In our opinion: Benghazi fallout

Published: Saturday, Dec. 22 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

FILE - On this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012 file photo, a man looks at documents at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The graffiti reads, "no God but God," " God is great," and "Muhammad is the Prophet." After more than two months, Libya’s investigation into the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi appears in limbo. Key security commanders and witnesses say they were never questioned. No suspects have been named, and gunmen who were seen participating in the assault walk freely in the eastern Libyan city. Hanging over the probe is a fear of reprisals from powerful extremist militiamen.(AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri, File)

Ibrahim Alaguri, AP

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An independent panel investigating the attack on an American consulate and the subsequent death of an ambassador in Libya has documented a morass of systemic security failures by the U.S. State Department, leading to the discharge of several high-ranking officials. While the report and its repercussions are the first step on the road to accountability, the nation is still far from the point where it can comfortably declare closure on the issue.

Too many questions remain about the attack in Benghazi and the deaths of four American diplomats, including the Libyan ambassador. Chief among them is how the security arm of the State Department could operate for any period of time under the impression the embassy and its inhabitants were safe when, as is now clear, there was manifest evidence they were not.

The resignation or release of responsible officials is certainly an appropriate reaction, as is the pledge to see to it that any existing security breaches are repaired and will not recur. But to the extent the panel's findings are correct, a "systemic" failure is not something fixed by changing mid-level personnel and promising to do better.

The independent panel, commissioned by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, made 29 recommendations, five of which are classified, to shore up the apparatus responsible for ensuring a secure environment for the nation's diplomatic corps. To her credit, Clinton has promised to implement all of the recommendations. But what is necessary now is a complete, top-down review of the State Department's operational priorities to see to it that the root of the problem is sufficiently purged.

The underlying cause of the failure is a fundamental attitude problem that resulted in allowing the task of providing embassy security to fall below a level of appropriate priority. The State Department has many working parts and many duties, but arranging for security seems as basic to the task of diplomacy as arranging for food is basic to the task of running the State Department cafeteria.

When systems fail, responsibility falls on top leadership. Clinton will be departing the State Department soon, according to a decision made long ago; her successor has yet to be nominated. This changing of the guard is an appropriate time for a review of the department's hierarchy of priorities.

Another disturbing fallout from the incident is the department's request to be able to reallocate $1.4 billion in funds to bolster embassy security. That request is a tacit admission that security has heretofore been hugely underfunded, and by logical extension, grossly undervalued.

Americans need to be confident that the security of their foreign representatives, and thus American interests abroad, is assured. They also need to be confident that when critical governmental systems break down, they will be treated with more than a Band-Aid.

When Congressional hearings convened on the matter, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who since has been named to replace Clinton as secretary, said in regard to diplomatic security, "Mistakes were made."

What happened in Benghazi was not the result of a mistake. It was the result of an inexplicable failure of a basic and vital chore of a government agency, and its consequences were tragic. What the nation needs now is assurance that what should never have happened in the first place will never happen again.

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