I didn’t know Chris Stevens. I admit that the first I’d heard of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya was the morning of Sept. 12, when I woke up and, along with the rest of the country, learned that he and three others had died in an attack on a diplomatic mission in Benghazi. By all accounts, Stevens was well-respected among his peers and adored by his family and friends. I didn’t know Ambassador Stevens, but I do know one thing: he deserved better from his government all in these weeks and months after his death, from the Republican party that chose to place him center ring in an embarrassing circus to the Obama administration that failed in its responsibility to keep him safe.
In retrospect, the original Republican attempt to co-opt his death and turn it into something political, a weapon to use against President Obama’s reelection, is almost to be expected. The Obama administration’s troubling lack of transparency when it comes to national security matters certainly didn’t help debunk the inchoate sense that something was being hidden from the public.
Since the election, however, the furor over Benghazi hasn’t settled into sober examination of just went wrong. Instead, the sniping and bickering has seemed to escalate, keeping the tone surrounding the tragedy somewhere in the range of the level of discourse during the Whitewater scandal. By allowing the conversation to stay firmly on the questions that don’t matter, such as “Who changed the talking points?”, we manage to avoid the questions that do, such as “What do we do to keep this from happening again?”
Republicans in Congress have sought to play up the former for all its worth, resulting in a waxing and waning faux scandal that reemerges to the headlines every few months. In the months after the election, Republican senators threatened to filibuster any number of President Obama’s potential nominees unless they learned “the truth” about what happened. In the process, they and their House colleagues relentlessly attacked U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice for her presentation of what the administration initial knew about the tragedy, calling her “incompetent” and eventually forcing her to remove herself from the running to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. As the release this week of emails surrounding the drafting of the talking points Rice used revealed, those attacks were misplaced.
The very real role that the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee has in policing the Executive Branch has likewise devolved into a witch-hunt, searching for someone, anyone to burn at the stake, despite learning nothing new in many of them. Four dead Americans, is the repeated refrain from Republican congressmen, without seeming to care how or why they wound up that way or preventing more from reaching a similar fate. To aid their pursuit, the House Republicans have developed their own report on Benghazi, one filled with misleading evidence twisted to reveal a mythical cover-up.
It’s not as though the Republicans have been forced to hunt for legitimate things to criticize the Obama administration for in the wake of Benghazi. The State Department convened what’s known as an Accountability Review Board to examine just went wrong in the lead-up to the attack and how to fix them in the future. The final report from the Board, co-chaired by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, revealed real issues with the State Department’s execution of diplomatic security. The unclassified version of the report names twenty-four recommendations for preventing further loss of life at missions in high-risk areas, with the classified version putting forward another five recommendations.
Among the more damning findings of the Board for the Obama administration is that the security posture at Special Mission in Benghazi was “inadequate,” to put it mildly, due both to failures at State to provide the requisite tools needed and funding that was lacking. To prevent future State Department facilities from experiencing the latter, the Board recommended that State “work with Congress to restore the Capital Security Cost Sharing Program at its full capacity,” boosting the program’s funding to about $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2015, “prioritized for construction of new facilities in high risk, high threat areas.” It also suggested working with Congress to use Overseas Contingency Operations funding — the money set aside to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to help meet the needs of high risk, high threat posts.
And it isn’t as if there hasn’t been opportunity for Republicans to work together with Democrats to implement these recommendations. In February, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) authored a bill that would transfer $1.3 billion in unused funding bookmarked for Iraq to the Department of State to bolster embassy security as the Board suggested. To his credit, Sen. Graham co-sponsored that bill, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent. It still sits in the House of Representatives, however, having not been referred to any committee for deliberation.
March’s continuing resolution to keep the government funded did include a boost in funding for embassy security that brought it back in line with the President’s request. In the face of sequestration’s across the board cuts, however, its uncertain whether embassy security funding will be able to remain at that level. And given that part of the problem that led to that lack of security at the mission in Benghazi was the poor decision making regarding the prioritization of funds, its not clear how sustainable this band-aid really is. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on Thursday introduced the Embassy Security and Personnel Protection Act to more permanently enact the increase in funding to the Capital Security Cost-Sharing Program the Board suggested. No Republicans have thus far chosen to
A search of the Library of Congress’ repository of legislation also reveals that of the most vocal critics of the administration in the House, only House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce has cosponsored a bill related to diplomatic security. None have introduced their own legislation related to this topic, and neither House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa nor Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) have signed on to support the only Republican-drafted bills that seek to improve the way the State Department handles personnel failures discovered in the course of internal reviews and procures contractors to aid in providing security to its facilities. Instead, Chaffetz in November once proudly declared on Fox News that he had in fact voted to cut funding for embassy security.
The real reason this is such a shame is that Amb. Stevens not only deserved better from the GOP in Congress, he deserved better from the administration he served. It’s certainly true that Stevens was an experienced diplomat, who knew the risks diplomatic officers in a dangerous country assume. But that’s not an excuse for poor diplomatic security. Yet Republican scandalmongering has given the administration a free pass on having a serious conversation with the public about whether or not we’re doing enough to protect our diplomats, though it has recently stepped up its efforts to actually prevent such a tragedy from happening again.
But it’s not yet enough. The Center for American Progress’ own Brian Katulis and Peter Juul recently laid out the possible repercussions of the executive and legislative branches putting Benghazi flash over substance:
The effort to turn the Benghazi attack into a political albatross for current and former Obama administration officials has done and will do significant damage to American diplomatic efforts in hostile environments. Policymakers may become even more reluctant to take risks with diplomatic personnel in these situations for fear of a political boomerang if something goes wrong.
As a result, the default policy may be to retrench behind the walls of so-called fortress embassies, take few if any risks with nonmilitary personnel, and surrender potential American influence on the ground in dangerous parts of the world. By flogging the phantom scandal of Benghazi, Obama administration critics who demand more direct intervention in Syria ironically are undermining their own argument. And if something goes wrong and Americans die, the administration will likely be rewarded with scandalmongering by advocates of the very policy that put American personnel at risk in the first place.
In the absence of strong action, the government could soon find itself relying more heavily on private security groups — like Acedemi, the artist formerly known as Blackwater — to provide protection to its diplomats, something many progressives, and host peoples, might blanch at. As Rachel Maddow pointed out in her book Drift, the trend over the past three decades towards the use of private military companies and contractors in place of government assets has resulted in a shadowy world of security with little oversight and less transparency. For that solution to be shoddily slapped onto the problem diplomatic security poses would be a disservice to both the public and those the government is meant to protect.
Unfortunately, it’s looking like the Republican probe into Benghazi could last until 2014, dragging it into yet another election cycle. Despite the fact that non-Republican voters see Benghazi as a non-scandal, GOP members of Congress will keep hammering away at it, continuing to suck the air out of legislative efforts to improve diplomatic security.
Republicans have held up Ambassador Stevens’ death for months as a symbol of everything that’s wrong in Washington. And, in a way, they’re right.