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December 19. 2012 11:09PM

Benghazi report brings out criticism

The state's two U.S. senators, both deeply involved in the fallout from, and follow-up to, the Sept. 11 siege on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, had sharply different takes on the attack Wednesday following a new report by an independent Accountability Review Board.

The panel blasted the State Department for management and security failures leading up to the attack, in which four Americans were killed.

Republican Kelly Ayotte said the report leaves many questions, especially why "military assets were not in place" by the time the attackers struck the CIA annex five to six hours after the initial assault on the consulate.

"Why during the course of that didn't we have assets available to respond and assist the individuals who were attacked there?" she asked in an interview.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee today will hold a public hearing on the matter with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and others. But Ayotte wants a separate hearing on the lack of a quick military response before the Senate Armed Services Committee, on which she sits.

Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, a member of both the foreign relations and armed services committes, said it is time to move forward and address the security concerns cited in the report.

"It was clear the State Department and several of the various bureaus of the department didn't do enough to protect our people on the ground and that we have to do better," she said in a separate interview Wednesday.

The independent panel on Tuesday released an unclassified version of its report, faulting the State Department for "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus," which, it said, "resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."

Three senior state department officials then resigned, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is leaving her post in January, took responsibility.

Clinton said in a letter that all of the panel's recommendations will be implemented and some measures to shore up security are already under way.

Shaheen said Clinton, a longtime friend, "was very clear. She said, 'I am the person responsible. I head the state department and I take responsibility for what happened.'"

But Ayotte said Clinton's letter is not enough.

"It is my understanding that Secretary Clinton was not interviewed for this report, nor was Secretary (of Defense) Leon Panetta," she said.

"It is important to have testimony from both of them," said Ayotte. "I still think it's key that Secretary Clinton testify, particularly now that three senior officials have resigned within her agency and the report has identified systematic failures in her department that need to be addressed."

Shaheen was among the foreign relations committee members briefed in a closed door session Wednesday by panel leaders retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

She said they impressed her "in their directness and thoroughness and all of the work done to produce the report, and their very frank responses."

The report was "very direct and very honest about the mistakes that were made leading up to the attack," Shaheen said.

Ayotte said, "The State Department failed to address an obviously deteriorating security situation that was supported by the intelligence and prior attacks that had occurred on the consulate. I hope we expedite implementing many of the recommendations in the report to make sure our consulates and embassies are secure around the world."

President Barack Obama and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice initially labeled the attack as a spontaneous riot in reaction to an anti-Islamic video posted on the Internet by an American.

Ayotte said those "mischaracterizations" were not part of the scope of the panel's review, "so certainly I think there are still questions there that still need to be answered."

Shaheen, though, said, "It is not helpful to re-litigate what should have been said right after. What is important is to focus on the hard work that we now have to do to address the recommendations to provide greater security and protection" to U.S. diplomats and security forces abroad.

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John DiStaso may be reached at jdistaso@unionleader.com.

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