Almost two years after the Benghazi terrorist attack, lawmakers are taking their investigation to a new front: architecture.
Lawmakers suggested Thursday that the State Department is trading safety overseas for, as Republican Rep. Darrell Issa said, "pretty buildings."
The State Department rolled out the "design excellence" plan for building overseas facilities under President Obama. The guidelines were aimed at designing buildings that better represent U.S. values, but at a lower cost.
Lawmakers have honed in on diplomatic security since the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans: Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, U.S. Foreign Service Information Officer Sean Smith, and embassy security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
And the State Department has upped its budget request, asking Congress for $4.6 billion to boost security at its embassies and consulates as part of its fiscal year 2015 budget request. That's roughly $600 million more than $4 million the administration requested for security upgrades last year.
The money is being used to fund additional security staff, upgrades to infrastructure, and funding for new embassies or consulate compounds. The department has started construction on embassies in the Netherlands, Suriname, and Mauritania, so far this year.
But with some projects delayed and over budget, members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee worry that the new design process endangers U.S. personnel overseas and eats up the department's budget.
"I think the consequence is that it will cost more. I think the other consequence is we're going to have more people in harm's way," said Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Lydia Muniz, the director for the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, said that by using "design excellence" guidelines, the department will be able to shorten construction times, potentially save money, and still meet security requirements.
"Every new design and construction project that OBO undertakes both must and will meet the security and life-safety standards required by law," she said. " ... We are dedicated to meeting all the security requirements that [diplomatic security] establishes."
But Chaffetz referred to a report by Grant Green, who testified before the committee, which found that delays would leave "more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time" without any cost benefit for using the new design standards.
"When we interviewed people who were worried about security … [they] felt very strongly that the pendulum had shifted very strongly from security to design," Green, the former under secretary for management at the State department, told lawmakers.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the committee's ranking member, said it was hard to fully understand any merits or drawbacks of the new design plan because no finished embassy has been completely built using the "design excellence" plan.
"As we evaluate the merits and drawbacks of this new effort, we must keep one goal at the top of our list—the security of our diplomatic officials serving overseas," he said.
House members also questioned if pushing to build embassies in more urban locations left U.S. personnel more open to attack, versus building in a remote location.
The hearing comes after a report late last month raised questions about gaps in security at U.S. embassies and consulates.
"State lacks a process for reassessing standards against evolving threats and risks," the Government Accountability Office found, including an inability to incorporate new information when making decisions about the level of threats at a location.
Congressional reports have criticized—if not outright blamed—the department for its lack of responsiveness in the 2012 attack.
"The failures of Benghazi can be summed up this way: The Americans serving in Libya were vulnerable; the State Department knew they were vulnerable; and no one in the administration really did anything about it," according to a 2014 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
This article appears in the July 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.