WASHINGTON: Lawmakers backed pleas for better funding to protect diplomats in an uncertain world, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's absence weighed Thursday on hearings into the Benghazi attack.
Senators probed into the best way forward after a damning report on the September 11 assault on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya found that failures in the State Department's management led to “grossly inadequate” security there.
The report, by a five-strong Accountability Review Board (ARB), also called for $2.3 billion in extra funding over the next 10 years to fortify and improve some of America's 275 diplomatic outposts around the world.
“It's no understatement that our diplomats are on the front lines of the world's most dangerous places,” Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee said.
The changes sweeping the Arab world have shifted the ground rules, meaning that in many places embassies can no longer rely on local police and armed forces to ensure their security, as has been the tradition for two centuries.
But Kerry said ambassador Chris Stevens, who died along with three other Americans in the Benghazi attack, would have been one of the first to stress that diplomacy cannot be effective if done from behind fortress walls.
“There will always be a tension between the diplomatic imperative to get outside the wire and the security standards that require our diplomats to work behind high walls, concertina wire and full-body searches,” he said.
“We do not want to concertina wire America off from the world,” said Kerry, in what could be taken as a mission statement by the man widely touted to replace Clinton as the next secretary of state in 2013.
Clinton had been due to address Thursday's hearings, including a later meeting in the House, but has been ordered to rest by doctors after catching a stomach virus that caused her to faint and suffer a concussion.
She has said that she accepts the report's 29 recommendations and has already begun to implement some of them, including asking Congress to allow her department to use $1.3 billion earmarked for Iraq for diplomatic security.
Some Republican lawmakers had earlier insisted Clinton's testimony was vital to get to the bottom of the failings that led to the tragedy.
But Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, who stood in for Clinton to testify to the Senate, and Deputy Secretary Bill Burns were met cordially, with many senators wishing their boss a speedy recovery.
Nides highlighted how the State Department budget accounts for less than one percent of total federal spending. It is also less than a tenth of the mammoth $650 billion devoted annually to the Pentagon.
The committee vice chairman, retiring Republican Senator Dick Lugar, highlighted how recently the State Department budget had been “a popular target for cuts.”
”Diplomacy is not a luxury. It is essential to American national security, especially in an era of terrorism. We should fund the State Department as the national security agency that it is,” he insisted.
In a tough economic climate where all government agencies face cuts, Nides said funding was needed for some 225 extra Marines being dispatched to high threat posts to “serve as visible deterrents to hostile acts.”
The department was also seeking some $750 million for construction costs for their embassies, and they would need to finance a five percent increase in diplomatic security staff, he said.
Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer drew comparisons between the $300 million slashed from the department's budget last year, and the same amount which goes annually to funding military bands.
“We need to get our priorities straight around here,” she insisted.
But Republican Senator Bob Corker fumed it was not a question of money, as there had been a special team on the ground in Tripoli whose tour had not been extended by the State Department despite concerns over security in Libya.
“The culture of the state department is one that needs to be reformed,” he said.
Four officials at the State Department have been disciplined in the wake of the ARB report, including Eric Boswell, head of the bureau of diplomatic security, who has resigned, officials have said.
Three others have been suspended and placed on administrative leave, with Foreign Policy magazine naming two of them as Charlene Lamb and Raymond Maxwell, both deputy assistant secretaries. The identity of the fourth person mentioned by the ARB has not been revealed.