WASHINGTON — Speaking before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Thursday, Deputy Secretaries of State William Burns and Thomas Nides acknowledged that a “systemic failure” led to the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, and vowed swift implementation of reforms recommended by the Accountability Review Board to avoid future security lapses.
The two deputy secretaries testified in place of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was unable to appear before the committees due to an illness and concussion. (RELATED: Clinton calls in sick for a third time on Benghazi)
Some Republicans have suggested that Clinton came down with a case of “Benghazi flu,” as GOP Rep. Allen West told Fox News, but Senate committee chair John Kerry, who also happens to be Clinton’s likely successor in the State Department, defended her.
“All of you who know Hillary know she would rather be here today,” Kerry said in his opening remarks. “I know how deeply she feels the importance of the discussion that we’re having toda,y and I assure you it is not her choice that she is not here today and she looks forward to appearing before the committee in January, and I want to make that clear.”
In their remarks, Burns and Nides said that at Secretary Clinton’s direction, they were already working on implementing the 29 reforms recommended in a report released Tuesday by the Accountability Review Board.
“Implementation of each and every recommendation will be well underway by the time the next Secretary of State takes office,” Nides said in his opening remarks. “There will be no higher priority for the Department in the coming weeks and months.”
They acknowledged that the State Department had failed to adequately protect the embassy and its people inside.
“We learned some very hard and painful lessons in Benghazi,” Burns said. “We are already acting on them. We have to do better.”
“Across Eastern Libya for many months before the attack took place in Benghazi, there was a troubling pattern of deteriorating security,” Burns said later in the hearing. “Not all of which was directed at the United States. But there has been tendency, not just in the case of Eastern Libya, but I think across the board in recent years for us to focus too much on specific credible threats.”
A focus of both hearings was the potential need to reallocate more funds to the State Department to ensure that it can adequately fulfill its obligations in high-risk areas.
Nides said that the State Department is “seeking to hire more than 150 additional Diplomatic Security personnel — an increase of five percent — and to provide them with the equipment and training they need.”
“Should we require more resources to execute these recommendations, we will work closely with Congress to ensure these needs are met,” Nides said.
Kerry faulted Congress for not giving State adequate resources in the first place.
“Congress also bears some responsibility here,” he said in his opening statement. “Congress has the power of the purse. … 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 the Congress itself, we have not even been to able to pursue the regular order of authorizing legislation. That must change, and in the next session of the Congress I hope it will.”
Republicans, on the other hand, were not keen to increase State’s budget.
House committee chairman Ileana Ros-Lhetinen said the “priority must be to uncover the root causes of this tragedy.”
“I know there will be an attempt to shift the blame to a shortage of resources,” she said, “but budgetary constraints were not a factor in the department’s failure to recognize the threats” and adequately deal with them.
She questioned whether the State Department was correctly prioritizing the money it had, criticizing Clinton for focusing on a culinary diplomacy program on Sept. 10, 2012, the day before the attack.
Republican Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker voiced a similar criticism.
“I’m just amazed that this hearing has already centered on additional money, which may well be needed, but as Sen. Boxer just said, we would have no idea, since we have never done a top to bottom review of the State Department since I’ve been here … we have no idea whether the state Department is using this money wisely or not.”
“What I saw in the report is a department that has corrosis [sic]; that doesn’t think outside of the box; that does not use the resources it has in any kind of creative ways,” he said.
“After what we saw from the security cameras and the drones, I cannot imagine why we had people there with the lack of security existing,” he added.
Though Susan Rice has withdrawn from contention to be the next secretary of state, questions about her handling of the Benghazi attack were still a part of the conversation during Thursday’s hearing.
“What happened in Benghazi was clearly a terrorist attack,” said Burns, arguing that both Clinton and President Barack Obama had said as much later that day.
Rice, however, told morning talk shows immediately after the attack that intelligence indicated the deadly strike was simply a spontaneous response to an anti-Islam YouTube video.
“What was not clear at that time was which terrorists were at fault, what their motives were, exactly how this came about, whether it was planned well in advance or if it was more a crime of opportunity,” Burns said.
“I’m convinced, senator, that my colleagues in the administration that addressed this issue and the intelligence officials on whom they arrived were operating in good faith. They’re focus was on being as factual as possible, but their focus was on action,” he said, noting that American embassies were still under attack while the State Department worked through the events of Benghazi.
“As someone who was in the room during those three days with Secretary Clinton, our focus was fully and completely on saving lives,” Nides said.
Rep. Gary Ackerman agreed, and began his statement by apologizing to the deputy secretaries.
“You have been brought here as a ruse,” he said, adding that the hearing was being held “for partisan purposes.”
He accused his Republican colleagues of “trying to take down and disqualify an administration as being illegitimate.”
Those sentiments were echoed by several of Ackerman’s colleagues, albeit in less harsh terms.