We must share blame for Benghazi

Though the title of Wednesday’s hearing in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the final one for Hillary Clinton as secretary of State, is “Terrorist Attack in Benghazi: The Secretary of State’s View,” it could just as easily be called “Terrorist Attack in Benghazi: How Diplomatic Security is Underfunded by Congress.”

If we really want to prevent a repeat of such tragedies, Congress must examine its own role in underfunding and cutting the State Department budget and diplomatic security needs.

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In some corners of Congress, it is fashionable to speak of allowing a government shutdown, refusing to raise the debt ceiling, defaulting on our fiduciary obligations, falling over the so-called “fiscal cliff” and minimizing the consequences of sequestration. 

These words, spoken under the comfort of the Capitol dome, reverberate mightily throughout the world.

Over the past two years alone, the administration’s request for diplomatic security funding has been slashed by more than half a billion dollars in Congress. This makes it impossible for the State Department to build enough new, secure diplomatic facilities or improve those that already exist.

The current appropriations bill for fiscal 2013 continues this negative trend. The measure reported out of the House Appropriations Committee hacked base funding for Worldwide Security Protection and Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance by more than $260 million. The Senate Appropriations Committee fully funded both requests.

Such a large cut will result in fewer security personnel protecting our embassies and consulates around the world, fewer resources to prepare State personnel for working in high-threat environments, and a reduced ability to analyze potential threats. These problems were identified by the Accountability Review Board (ARB), convened by Clinton to identify systemic flaws at the State Department that contributed to the security failings in Benghazi, Libya.

For our diplomatic frontline team — the men and women serving in harm’s way and undertaking sensitive and life-threatening missions on a regular basis — the budgetary game of chicken played by a few in Washington means real danger.

Our worst fears were realized in Benghazi on that chaotic night on Sept. 11 last year, and we all mourn the tragic loss of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, the heroic Americans who gave their lives representing our national interests.

The ARB clearly determined that leadership failures in two State Department bureaus led to a lack of shared responsibility, resulting in stovepiped decision making rather than an integrated approach to diplomatic security.

In response to the attack and several other security failures, Clinton accepted all of the recommendations proposed by the blue-ribbon panel, and the department is working fervently to implement them.

A bureaucracy can be notoriously slow-moving. But with remarkable adroitness, the Clinton State Department has acted to confront the challenges we now face. Even before the ARB had concluded its work, Clinton had dispatched security assessment teams to high-risk diplomatic posts and named the first-ever deputy assistant secretary of State for High-Threat Posts.

The State Department is doing its job, while not eschewing blame that it deserves. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for Congress, as we lurch toward a potential government shutdown and the Pandora’s box of uncertainty that could result from sequestration.

As we work to address the security challenges at our overseas posts, it is critical that Congress look itself in the mirror and ask the tough questions about how we are contributing to a culture at the State Department that is focused more on slashing budgets than providing the best possible security for our diplomats and aid workers.

There is much to be learned from this tragedy. The State Department has come forward and admitted it can do better, and it will.

Congress must accept a share of this responsibility too.

Engel is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and represents the 16th congressional district of New York.