will make the proper decisions on the disposition of those cases," he continued. "But I do want to tell you that that is the same management team that was in place when our embassy teams were attacked in Cairo, in Tunisia, in Khartoum. All through the years that we've had multiple attacks in Yemen and in Afghanistan and in Iraq, those people performed admirably."
"And it is my hope that their entire career is not blotted by one single action because they are, in many ways, as dedicated as we are."
Corker said nobody's on a "witch hunt" and "candidly, I couldn't pick these four individuals out of a line-up."
"Whatever is the right decision, I think we'll all be there, but this sort of vague place that we're in probably needs to end soon," the senator said.
Today at the State Department, deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said they're happy that a House Republican effort to cut billions from U.S. foreign operations, USAID and foreign assistance would leave embassy security alone, but she was not especially focused on the full security funding.
"What we do overseas is about more than just security," Harf said. "Obviously, that's of key concern, but we need to be able to go out overseas, promote American interests, and promote American values, and the only way to do that is through these programs."