The State Department is setting up an independent, bipartisan panel to investigate what happened in the Sept. 11 attack on the Benghazi consulate that resulted in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Wednesday that Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides told him the State Department had already begun setting up the panel, which Kerry said would be independently appointed and accountable to Congress. Kerry said the panel's existence preempted the need for Congress to quickly pass a bill, put forth by Sens. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), requiring State to report to Congress on last week's attacks in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen within 30 days.
"The State Department must convene an Accountability Review Board (ARB) in instances in which there has been loss of life or significant destruction of property at a U.S. mission abroad. The Secretary must provide the SFRC with a report on the findings and recommendations of the ARB," Kerry said at Thursday's SFRC business meeting.
Kerry said the law requires the panel be convened within 60 days of the attack, would examine all aspects of the attacks, and is required to report to Congress its findings. If the panel does not satisfy Congress's desire for information about the attacks, Kerry would then support legislation calling for more thorough reporting on the attacks as well as security procedures at all U.S. diplomatic posts, he said.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top administration officials will come to Capitol Hill to give a briefing on the attacks to all senators who wish to attend, Kerry said.
"Given all of the information that should be forthcoming already, I did not think it would be productive to take up the reporting bill at this time. But I do want to thank Senators DeMint and Corker for the initiative and let them know that I share their instincts that this warrants our close attention," Kerry said.
DeMint said Wednesday he was willing to wait for the State Department panel's report on the attacks before pressing for new legislation demanding more information. On Sept. 14 when he introduced the bill, DeMint called for transparency and accountability from the administration regarding the attacks.
"The attacks on American embassies and diplomats are outrageous. The administration owes the American people detailed answers on how this happened and how it can be prevented in the future," DeMint said then. "It now appears these violent acts may have been coordinated terrorist attacks against America around the anniversary of 9/11. There may have even been warnings beforehand. Americans need to know if we were properly prepared and what steps must be taken to protect our diplomats in these dangerous environments."
The committee also approved nine ambassadorial nominations at the hearing, including the nomination of Richard Olson to be ambassador to Pakistan. The committee held its hearing for Robert Stephen Beecroft to become the next ambassador in Iraq on Wednesday morning, so he was not on the committee agenda, but aides said that there was broad support for dispatching the Beecroft nomination out of committee without a formal vote so he could be confirmed this week before the Senate leaves town.
All of the ambassador nominations could fall victim to the ongoing dispute between Senate leadership and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) over Paul's demand for a floor vote on his amendment to cut off all U.S. aid to Pakistan, Libya, and Egypt.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) signaled progress but no resolution in the dispute with Paul on Wednesday afternoon and Reid pledged to work to confirm Olson and Beecroft this week.
"I'd love to get the ambassador to Pakistan. We have two countries, Iraq and Pakistan, who do not have an American ambassador because the Republicans have held these up," Reid said. "We're going to be here as long as the Republicans force us to be here. We could finish this stuff tomorrow, but it's up to them."