If you’ve been following the political fallout from the Benghazi, Libya, terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, you’ll remember the last public hearing on Capitol Hill in mid-October. It lasted four hours and was dominated by accusations on all sides. Republicans excoriated their Obama administrations' witnesses for delaying to call the Sept. 11 assault a terrorist attack, as Democrats fired back at Republicans for conducting an extremely partisan investigation. On the witness stand, Charlene Lamb looked shaky as House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., insinuated that the State Department's decision to replace U.S. personnel with local Libyan security may have ultimately resulted in the casualties in the attack.
Times have changed. Thursday’s hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, featuring Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas Nides, went fairly smoothly and lacked the partisanship and political attacks surrounding the deadly attack that killed Stevens and three other Americans. The two conceded that the department made mistakes. “We learned some very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi,” Burns told the panel. “We are already acting on them. We have to do better.”
So it seems that, finally, three months after the deadly attack, soberer attitudes prevailed in the discussion of Benghazi on Capitol Hill. Why? Back in October, the presidential campaign was in full swing; now, Obama has a second term and managed to sustain little political damage from the Benghazi issue overall. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice last week withdrew her name from consideration to be secretary of State amid Republican criticism of her initial claims that the assault was the result of spontaneous protests that turned violent over an anti-Muslim film. David Petraeus testified in closed-door hearings on Libya, despite his scandal-caused resignation as CIA director because of an extramarital affair. Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary in charge of embassy security, lost her job, along with three other senior officials -- after the release of a damning report this week that found that systemic management failures at the State Department may have led to the deaths of Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel.
The release of the sweeping Accountability Review Board report also means that lawmakers and administration officials can begin to look forward to implementing the recommendations. Burns and Nides insisted the department has accepted all 29 recommendations made by the independent panel chaired by retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and assisted by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen this week. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton requested an amendment to the department’s 2013 budget request to pay for additional Marine deployments in some high-risk posts, add $750 million for construction costs, and increase diplomatic security by about 5 percent, Nides said. The department has also named its first-ever deputy assistant secretary for high-threat posts, and is updating its deployment procedures to increase the number of experienced staff serving at these missions.
To be sure, some senators asked tough questions. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., insisted that the State Department had been well aware of the security risks in Benghazi and wanted to know why, exactly, it did not request more security funding before the attack. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., asked how the department planned to fix the “very real confusion over who ultimately was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations" described within the report.
But the hearing, which lasted about an hour and a half, ended on a positive note. Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said he was impressed by committee members' constructive questions and the witnesses’ acknowledgement that “mistakes were made and things have to be done differently.”
So, is Benghazi-gate over? Does the release of the independent report and the State Department’s willingness to act mean that reporters will stop gathering en masse to pry reactions from senators after more closed-door briefings? Does it mean the members of Congress, Republicans in particular, are satisfied?
Maybe, maybe not. Also on Thursday, Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., questioned why Clinton, who was originally scheduled to testify before the Foreign Relations panel, could not appear. She is said to be recuperating from a concussion and stomach virus and is now expected to testify in January. “I’m not a doctor, but it seems as though the secretary of State has come down with a case of Bengahzi flu,” West said on Fox News. “Just because we see the resignations of these bureaucrats … that does not mean that this ends,” West said.
More questions are also sure to arise as the newly created State Department task force begins to implement the Accountability Review Board's recommendations. Nides said that the group has already met to develop 60 “specific action items” -- which responsible bureaus within the department are already working to implement. Each and every one, he promised, “will be well underway by the time the next secretary of State takes office."
But Nides might have been speaking to his future boss. Kerry is widely expected to be nominated to be the next secretary. During the hearing, Kerry toed the line between acknowledging the Obama administration made some mistakes handling the attack and delicately blaming Congress for its complicity. “Congress has the power of the purse,” Kerry said. “And for years, we have asked our State Department to operate with increasingly lesser resources to conduct essential missions. And because of the gridlock and excesses in the Senate and Congress itself, we have not even been able to pursue the regular order of authorizing legislation. That must change, and in the next session of the Congress I hope it will.”
Perhaps by then, Kerry will be the one on the witness stand, making the case for those funds to his former colleagues. If the furor over the Benghazi attack continues to die down, Kerry might be the one reminding them.