State Department officials acknowledged on Thursday "serious, systemic problems" that led to inadequate security at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi before the fatal assault in September and pledged: "We have to do better."
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, the first of two examining the Sept. 11 attack in Libya, top State officials listed measures that are already underway to fix the breakdowns at Foggy Bottom outlined in a critical report this week.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been slated to appear, but she is recovering after a concussion sustained last week. Two deputy secretaries of state - Thomas Nides and William Burns - testified on her behalf.
"We learned some very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi," Burns told lawmakers Thursday. "We are already acting on them. We have to do better. We owe it to our colleagues who lost their lives in Benghazi."
Nides said a task force at the State Department has created 60 specific actions from the list of recommendations from the board, and several of those will be completed before the end of the year. All of the board's recommendations will be on their way to being implemented before a new secretary of state takes over, Nides testified.
But a top Senate Republican was deeply critical of the State Department's response, questioning officials on why security requests from on the ground in Libya went unheeded. Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker also noted that 18 various review boards have been used by the State Department over the years, and none of those boards have had its recommendations fully implemented.
"We have no idea whether the State Department is using its money wisely or not," said Corker, who is likely to be the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee next year. "That is a shame."
In response to Corker, Nides said "clearly mistakes occurred ... we need to figure out how to make sure this does not happen again."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry praised the State Department for "swift action" in its response to the review board's findings.
"Clearly, mistakes were made, and we learned of those in very stark terms," Kerry told Burns and Nides, referring to the report released earlier this week. "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 for the trees."
Kerry also pressured Congress, urging lawmakers to ensure that the government's international budget was sufficient. In his opening statement, Lugar echoed Kerry's sentiment that adequate funding for the State Department was critical.
"We should not forget lessons learned in the 1990s when sharp budget cuts at the State Department hit at the same time we were establishing many new embassies in the former Soviet Union and the Balkans," Lugar said. "This funding squeeze resulted in clear deficiencies in our overall diplomatic capabilities that took years to correct."
Other senators emphasized the need for adequate State funding. Under questioning from Sen. Barbara Boxer, Nides said the department will ask for money that would pay for additional Marine deployments, about $750 million for security-related construction costs, and boosting the number of diplomatic security officials by about 5 percent.
"We can't walk away and invite another tragedy," said Boxer, a senior member of the committee. "As much as people like to say 'well, it's not about the money,' it's the money. We can't protect a facility" without funding.
The Sept. 11 attacks killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans: Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The hearing followed a highly critical report released by the Accountability Review Board, led by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, released Tuesday.
The review concluded that "systemic failures" and "leadership and management deficiencies" at top levels of the State Department led to inadequate security in Benghazi. Officials on the ground had repeatedly asked for extra staffing for security purposes, the report said.
"Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the special mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing," the unclassified version of the report read.
Clinton has told lawmakers that she accepts all recommendations from the board. And four State Department officials have resigned as a result of the board's critical findings; the Associated Press listed three of them as Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security; and Raymond Maxwell, the deputy assistant secretary of state who oversees the Maghreb nations of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
Though her illness prevented her from testifying Thursday, Clinton will likely still appear before Congress. Kerry said Thursday that Clinton looks "forward" to testifying in January before his panel; and the secretary of state's aides have told House officials that she plans to come to the Hill in mid-January.
Kerry, who is likely the next person to lead the State Department, refrained from questioning Nides and Burns, as did Lugar, the outgoing senator and former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
The controversy over the administration's response to the attacks, which spread to the presidential campaign and spurred partisan battles on Capitol Hill, ended the bid of Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to succeed Clinton as secretary of state. Rice had been the administration's chief spokeswoman following the attacks, and said on a series of Sunday news shows that the assault was a result of a spontaneous riot, although it was ultimately shown to be the work of terrorists.
One senator on Thursday -- Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma -- continued to focus on those comments, demanding to know from Nides and Burns who in the administration had altered those talking points. Burns told Inhofe that the administration "operated in good faith" and its goal was "on being as factual as possible." Nides added that Clinton and the State Department instead had its "full and complete focus" on saving lives in the immediate aftermath of the attack.
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