A former security official who served on a panel reviewing State Department policies raised concerns Wednesday that the department continues to rely on a “pre-Benghazi” approach to overhauling diplomatic security, at the first public hearing of the House committee probing the Benghazi attack and its aftermath.
“Now’s the time. Clear the smoke, remove the mirrors,” Todd Keil, member of The Independent Panel on Best Practices, testified, calling on the department to “finally institutionalize some real, meaningful and progressive change.”
Later in the hearing, Keil specifically alleged the department “does not have that process” to evaluate whether they need to be in certain high-risk places. He said that when his panel interviewed ambassadors and other officers overseas and asked about the department’s risk management process, “without exception, each one said ‘there is none, and they make it up’.”
Greg Starr, assistant secretary for diplomatic security, objected to Keil’s characterization, claiming the department has concentrated on that very issue since the 2012 attack.
State Department representatives, including Starr, say they have been implementing dozens of recommendations in the wake of the 2012 attack — both from Keil’s panel and the independent Accountability Review Board.
But Keil and others at Wednesday’s hearing raised pointed concerns that many panels have made many recommendations in the wake of attacks on U.S. outposts over the years, and little has changed.
“We do not suffer from a lack of recommendations. We do suffer from a lack of implementing and enacting recommendations. That has to end,” committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said.
Keil echoed that point, saying that in the wake of the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, “little has been accomplished by the Department of State since then to improve its approach to risk management.”
The Independent Panel on Best Practices made 40 recommendations last year, and the department has accepted all but two of them. But Keil said they were “disappointed” that the department did not accept the first and “most important” recommendation, to create an under secretary for diplomatic security. And he claimed the department was relying on “pre-Benghazi processes” to implement other recommendations.
He said cursory actions would “ring hollow” without truly implementing the recommendations.
The testimony was a reminder of lingering concerns about the state of security at State Department embassies and consulates around the world in high-risk areas.
Starr, though, said the department has also been implementing 29 recommendations from the ARB, including starting a “counter-threat course” for foreign service employees in high-risk areas and partnering with the New York fire department for training to deal with fire-based attacks, as was the case in Benghazi.
“We have made what I consider to be tremendous progress,” Starr said.
Mark Sullivan, the chairman of the best practices panel and former Secret Service director, said many agencies view the State Department’s diplomacy security bureau as the “gold standard” of security, though all organizations must evolve.
Four Americans died in the Benghazi attack.
The hearing Wednesday was the first open hearing since the House select committee launched earlier this year.
The committee itself has been controversial, with Democrats accusing Republicans of engaging in a partisan exercise.
But Gowdy defended the committee’s work, saying he hopes the matter can “rise above politics.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., top Democrat on the panel, said past Benghazi probes have descended into “unseemly partisanship” but said the Benghazi attack should nevertheless mark a “transformational” moment.