Benghazi Panel Opens With a Whimper, Not a Bang

The special investigation into the best practices following the Sept. 11, 2012 seige on a U.S. diplomatic post in the Libyan city of Benghazi was meant to be a heated political affair. The summer’s events likely took most of the wind out of the committee’s sails as Congress is preoccupied with crises from Africa to ...

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The special investigation into the best practices following the Sept. 11, 2012 seige on a U.S. diplomatic post in the Libyan city of Benghazi was meant to be a heated political affair. The summer's events likely took most of the wind out of the committee's sails as Congress is preoccupied with crises from Africa to Ukraine, but amid many empty seats in the congressional hearing room, a special House investigative panel on Benghazi made its inauspicious public debut on Wednesday.

After two years of intense political battles between Republicans and Democrats over the attack that cost the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the panel moved in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion. Lawmakers reviewed a recently released Accountability Review Board (ARB) report, the State Department's own internal review panel's recommendations for fixing the kinds of problems that led to the attack.

Gregory Starr, the State Department's diplomatic security chief, said officials were looking for ways to reduce risks, adding that dangers in diplomacy work could not ever be fully eliminated. Starr went on to note that nearly all of the independent review's recommendations had been implemented since the Benghazi attacks and that the State Department has adopted new and improved practices for identifying risks and mitigating them.

The special investigation into the best practices following the Sept. 11, 2012 seige on a U.S. diplomatic post in the Libyan city of Benghazi was meant to be a heated political affair. The summer’s events likely took most of the wind out of the committee’s sails as Congress is preoccupied with crises from Africa to Ukraine, but amid many empty seats in the congressional hearing room, a special House investigative panel on Benghazi made its inauspicious public debut on Wednesday.

After two years of intense political battles between Republicans and Democrats over the attack that cost the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, the panel moved in a surprisingly bipartisan fashion. Lawmakers reviewed a recently released Accountability Review Board (ARB) report, the State Department’s own internal review panel’s recommendations for fixing the kinds of problems that led to the attack.

Gregory Starr, the State Department’s diplomatic security chief, said officials were looking for ways to reduce risks, adding that dangers in diplomacy work could not ever be fully eliminated. Starr went on to note that nearly all of the independent review’s recommendations had been implemented since the Benghazi attacks and that the State Department has adopted new and improved practices for identifying risks and mitigating them.

However, both Republicans and Democrats on the panel were quick to challenge Starr, noting that the report’s No. 1 recommendation, creating an under-secretary for diplomatic security position, has yet to materialize. Lawmakers continued questioning the State Department’s willingness to implement such measures, with committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R- S.C., saying that ARB suggestions from previous attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts — pointing to Beirut in 1983, and Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 — had not been fully implemented.

Yet, despite the revelation of bureaucratic resistance within the State Department, the event feined in comparison to previous Benghazi hearings, which often became immediate political fodder. The Benghazi tragedy has been a political wedge between Republicans and Democrats, with some Republican lawmakers arguing that the military held back assets that could have saved lives and that President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lied about the nature of the attack. Meanwhile, Democrats derided the intense focus on Benghazi as a right-wing effort to keep talk of scandal fresh and harm a potential Clinton presidential bid in 2016.

Immediately following the Benghazi attack, some GOP lawmakers demanded answers about what role Clinton played in the State Department’s initial response and what she knew about the later-debunked talking points from the White House that initially blamed the attack on a spontaneous protest arising from an anti-Muslim video.

However, at Wednesday’s hearing, Clinton’s name and role was only referenced in passing a few times, as the issue at the heart of Benghazi has shifted from a political grudge match into a bipartisan effort to implement the necessary reforms at the State Department in order to prevent another tragedy.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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