Apart from finding that no protest preceded the attacks, the independent Accountability Review Board didn’t broach that topic, one of the most controversial in the government’s handling of the incident. Republican lawmakers demanded to know who changed U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s talking points to remove the words “al Qaida” before she appeared on five TV programs offering the demonstration version of events. They argued that the administration knew almost immediately that the Benghazi compound was under terrorist attack. They argue that attempting to paint it otherwise was a deliberate bid to protect Obama’s record on terrorism in the closing weeks of his re-election campaign.
Burns and Nides said they didn’t know who changed the talking points, which were prepared in consultation with intelligence agencies. The role of intelligence was a glaring omission both at the hearings and in the unclassified version of the review board’s report.
The full, classified version does include mention of intelligence agencies, including some recommendations related to those agencies. The CIA annex, the site of a secondary attack on Sept. 11, housed far more people than the skeleton crew at the nearby diplomatic compound.
Clinton said in a letter that she accepts all 29 recommendations in the independent panel’s report, which already have been broken into 65 tasks and assigned with deadlines, according to the testimony Thursday. The State Department also said that one senior official has resigned and three others have been relieved of duty and are on administrative leave as a result of the review board’s findings.
Democrats, meanwhile, focused mainly on funding, saying that Congress also shares in the responsibility, for failing to provide adequate resources to bolster the diplomatic security presence in high-threat areas. While they vowed to fight for more funding for a bigger Marine presence and security improvements to several high-risk locations, members also made it clear that Congress wanted to see a greater degree of oversight in diplomatic security spending, as was recommended by the review board.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., noted that last year $650 billion was spent on the military, while the international affairs budget “is less than one-tenth of the Pentagon’s.” He said there must be a balance between bolstering overseas posts and recognizing that American diplomats belong to an “expeditionary” corps whose job involves an inherent level of risk.
“We don’t want to concertina-wire America off from the world,” Kerry said.
Kerry presided over the hearing with carefully chosen words, with the entire room aware that he could be the one in charge of implementing the review board’s recommendations if, as expected, he’s tapped to succeed Clinton as secretary of state.
That didn’t mean his potential future colleagues got a free pass from the senator. Kerry, too, pointedly returned to the theme that senior State Department officials simply didn’t react properly to the rapidly changing security conditions in Benghazi. He said they missed “clear warning signs.”