The U.S. State Department must do more to protect the nation’s diplomats in dangerous parts of the world, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns acknowledged on Thursday.
Speaking during the first of two congressional hearings held to discuss the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, Burns said his department badly miscalculated potential threats.
The acknowledgement and hearings follow a scathing independent report issued earlier this week, in which investigators faulted management failures for the lack of security at the high-threat diplomatic post in Benghazi. The attack cost U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans their lives.
“We learned some very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi,” Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We made the mistaken assumption that we wouldn’t become a major target.”
But Burn’s mea culpa didn’t mollify lawmakers, who pointed to a long history of threats that suggest an imminent attack. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., read one-by-one through a long list of incidents involving Westerners in the months before the Libya raid, including attacks with rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. Ambassador Stevens, himself, had requested additional security just two days before the attack.
Burns pointed out the report found no "specific tactical threat," but conceded to Inhofe that he was correct to identify a troubling pattern.
"We did not do a good enough job in trying to connect the dots," Burns said.
Three State Department officials resigned on Wednesday in the wake of criticism over the report’s findings. Some of them might return to the department, assigned to other duties, an administration official told the Associated Press.
Democrats pointed blame for the attack at inadequate funding for security measures, noting Republicans cut $300 million from the Obama administration's budget request of $2.6 billion for diplomatic and embassy security this year.
"We need to get our priorities straight around here and we can't walk away and invite another tragedy, and as much as people like to say, 'Well it's not the money,' it's the money," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said. "You can't protect a facility without the funding."
Sen. John Kerry, who is expected to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presided over Thursday’s hearing but did not join the discussion. In an opening statement, he blamed funding cuts for a lack of security. But he also said the state department had "clear warning signs" of a deteriorating security situation before the attack.
Clinton was supposed to testify during Thursday’s hearings but remained at home recovering from a concussion she sustained last week following a fall. She had been suffering from a stomach virus. Kerry said Clinton would be called to testify about the attack in January, even though she will have left her post at the State Department by then.