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Hearings on Benghazi Attack Focus on Painful Lessons, Priorities, Party Politics

December 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Congress heard testimony on the "painful lessons" of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi after a report on systemic security failures made by State Department. Kwame Holman reports on the tough questions by Republicans on the early characterizations made by Susan Rice and other members of the administration.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday saw the release of a highly critical review board report. Today, the State Department and Benghazi were back in the spotlight, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deputies appeared before Senate and House committees.

Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: The hearing will come to order.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee went first in a long day of hearings on the attack in Benghazi.

Committee chair John Kerry:

JOHN KERRY: Clearly, mistakes were made. The report makes that very clear. And one of the most candid and important observations was the failure by certain leaders to see the forest through the trees. There were clear warning signs that the security situation in Libya had deteriorated.

KWAME HOLMAN: That report by an outside review board blamed systemic management failings at the State Department that led to grossly inadequate security at the U.S. mission in Benghazi.

U.S. Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans lost their lives in the attack on Sept. 11. Today, Republican Richard Lugar said, at a minimum, American diplomats never should fear for their lives.

SEN. RICHARD LUGAR, R-Ind.: And just as we give our men and women in uniform the weapons they need to carry out their mission, we must make sure our diplomats have all the tools that they need, which include a safe place to work.

KWAME HOLMAN: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been ailing, and didn’t testify today. In her stead, Deputy Secretaries William Burns and Thomas Nides acknowledged the department learned very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi.

WILLIAM BURNS, U.S. deputy secretary of state: We have to do better. We owe it to our colleagues who lost their lives in Benghazi. We owe it to the security professionals who acted with such extraordinary heroism that awful night to try to protect them. And we owe it to thousands of our colleagues serving America with great dedication every day in diplomatic posts around the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats have charged Congress bears some of the blame for Benghazi, for cutting funding for diplomatic security.

California’s Barbara Boxer:

SEN. BARBARA BOXER, D-Calif.: We need to get our priorities straight around here. And we can’t walk away and invite another — another tragedy. And as much as people like to say, well, it’s not the money, it’s the money. You can’t — you can’t protect a facility without the funding.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Republicans asked why, in the case of Benghazi, the State Department didn’t shift funds or ask for emergency money.

Bob Corker of Tennessee minced no words in his assessment.

SEN. BOB CORKER, R-Tenn.: What I saw in the report is a department that has sclerosis, that doesn’t think outside the box, that is not using the resources that it has in any kind of creative ways, is not prioritizing. I cannot imagine sending folks out to Benghazi after what we saw from the security cameras and the drones.

KWAME HOLMAN: Deputy Sec. Burns said the answer, in part, is that, despite growing lawlessness in Benghazi, in his words, we made the mistaken assumption that we wouldn’t become a major target.

WILLIAM BURNS: There had been a tendency, not just in the case of Eastern Libya, but I think across the world in recent years, for us to focus too much on specific, credible threats, and I think that’s something that, you know, we were painfully reminded of in the case of the Benghazi attack, and we need to do better at.

KWAME HOLMAN: To that end, Deputy Sec. Nides promised swift action on all of the report’s 29 recommendations.

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF STATE THOMAS NIDES: Implementation of each and every recommendation will be under way by the time the next secretary of state takes office. There will be no higher priority for the department in the coming weeks and months.

KWAME HOLMAN: The afternoon brought Deputy Secretaries Burns and Nides before a new audience, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. The questions there were decidedly more challenging, as Republicans quickly turned to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and her much-discussed statement five days after the attack in Benghazi.

SUSAN RICE, United States ambassador to the United Nations: What this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo.

KWAME HOLMAN: Congressional Republicans criticized Rice for not immediately calling the assault a terrorist attack, even though, at the time, U.S. intelligence officials already believed it was.

The Obama administration has said Rice simply was following unclassified talking points. But, today, committee chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida said that defense raises a list of other questions.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN, R-Fla.: When did the inaccurate spontaneous protest narrative originate? Where did it originate? And why was that story deemed more fit for publication than the accurate terrorism evidence? And if Ambassador Rice had little direct knowledge of the facts on the ground in Benghazi, why was she selected by the administration to be the spokesperson on this subject?

KWAME HOLMAN: Deputy Sec. Burns answered with a defense of how the administration responded.

WILLIAM BURNS: What happened in Benghazi on September 11 was clearly a terrorist attack. Secretary Clinton addressed that directly the following morning in her first public statement when she talked about an assault by heavily armed militants on our compound.

Later that same day, President Obama talked of an act of terror. I’m confident that the senior administration officials who spoke to this issue and the intelligence community experts on whom they relied acted in good faith throughout this period.

KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Dana Rohrabacher of California shot back that the administration is in effect trying to rewrite history.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER, R-Calif.: I’m sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but your statement that the president and Ambassador — and Sec. Clinton made clear that it was a terrorist attack right afterwards is not true. It’s not accurate.

I mean, the president and this — high-level officials of this administration immediately after the attack and for days afterwards kept talking — an overwhelming part of their discussion of the issue dealt with movie rage about these Muslims being upset about portraying Mohammed in a bad way in some movie on YouTube.

KWAME HOLMAN: Committee Democrats dismissed the focus on Rice’s remarks. Gary Ackerman of New York said Congress has become a partisan, bickering bunch of grousing old people.

REP. GARY ACKERMAN, D-N.Y.: Trying to quibble around here on this particular issue of the narrative, rather than how we work together to make things better, to quibble over somebody said a particular word or didn’t use the right word, rather than figure out how to avoid the mistakes that might have been made to — to not lose American lives on into the future.

KWAME HOLMAN: Amid the furor, Amb. Rice last week withdrew herself from consideration as secretary of state. And three State Department officials were relieved of their duties, and one resigned on Wednesday.