In early January Sen. John Kerry visited State Department headquarters at Foggy Bottom and received “a huge pile of briefing materials,” according to department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. He began reporting to the State Department Jan. 4, meeting with chief U.S. diplomats ahead of Senate confirmation hearings to become the next secretary of state later this month.
The five-term Massachusetts senator has served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee his entire career, starting during the Cold War, and for the last six years as committee chairman. Kerry has managed to put behind him public questioning of his service in Vietnam and other controversies that arose when he ran for president in 2004. Supporters credit him with persuading Afghan President Hamid Karzai to hold a runoff election in 2009, and with quelling Pakistan’s anger following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
But Kerry will head a State Department ensnared by crisis. Following last September’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans under its employ (including Ambassador Christopher Stevens), senior officials have asked Congress (in fact, Kerry’s committee) for $1.4 billion to beef up diplomatic security around the world. But money alone won’t fix what’s wrong at State.
The independent review set up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following the Sept. 11 attack found “systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” at the root of “grossly inadequate” security in Benghazi.
Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that Libya and Benghazi were “flashing red” as threats there to the United States grew. That became the title of the committee’s report, made public Dec. 31, confirming mounting problems in the State Department—and indeed the entire executive branch—in understanding and battling Islamic terrorism. Spending a billion dollars on additional security—in a department where Clinton has made priorities of gender equality offices at embassies and a culinary exchange program—can’t remedy that.
First, lack of security. On hand in Benghazi to protect the U.S. station were six U.S. security officers. They were aided by three members of the February 17 Brigade, a Libyan militant group whose contract with the State Department had expired at the time of the attack, and four unarmed local contract guards. These faced a horde of armed attackers bearing RPGs and diesel fuel sufficient to torch both the consulate and a U.S. annex about a mile away.
Second, lack of rapid response. It took seven hours for U.S. security personnel deployed from Tripoli, Libya’s capital, to enter Benghazi (a distance of 400 miles, plus Libyan authorities halted U.S. forces at the airport for about three hours). Most troubling, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave orders for U.S. troop deployment to Benghazi at 8:39 p.m. Washington time—four hours after his office was alerted to the attack, and over two hours after a meeting with the president. Panetta was actually at the White House when he learned of the attack, and apparently discussed the situation with the president over a two-hour period before issuing orders.
His orders primarily included deploying a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (known, without apparent irony, as FAST) from its base in Rota, Spain, to Benghazi—a distance of 1,500 miles. What could be a four-hour flight for a U.S. private citizen aboard a commercial aircraft—and throw in two hours for clearing airport security plus an hour commute each way for a total travel time of eight hours—took 21 hours for FAST.
Third, lack of truth telling. Within days of Sept. 11—while U.S. officials and the president himself continued to speak of “demonstrations” brought on by an anti-Islamic video—they had eyewitness reports from surviving State Department employees and from Libyans that what happened in Benghazi was a militant, armed, orchestrated attack.
As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin concluded: “When a debacle is traceable to so many sectors of government (intelligence community, State, Pentagon) and so many different types of errors (in strategy, communication, management) something is very wrong.”
Asked a different way, where was the president? And where will be the next secretary of state when U.S. diplomatic posts are threatened?