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Top State Department officials testify about Benghazi attack

Top State Department officials testify about Benghazi attack
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POSTED: Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 12:02pm

UPDATED: Thursday, December 20, 2012 - 12:03pm

Sen. John Kerry, widely considered the likely successor to Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, opened the first of two hearings Thursday about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, stressing the need for the United States to begin "investing" more in security at its international posts.

Spending on U.S. missions overseas must increase, and the system that requests and delivers that money must be streamlined, he said.

In the past year, $650 billion was spent on military budgets, while the budgets for international affairs were less than one-tenth of the Defense Department's, Kerry said.

Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, responded by saying he was "dismayed" that the hearing was centered on additional money for the State Department in the absence of a review of how the agency spends its appropriations.

"Clearly," Kerry said, "mistakes were made" before the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi.

Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, died and the incident touched off a firestorm in Washington over who was responsible for not making the consulate more secure.

A report issued Tuesday blamed "systematic failures in leadership" at the State Department that helped leave the consulate vulnerable.

Deputy Secretaries of State William Burns and Thomas Nides are part of Thursday's hearings on Capitol Hill. Both serve many roles but are essentially top advisers to Clinton.

"We have to do better," Burns said, calling the department's failings "unacceptable."

Nides testified that he's leading a task force to implement 29 recommendations from the review board that wrote the critical report. Some of them will be made before the end of the year.

"We accept every one of them," he said.

Four State Department officials were disciplined after Tuesday's report. One resigned, and three others have been placed on administrative leave and relieved of their duties, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.

Security at the consulate was "inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the 39-page, unclassified version of the report concluded.

Corker said it is not so much a question of budget appropriations, but rather that the State Department has a "sclerosis" and "does not think outside of the box" in confronting the challenges it faces at posts overseas.

"We have no idea whether the State Department is using its money wisely or not," Corker said. He said the department was "fully aware" of the threats posed in the days before the attack, based on incoming cables, and should have requested funds to support the situation on Benghazi.

"Mistakes occurred," Nides said, adding that the State Department is constantly evaluating where funds must go. He said the agency needs to take into account such mistakes and ensure there is proper security at its 275 posts around the world.

Veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering was chairman of the review board that authored the report. He said Wednesday that board members placed primary blame "at the assistant secretary level, which is in our view the appropriate place to look, where the decision making, in fact, takes place. Where, if you like, the rubber hits the road."

Clinton, who was recovering from a stomach virus and concussion, ordered the review after the attack. Such reports are mandated by Congress when Americans working for the U.S. government are killed overseas.

Clinton is expected to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the Benghazi attack next month, according to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, the outgoing chairwoman of the committee.

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