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Under Rubio Questioning, State Dept. Admits Senior Leadership Failed to Resolve Benghazi Security Concerns

Dec 20, 2012 | Press Releases

Senator Marco Rubio
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Benghazi Attacks with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns
December 20, 2012

Senator Marco Rubio: “I want to say this report I think has really furthered our understanding of what happened in Benghazi, and I appreciate it. There is one part of it that I’m – I don’t want to say the word ‘concerned’ – but I’m a bit puzzled by, and that’s that it places a lot of the blame on lower level officials, particularly assistant secretary level officials. And why I find that quite puzzling is because Benghazi and Libya in general is not some remote outpost.  It’s not Luxembourg.  I mean, this is a country that we were involved in militarily not so long ago in a high profile intervention. And so, I’m curious because in page five of the report in the unclassified version it talks about [how] … ‘The special mission was not a priority for Washington when it came to security related requests, especially those relating to staffing.’ So I want to understand who ‘Washington’ is and, in that frame of mind, I think Secretary Burns I have a number of questions. I know that Secretary Clinton visited Libya in October of 2011. Did the security situation, the deteriorating security situation, come up during her visit there, whether with a country team or in her interactions with the Libyans?”

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns: “Well Senator, I’m sure in general terms that it did. I wasn’t on that trip so I don’t know specifically. I can speak to my own experience, I also visited Libya.”

Senator Rubio: “In July, correct?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “I visited in July. I also visited in September after the attack in Benghazi, and so I can speak to my own experience. And you know, as Secretary Clinton has said, all of us as senior leaders in the Department are accountable and responsible for what happened. And I certainly fault myself. You know I accompanied the remains of my four colleagues back after the attack in Benghazi. I had been in the Middle East on a trip and cut short a trip to Iraq to come back with them. And on that long flight home, I certainly had a lot of time to think about sharper questions that I could have asked, sharper focus that I could have provided.”

Senator Rubio: “But on your visit in July or in the other, in September as well, did you go in July?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “September, I was in July, yes.”

Senator Rubio: “Right, for the attack, correct. Did that issue in specific come up? Did the folks on the ground there say to you, ‘We’re really worried about what’s happening here with security, we’ve made a number of requests?’”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “There was no specific discussion of that. I did talk to Ambassador Stevens in general terms about the security situation, but we didn’t talk about specifics at that time.”

Senator Rubio: “Now, Secretary Clinton met with the prime minister of Libya in March.  Do you know if the security situation came up in that meeting?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “This is in March of?”

Senator Rubio: “Of 2012.”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “I’m certain it did. We certainly emphasized the importance of not only, you know, improving the security capabilities of the Libyan interim government at that time. We offered a number of programs to help them build those institutions which remained one of the greatest weaknesses of the Libyan interim government. That was a central feature, as it was in July when I met with the prime minister as well.”

Senator Rubio: “But in that particular, you don’t know if that, you’re pretty sure that the issue came up you just don’t know the full context.”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “I don’t know all the details, no, sir.”

Senator Rubio: “You met with the deputy prime minister in June of this year. Did it come up in that meeting?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “It did.”

Senator Rubio: “What did they say?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “And again, the focus there was on urging them and offering support for their development of security institutions, which at that time and to this day are still extremely weak.”

Senator Rubio: “Who in the Department reviewed or was briefed on the cables that were sent from post in June and August of 2011 regarding the security situation? To what level did those cables get reviewed?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “Well they certainly would have been reviewed up through assistant secretary level, and it may be that some of my colleagues on the seventh floor saw them as well.”

Senator Rubio: “So beyond that level, were any senior officials beyond the assistant secretary level made aware of the repeated request from the post for extended or additional security? In particular, there were request made in March and July 2011. Do you know if beyond the assistant secretary level those requests were ever forwarded in a memo or in some other written document?”  

Deputy Secretary Burns: “I am not aware of any specific memo that went beyond the sixth floor with regard to those specific requests at that time, no, Senator.”

Senator Rubio: “Do you know if anyone beyond the assistant secretary level, going up to the Secretary’s level, were they made aware of the more than 200 security incidents that occurred in Benghazi in the thirteen months leading up to the attack?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “There were certainly memos that came up to the seventh floor that talked about the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya, yes, sir.”

Senator Rubio: “Finally, after all these different trips to Libya, yourself, the Secretary, and other senior officials in the State Department. Were there any memos produced after those visits? To the tune of basically saying, ‘We’ve been to Libya and by the way there are two things: the station is concerned about security in general and the Libyans are concerned about their ability to provide security, as we are relying on them.’ Do you know if any memos were produced in that, or any high level meetings about that topic took place, above the assistant secretary level? Were there any meetings convened? Memos produced on that issue?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “Well, there were certainly meetings that took place at senior levels with regards to the situation in Libya in general, and particularly with regard to the concern about the very weak security capabilities of the Libyan government at that time. And so certainly that was the subject of fairly consistent concern. And as I said, we made a number of offers and on a number of occasions pushed the Libyan interim government to try to move to accelerate their efforts to develop those institutions which related directly to the security.”

Senator Rubio: “So my last question is, beyond the assistant secretary level there was a general and specific awareness of a rapidly deteriorating security situation in Libya, of the repeated requests from the team on the ground for security, and of the inability of the Libyans to have it?”

Deputy Secretary Burns: “Senator, what I would say is there was certainly a general awareness of both the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya. And also there was not only a general awareness, but a real concern about the difficulty that the Libyan interim government was having in developing capable security institutions.”

Senator Rubio: “Above the assistant secretary level that awareness existed. Correct?”

Deputy Secretary Burns:  “The awareness with regard to the incapacity of the Libyan interim government in developing security institutions, yes, sir. And we worked hard to try to push the Libyans to move faster in that direction.”