Barbara Boxer’s claim that GOP budgets hampered Benghazi security
“I believe if we want to know what happened in Benghazi, it starts with the fact that there was not enough security. There was not enough security because the budget was cut.”
— Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), speech on the Senate floor, May 14, 2013
Sen. Boxer, in a speech that echoed an opinion article she published in The Huffington Post, this week tried to turn attention back to reductions in State Department funding that Democrats sought to highlight at the first congressional hearings into the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
As Boxer put it:
It takes funding to protect an embassy. It takes funding to protect a consulate. It takes funding to protect an outpost. Yes, it takes funding. Who cut the funds from embassy security? The Republicans in the House, that is who — hundreds of millions of dollars. If it were not for the Democrats, it would have been cut more, because when it came here, we stood our ground. We had to accommodate their cuts. That is how the process works. So I think the Benghazi ‘scandal’ starts with the Republicans looking in the mirror. Mirror mirror, who is the fairest of them all? They ought to ask: Mirror, mirror, who cut the funding for diplomatic security across this world for America? The answer: Republicans.
In the Huffington Post article, Boxer provided an actual figure: “The truth is — between fiscal years 2011 and 2012, the Republican-led House of Representatives sought to cut more than $450 million from President Obama’s budget request for embassy security funding.”
We had not looked closely at these claims back in the fall, but now that Boxer has revived them — and there have been two major reports and extensive testimony on the attack — it seems worthwhile to provide an assessment. There are two specific questions: Was security in Benghazi affected by the State Department budget and did Republicans cut funding in a way that affected security?
Politicians often play games with budget numbers, and so one must be careful at accepting numbers at face value. Note how Boxer asserted that House Republicans “sought to cut more than $450 million from President Obama’s budget request.” That means she is talking about the president’s proposed budget — which in any administration is often a pie-in-the-sky document.
In fact, the Congressional Research Service has documented that Congress, whether led by Democrats and Republicans, year after year did not fully fund the various pots of money for embassy security. (See page 25.) The State Department, for instance, was shortchanged by $142 million in fiscal year 2010, when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
There is always a give-and-take between Congress and the executive branch about funding issues. Boxer spent many years on the Appropriations Committee, and we assume she does not believe that Congress should just rubber-stamp a president’s budget proposals.
The funding gap was a bit higher in 2011 and 2012, when Republicans controlled the House, but we don’t understand why Boxer would frame the security funding problem in such partisan terms. As journalist David Rohde has written, this is “an enduring post-9/11 problem that both political parties ignore.”
Moreover, while Boxer claims that Republicans “cut” the budget, she is only comparing it to what the Obama administration proposed. The reality is that funding for embassy security has increased significantly in recent years.
“The Department of State’s base requests for security funding have increased by 38 percent since Fiscal Year (FY) 2007, and base budget appropriations have increased by 27 percent in the same time period,” said the bipartisan Senate Homeland Security Committee report on the Benghazi attack.
The report added that baseline funding requests have not been fully funded since fiscal year 2010, but noted that Congress had been responsive in providing “Overseas Contingency Operations” funds to the State Department in response to emergent security-driven requests, mainly for Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“However, there was no supplemental or OCO request made by the President for additional diplomatic security enhancements in FY 2010 or FY 2011,” the report pointedly noted. “Neither the Department of State nor Congress made a point of providing additional funds in a supplemental request for Libya, or more specifically, Benghazi.”
Meanwhile, while the Accountability Review Board investigation into the attack lamented the failure of Congress to provide necessary resources — and called for “a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs” — it fixed the blame for the lack of security squarely on State Department officials.
One huge problem was that the facility was deemed temporary — as we have noted, most of the officials there were working for the CIA, not State — and thus it could not be funded with standard overseas building funds. (Despite persistent news media reports, this was not a “consulate”—far from it.) After the fact, the ARB report recommended allowing for greater flexibility in use of such funds and requiring minimum security standards for such temporary facilities.
(A side note: Given that the U.S. effort in Benghazi was basically a CIA operation, State Department funding issues may be largely irrelevant. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the classified version of the ARB report. But it is worth remembering that the CIA was responsible for security at the “annex”—where most of the Americans in Benghazi were housed.)
A key finding in the ARB report was: “Security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a ‘shared responsibility’ by the bureaus in Washington charged with supporting the post, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security. That said, Embassy Tripoli did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security for Special Mission Benghazi.”
During hearings into the attack last fall and this month, State Department officials were specifically asked if a lack of financial resources played a role in the attack. The answer was no.
Oct. 10, 2012 hearing:
QUESTION: It has been suggested that budget cuts were responsible for a lack of security in Benghazi. And I'd like to ask Ms. Lamb, you made this decision personally. Was there any budget consideration and lack of budget which led you not to increase the number of people in the security force there?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE CHARLENE LAMB: No, sir.
QUESTION: So there's not a budget problem. It's not you all don't have the money to do this?
LAMB: Sir, it's a volatile situation. We will move assets to cover that.
May 8, 2013 hearing:
QUESTION: Mr. Nordstrom, you were on that panel. Do you remember what she [Lamb] said?
REGIONAL SECURITY OFFICER ERIC NORDSTROM: Yes, she said that resources was not an issue. And I think I would also point to the ARB report, if I'm not mistaken, that they talked to our chief financial officer with D.S. [Diplomatic Security], who also said that resources were not an issue.
Boxer’s aides declined to provide an on-the-record response. Instead, an aide provided a variety of documents, including an admission by a GOP lawmaker that the State Department budget was reduced, testimony from then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton complaining about the reductions made by Republicans, excerpts from the ARB report (mentioned above) and segments of the testimony before Congress in which State Department officials spoke of having “limited resources.”
The aide also provided links to opinion articles in which editorial writers and columnists cited the fact that the president’s budget requests were not fully granted by Republicans.
The Pinocchio Test
Boxer would have been on firmer ground if she had echoed the broad point made by the Accountability Review Board that both Republicans and Democrats in Congress repeatedly have failed to provide the State Department with the requested resources. Instead she narrowly tailored her critique to the two-year period when Republicans were in control of the House, failing to mention that Democrats have also “cut” the president’s budget request. Thus her remarks lacked significant context.
Indeed, it is almost as if Boxer is living in a time warp, repeating talking points from six months ago that barely acknowledge the fact that extensive investigations have found little evidence of her claim that “there was not enough security because the budget was cut.”
State Department officials repeatedly told Congress that a lack of funds was not an issue. Instead, security was hampered because of bureaucratic issues and management failures. In other words, given the internal failures, no amount of money for the State Department likely would have made a difference in this tragedy.
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