Defense & National Security

Benghazi concerns lead to embassy security ramp-up

Benghazi concerns lead to embassy security ramp-up
Photo credit: U.S. Army

A defense budget bill amendment that would evaluate and beef up Marine Security Guard presence at U.S. embassies is just one of the measures Congress may propose in coming weeks as lawmakers react to security errors and failures that led to the deadly Benghazi attacks Sept. 11, 2012.

Despite emphasis on trimming the defense budget, the Republican-sponsored embassy security amendment was adopted with an easy majority on Wednesday. And similar measures focusing on the response of the State Department and the Pentagon to the violent attacks may be on the way.

As senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee emerged from yet another lengthy classified briefing on Benghazi Thursday afternoon, their emphasis was on the seven-hour gap between the initial attack and a following assault that left two former Navy SEALs dead.

“A timely arrival of American military personnel, I think could have saved (the SEALs’) lives,” committee chairman Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) told MSNBC in an interview following the four-hour briefing.

In the interview, Lieberman said the focus of the committee hearing had been in two parts: “did the State Department do enough to protect American personnel in Benghazi based on (current) intelligence … and secondly, why wasn’t the Defense Department able to get assistance to our American personnel on the ground once the attacks started.”

A 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that, in the decade leading up to the study (in which there were 39 attacks on American embassies), U.S. diplomatic security growth was more “reactive than strategic” and that the embassies struggled to balance security needs and requirements with a growing mission. Senators Thursday highlighted an internal report from the State Department, also published in 2009, calling for reinforcements to U.S. foreign embassies and consulates that would provide an extra barrier of protection against attacks. These conditions, however, were not in place at the consulate in Benghazi where U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

The committee’s investigation into security failures is ongoing, but expected to be completed by the end of the year.

As conversation transitions to sequestration in the fiscal cliff countdown, lawmakers will likely turn their attention to the specter of cuts to the current embassy security budget. Roughly $129 million, or 8.2 percent of the total security budget, will be on the chopping block if Congress refuses to act.

Although some lawmakers are shifting their focus to future security changes, many continue to ask hard questions about what bad calls were made in the heat of the attacks and who may be responsible for waiting too long to act.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a committee member who co-authored an amendment increasing the Marine embassy security force by up to 1,000 personnel, said he came away from the most recent briefing troubled by the lack of response following the initial assault on the Benghazi consulate.

“I’m focused more on how we improve going forward, but I’ll tell you I continue to be frustrated with what I hear about that didn’t happen,” Portman told Human Events. “I didn’t learn anything today that made me feel better about what didn’t happen.”

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are both expected to testify before congressional panels about the actions of their departments following the Benghazi attacks, though hearing dates have not yet been set. Clinton’s testimony will be co-timed with the completion of a State Department inquiry about what went wrong in Benghazi.

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