A rush to judgment on Benghazi attack

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Nevertheless, with little access and no testimony from survivors, Republicans seemed confident in establishing responsibility for the attack during last week’s Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. The hearing became a series of recriminating questions, directed at management officials charged with ensuring security in Benghazi. While some of the witnesses criticized the failure of the State Department to respond to requests for additional security, they concluded that the resources they requested would not have changed the course of the surprise terrorist attack. The chair of the subcommittee, however, claimed that those resources could have changed the deadly outcome. Yet this theme was not followed to its logical conclusion.  Ranking Member Elijah Cummings’ call for supplemental funds drew no Republican response, perhaps because the Republican budget has cut diplomatic security by more than $300 million over the past two years (while increasing Department of Defense spending), and Congress has not responded to the administration’s request for $800 million to assist Arab Spring nations like Libya in making the transition to democratic institutions.
 
Considering the inflexible position of House Republicans on spending, it is not surprising that even Ambassador Stevens’ death did not lead to a discussion of security funding. However, because of inevitable limits on spending, the committee had an obligation to raise the larger issues of safety for our diplomats that must be confronted. Witnesses testified to repeated attacks in Benghazi, Libyan rules against foreign guards, and protection provided by militias. Should such isolated posts be consolidated or pulled back until there are funds to provide adequate protection? Without fortifying the many posts that are at risk, at great expense, are there other ways to ensure the safety of our diplomats? These questions were not explored.
 
Even evidence from witnesses failed to blunt partisan responses. For example, Ambassador Patrick Kennedy testified that United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s statements attributing the Benghazi attack to protests over the anti-Muslim video were based on information provided by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That intelligence was provided at the hearing, but Republican questions all but alleged a cover-up by the administration.  Although at the time of the attack on Benghazi, reactions to the video, some of them violent, engulfed our embassies throughout the Middle East, the implication of Republican questions was that, nevertheless, Benghazi should have been immediately recognized as a terrorist attack. Even now, however, no individuals or groups have been identified as likely suspects. Notwithstanding the documented intelligence, Republicans were so set on their cover-up conclusion that they failed to probe the obvious questions raised by the initial faulty intelligence. The most logical hypothesis is that there was an intelligence failure -- exactly what the new National Intelligence Office was supposed to remedy. The hearing did not probe why the intelligence was wrong and evolved as it did.
 
The assault on our consulate and death of the ambassador was an attack on our country. The first ambassador’s death in 33 years as a consulate burned to the ground called for a bipartisan search for causes and remedies. When there is an attack on our country, the American tradition is to come together.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for example, sent a letter, signed by every Democrat and Republican, to the State Department requesting information and expressing concern about the Benghazi attack. In contrast, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing was unabashedly partisan from the outset, denying Democrats access to witnesses and documents needed to prepare for the hearing, in violation of committee rules.  Although the appropriate investigations are hardly underway, a tough minded but careful and fair hearing was in order. Last week’s rush to judgment was not that hearing.  


Holmes Norton is a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.