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Kerry opens Libya hearings

John Kerry

AFP/Getty Images

John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke during the hearing.

WASHINGTON -- Drawing on his own perspective as the son of a Foreign Service officer, Senator John F. Kerry on Thursday made an impassioned plea for what he said his father called “foreign policy outdoors” – the need for American diplomats to interact extensively with foreign populations despite the risks.

“We have to be on the ground outside the wire reaching out to those people,” Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said as he opened a hearing to receive testimony on the State Department investigation into the terrorist assault that killed the US ambassador and three others in Benghazi, Libya, in September.

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“That’s the enterprise of US foreign policy today,” he said. “To help men, women and children around the world share in the vision of democracy and the values of freedom, and through it bring stability to whole regions of the world and reduce the threats to our nation.”

Kerry, who is widely believed to be President Obama’s top choice to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in his second term, drew on his own biography to highlight what he said are the necessary risks that Foreign Service officers endure to advance US foreign policy interests.

“When my father served in Berlin after World War II I remember my mother sometimes looking at the clock nervously in the evening when he was late coming home for dinner, in a city where troops guarded the line between East and West and the rubble of war was still very fresh,” Kerry recalled. “My father knew that what he was doing was worth whatever the risk might have been -- and so do the Foreign Service personnel who we send all over the world today.

“They want to be accessible to people on the ground, they need to be accessible to people on the ground, when they are representing our country,’ the Massachusetts Democrat continued. “They want those people to see and touch the face of America.”

He warned against pulling back. “We do not want to concertina wire America off from the world.”

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But Kerry also stressed that to accomplish the mission the State Department, which he noted receives a tenth of the annual budget of the military, needs to be adequately funded.

“We need to make certain that we are not penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to supporting America’s vital overseas interests,” he said. “Adequately funding America’s foreign policy objectives is not spending, it is investing.”

Hanging over the Senate hearing was Kerry’s future prospects as America’s top diplomat, putting him in the unusual situation of conducting oversight of an agency he will likely soon run.

“I will not be asking any questions,” he told the witnesses after his opening statement, yielding his time to fellow members of the panel.

The hearing on the terrorist attack in Benghazi comes on the heels of a scathing new report outlining “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.”

A classified annex to the report raises the prospect of shuttering some US diplomatic outposts deemed too dangerous for small teams of Foreign Service officers, including in Egypt, a senior State Department official familiar with the findings told the Globe.

The Benghazi report led to the resignations Wednesday of three top State Department officials, including two responsible for security.

The report made 29 recommendations that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Congress she would order adopted before she steps down, as planned, in January.

The oversight hearing, in which Undersecretary of State William J. Burns will be one of the witnesses, has the makings of highly unusual Washington theater. Kerry, the leading contender for secretary of state, will be in the position of grilling the number-two diplomat, who might be working for him in a few months.

Kerry is leading a committee seeking answers to the troubling circumstances of the Libya attack.

“We ask our diplomats and development personnel to operate in some of the most dangerous places on the planet,” Kerry said in a statement Wednesday. “We owe it to them, and we owe it to the memory of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his three fellow Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi to get past the politics and focus on the substance of what happened and what it tells us about diplomatic security going forward.”

Still, the report by the State Department Accountability Review Board, which was chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, was seen by some Republicans as vindication of their assertions that the deaths could have been prevented if State Department officials had heeded the calls for additional security at the remote diplomatic outpost.

The Benghazi attack — and a nearly simultaneous one against the US embassy in Cairo, that did not result in any injuries — came at the height of a heated presidential campaign. It quickly became fodder for accusations that Obama had mishandled — and initially mischaracterized as the work of an impromptu mob — the attack by a well-armed group of Islamic militants.

“The failure of leadership is unacceptable,” Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican and member of both the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said in response to the findings. “We need stronger leadership at the State Department, we need the administration to heed warnings from the intelligence community, and we need significantly better security at our diplomatic posts around the world.”

Among the report’s recommendations:

 Strengthen security at foreign posts, including increasing the security budget to $2.2 billion by 2015;

 Move multiple US diplomatic facilities, such as embassies and smaller consulates in the same city, into a single secure location.

 Review management of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

 Revamp fire safety and crisis management for all diplomatic personnel.

But one of the biggest questions the report raised was how to strike the right balance between the need to spread America’s message and aid to foreign populations and secure the safety of diplomatic personnel, especially in the most dangerous locations.

In the decade since 2001, American diplomats have been pushed farther and farther out from behind the high blast walls of fortresslike US embassies in hot spots ranging from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Yemen and Africa.

The expanded role has included serving on small “provincial reconstruction teams” in remote corners of Afghanistan, overseeing development projects and largely cut off from major diplomatic installations or security.

“Expeditionary diplomacy has been a big part of American diplomacy since 2001,” said Nicholas Kralev, author of “America’s Other Army,” which details the role of the Foreign Service in the 21st century and is based on more than 50 visits to US diplomatic posts and hundreds of interviews. “Not just in war zones, but also other dangerous places like Pakistan and in Africa.”

For example, in countries like Sudan, where there have been several attacks on the US embassy in Khartoum, the risks have become far greater when foreign service officers seek to interact with the local population. That has historically been a primary focus of foreign diplomatic missions.

The State Department report said the Benghzai attack by Islamic militants highlighted the growing danger such a posture presents.

“The Benghazi attacks took place against a backdrop of significantly increased demands on US diplomats to be present in the world’s most dangerous places to advance American interests and connect with populations beyond capitals, and beyond host governments’ reach,” the report said.

That has placed them in much greater danger from what the authors called a “growing, diffuse range of terrorist and hostile actors.” The report said this “poses an additional challenge to American security officers, diplomats, development professionals, and decision-makers seeking to mitigate risk and remain active in high-threat environments without resorting to an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to US diplomacy.”

The need to strike that balance has been raised before, including in an internal State Department review in 2010.

“It seems they never found that balance,” said Kralev, who believes the Benghazi attack also highlights the need for better training across the Foreign Service, where he said personnel are often “thrown into the deep end and told to learn how to swim.”

Kerry, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee has traveled to many of the same regions, has also expressed concerns about the security of such outposts.

In February 2011 his committee released a report warning that diplomats could be in danger if more was not done to protect them.

“With so much uncertainty, we’ve got to make sure we strike the proper balance between the scope of the mission and the available resources,” Kerry said at the time.

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