WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called on President Barack Obama’s administration Monday to acknowledge “the threat of violent Islamist extremism” as a way to avoid a repeat of the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
In her last official act as the lead Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Collins joined Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., in releasing a 29-page report on the committee’s probe into the Benghazi embassy attack.
Lieberman, who is retiring from the Senate this week, and Collins, who is prohibited by Republican Senate caucus rules from returning as ranking member of the committee, shared details of the report titled “ Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi,” during a 25-minute press conference Monday morning.
The report lists 10 findings and multiple recommendations to address shortcomings identified in those findings. Among the most egregious, according to Lieberman and Collins, was an across-the-board failure to adjust to an increasingly dangerous situation in eastern Libya; the State Department’s refusal to heighten security measures adequately at the Benghazi compound in response to increased terrorist activity nearby; lack of communication between the State and Defense departments; and an unrealistic expectation that the new Libyan government could protect U.S. diplomats.
Despite the “absence of specific information about an imminent attack” on the embassy in Benghazi, the report asserts that a “large amount of evidence” that terrorists posed a threat to the U.S. embassy in Benghazi should have motivated State Department officials to elevate security measures or remove personnel in response to what Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy later labeled a “flashing red” warning that Obama administration officials ignored.
The State Department should have closed the embassy in Benghazi “until we were prepared to provide adequate protection to American personnel,” Lieberman said Monday. He and Collins also criticized the State Department for failing to communicate the need for heightened security to the Department of Defense, and for woefully underestimating the danger that “nascent violent Islamist extremist groups that lack strong operational ties to core al Qaeda” pose to Americans in North Africa.
“One of the key lessons of this committee’s six-year focus on the threat of violent Islamist extremism is that, in order to understand and counter the threat we face, we must clearly identify that threat,” Collins said in a statement on release of the report. “We have repeatedly expressed our disappointment in the administration’s reluctance to identify violent Islamist extremism as our enemy — while making the sharp distinction between the peaceful religion of Islam and a twisted corruption of that religion used to justify violence.”
She reiterated that concern during Monday’s press briefing, urging the Obama administration to identify violent Islamist extremism — which she labeled a “perversion of a peaceful religion practiced by a vast majority of Muslims” — as a major threat to U.S. security.
Collins also faulted the Obama administration for being “inconsistent in stating publicly that the deaths in Benghazi were the result of a terrorist attack. … The attack clearly was not a peaceful protest in response to a hateful anti-Muslim video that evolved into a violent incident. It was a terrorist attack by an opportunistic enemy.”
The committee’s investigation determined that the U.S. intelligence community recognized the attack as the work of terrorists from the outset, she said, yet Obama administration officials offered varying explanations of the events in the days that followed. That created public confusion and placed the intelligence community in the position of being questioned for providing “talking points” during a heated political campaign, the report states.
While criticizing the State Department and some officials within the Obama administration, Collins made clear Monday that she did not fault the Department of Defense for its response to the Benghazi attack. “One of our findings is that, while the Defense Department attempted to mobilize its resources quickly, it had neither the personnel nor other assets close enough to reach Benghazi in a timely fashion,” she said.
That troubling lack of resources, particularly in an area prone to terrorist attacks, should spur Congress and the Obama administration to reconsider budget priorities related to both embassy security and U.S. military presence in “dangerous places where our country’s interests are at stake,” she said.
While the report bristled with criticism for the State Department, Lieberman praised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was hospitalized Sunday with a blood clot, for cooperating fully with the committee’s investigation. He noted that an Accountability Review Board inquiry into the Benghazi attacks determined that Clinton was not directly responsible for the breaches that resulted in the fatal attack on the embassy. The review board’s findings, released Dec. 18, assigned culpability to four mid-level State Department managers, who have all been placed on administrative leave.
Collins said the initial decision whether other State Department staff should face sanctions rests with Clinton, after she has recovered and reviewed “Flashing Red.”
The most important outcome of the report, Lieberman and Collins agreed, is “to take steps to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”