State Dept. focusing on 'deteriorating security' at diplomatic posts

State Department officials on Thursday said the department is evaluating all high-risk posts in the wake of a report that found systemic security problems were to blame for the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. 

Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides told panels in the House and Senate that the department would focus on a troubling pattern of “deteriorating security” at U.S. diplomatic posts. 

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He also acknowledged State had been too narrowly focused on “specific credible threats” ahead of the attack, which left U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three others dead. 

An independent report released Wednesday found State should have been paying more attention to broad political changes that were affecting security. 

Nides and Deputy Secretary William Burns testified before panels in the Senate and House in place of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who canceled scheduled appearances after a fall last week gave her a concussion. 

Clinton will testify in January, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said, and she might be in for a grilling. 

Republicans on Thursday suggested they’re unsatisfied with the report by the Accountability Review Board (ARB), which blamed lower-level officials for security lapses in Benghazi and cleared Clinton. Three officials resigned Wednesday after the report’s release. 

Republican questions and comments suggested a focus on Clinton. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he was puzzled by the report, which he said “places a lot of the blame on lower-level officials.” He suggested the officials who resigned were sacrificial lambs, and suggested higher-ranking officials in Washington should be held more accountable. 

“Page five of the report says [security at Benghazi] was not a priority for Washington when it came to the level of security requested,” he said. “I want to understand who ‘Washington’ is.”

Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) took issue with the fact that Clinton wasn’t interviewed for the ARB report, while Rubio asked if she knew on her visits to Libya about the deteriorating situation. 

Burns and Nides defended Clinton, with Burns telling the House Foreign Affairs panel that cables about the deteriorating security on the ground in Benghazi never made it to Clinton’s desk. 

“The specific security requests that were made [by the consulate in Libya] did not get as far as Secretary Clinton,” Burns said. 

Benghazi has become a political problem for the former New York senator and first lady, who is seen as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 and whose tenure at State has generally won rave reviews from members on both sides of the aisle.

Earlier this week, the secretary sought to get ahead of the independent report by sending a letter to Kerry — who might succeed her at State — that said the department would comply with all of the board’s 29 recommendations.

“We accept every one of them, all 29 recommendations, and will ensure that all 29 are implemented quickly and completely,” Nides said at the Senate hearing, adding that each of the recommendations had been broken down to specific tasks and assigned to personnel with deadlines for completion.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Thursday that President Obama also accepts the report.

Questions on Thursday weren’t limited to security.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) revived one of the original Benghazi controversies, saying the White House changed the talking points provided to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice before she went on Sunday news shows and argued the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to an offensive video. 

The administration later acknowledged the attack was terrorism and that no demonstration or protest had taken place in Benghazi. 

Inhofe pressed the officials on who changed the talking points.

“Someone from the White House changed the talking points before they went to Ambassador Rice,” he said. “Do you know who? Do you care?”

Nides said the talking points were produced by the CIA and had changed at some point in the “intra-agency process,” and that lawmakers had received a classified briefing on the matter.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) asked if there had been any progress on tracking down those responsible for the attack, reminding the panel that Obama and Clinton had promised to make hunting down the terrorists a priority.

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“We’re absolutely committed to bring those responsible to justice,” Burns said. “We’re pursuing this through a number of channels … We don’t have all the answers yet, but we’re working relentless[ly] and making some progress.”

Much of the Senate hearing focused on budget cuts and whether Congress had left the State Department with insufficient resources. 

Kerry said Congress bore responsibility for making sure that America’s diplomats received adequate funding for their security.

“For years we have asked our State Department to operate with fewer resources,” Kerry said. “We need to make certain that we are not penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to … America’s overseas service.”

Kerry’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

“Every time there’s an issue, we start talking about more money,” he said, adding that he was “amazed this hearing has only focused on additional money.”

-- This report was originally published at 10:50 a.m. and last updated at 3:10 p.m. and again at 7 p.m.