Report

Pompeo Aims to Cut Funds for Program Honoring Envoy Killed in Benghazi

The secretary of state rose to prominence investigating the 2012 Benghazi attack. Now he’s on board with an administration plan to eliminate funding for a program honoring Chris Stevens.

Then-U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens
U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens gives a speech at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, on Aug. 26, 2012. Stevens was killed in an attack on U.S. government compounds in Libya later that year. Mahmud Turkia/AFP/GettyImages

As a little-known congressman from Kansas, Mike Pompeo once said his top priority was getting to the bottom of the killing of J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, calling them heroes who had been let down by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders who put politics above the safety of their own people.

But as U.S. secretary of state, Pompeo is now pressing Congress to eliminate a $5 million contribution to a charity dedicated to Stevens’s memory. The proposal to zero out funding for the Stevens Initiative, which promotes online exchanges among students in the United States and the Middle East and North Africa, is buried on page 33 of the State Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal, along with proposed cuts for cultural exchange and study programs for Arab Israelis, Tibet, Taiwan, Timor Leste, and others. 

The program, according to officials familiar with the matter, came about in part at the urging of Stevens’s family after the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed in the 2012 attack on the U.S. government facilities there. “[Stevens’s] interest was in communities we couldn’t otherwise reach,” said one official who worked with Stevens and spoke on condition of anonymity. Naming a program focused on cultural exchange after Stevens was an apt way to honor the late ambassador for both the family and the department, the official said. 

The Stevens funding is one of a slew of programs on the chopping block under public diplomacy. The budget proposal calls for decreasing funding for public diplomacy by $95.7 million from its fiscal year 2020 budget estimate of $619.5 million. It also calls for the elimination of more than $173 million for the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which runs the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, major U.S.-funded international broadcasters and news outlets.

A spokesperson for the State Department noted that despite the elimination of a line item funding the Stevens Initiative in the Trump administration’s budget proposal, the department would still have the flexibility to fund programs like it under a separate line item. However, the official, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, gave no indication that the department intended to do so.

State’s Educational and Cultural Exchange office, which has funded the Stevens Initiative, has requested a total of $310 million for fiscal year 2021, the official added. If approved, the money would be used to fund “educational and cultural exchange programs that target populations and regions of strategic importance to U.S. national Security and foreign policy objectives.”  No specific decisions will be taken on the office’s funding priorities “until a final budget is approved and enacted,” the spokesperson added.

A U.S. official who spoke to Foreign Policy said proposals to zero out the funding for the Stevens Initiative and cuts to public diplomacy overall run counter to “everything [Stevens] stood for” as a diplomat. “Part of the reason his family made the argument in the first place they should name a program after him is because he was very open in advocating for exchanges with other societies,” the official said. 

Stevens, a highly respected career foreign service officer, joined the State Department in 1991 and served in posts across the Middle East during his two decades in government. He was the first U.S. ambassador in over 30 years who was killed in the line of duty and one of only six in U.S. history killed by militants, according to the State Department’s Office of the Historian. 

The recipient of the State Department funding in question, the Stevens Initiative, is affiliated with the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank. “We have enjoyed a great relationship with the State Department, the work that we do has a lot of impact with the students we serve and the program has enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress,” Mohamed Abdel-Kader, the executive director of the Stevens Initiative, told Foreign Policy when asked about the proposed cuts. 

The initiative has reached tens of thousands of students since its inception through virtual cultural exchanges, according to the Stevens Initiative website. It received $5 million in State Department funding in fiscal years 2019 and in 2020, according to the State Department budget documents. 

Officials say some of the steep proposed cuts to the State Department are driven by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, including significant cuts to funding for public diplomacy. 

Attacks on U.S. diplomatic and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 sparked a years-long hyperpartisan investigation on Capitol Hill over whether Clinton and other Obama administration officials failed to protect Stevens and the other Americans, the information management officer Sean Smith and the CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. The investigations led to accusations from former State Department officials and members of Stevens’s family that Republican lawmakers were politicizing the deaths of Americans in the run-up to the 2016 elections.

Pompeo was an outspoken member of the committee overseeing the Benghazi investigation who once accused Clinton of “put[ting] her own political legacy ahead of the people that she sent into harm’s way.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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