U.S. Representative Scott Desjarlais, The Tennessean
By PAUL C. BARTON, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- To better protect its diplomatic personnel abroad, the United States must better evaluate the commitments of host nations' to keeping American embassies and consulates secure, Rep. Scott DesJarlais said during a tour of the Middle East Wednesday.
DesJarlais, R-Jasper, is one of seven members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee inspecting security arrangements for State Department personnel in the region as part of its ongoing inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others dead.
"You want to ensure against future loss of American life," DesJarlais said as he spoke with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., on a conference call from Cyprus. Issa is the committee chairman.
So far, the group has inspected American facilities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Turkey and Lebanon. Issa said plans call for three more stops but for security reasons could not reveal the destinations.
"We're seeing quite a diversity in the needs of the different embassies," DesJarlais said.
Their trip comes on the heels of an independent report on Benghazi submitted in late December by a State Department "accountability review board" headed by Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Thomas Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
In releasing that report, Mullen said: "The board found that the attacks in Benghazi were security related, and responsibility for the loss of life, the injuries, and damage to U.S. facilities rests completely and solely with the terrorists who conducted the attacks. That does not mean there are not lessons to be learned. The board found that the security posture at the Special Mission compound was inadequate for the threat environment in Benghazi, and in fact, grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place that night."
Many security enhancements, DesJarlais said, have already taken place. "There is a heightened awareness since Benghazi," he said.
The group is not stopping in Benghazi itself, DesJarlais said, because aerial photography and other means have already shown what the problems were there.
In addition to visiting American facilities, the congressional delegation is also talking to key officials in the host countries as part of their assessment of those nation's commitment to using their own resources to protect embassies and consulates.
"So far we've kind of gotten a mixed response," DesJarlais said.
The United States, they added, also needs to evaluate the locations of some of its diplomatic outposts. Some places, they said, may just be too fraught with security risks.
As for what's needed from Washington, both members downplayed calls for new major spending on embassy security, even though Democrats have complained about Republican appropriators failing to meet the Obama administration's recent annual budget requests for embassy security by amounts ranging from $90 million to $300 million.
"A lot of it is allocation of resources," Issa said, adding, "The story of Benghazi is assets poorly used."
Democrats, however, have portrayed some of the hearings held by Issa's committee and other Republican-controlled panels as publicity stunts for political purposes only.