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Editorial: U.S. diplomats deserve reliable security

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill. (Jan. 23, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

In what was likely her last appearance on Capitol Hill as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton pushed Congress to pay urgent attention to the threat of terrorists in North Africa, a metastasizing cancer that has to be high on the agenda for her successor, Sen. John Kerry.

Many members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were more focused on grilling her about the Sept. 11 attack last year on the nation's diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed.

But Arab Spring uprisings that upended despotic regimes in Libya and elsewhere in the region have scrambled security forces and created power vacuums that terrorists, denied bases of operation in Afghanistan and Iraq, have moved to exploit. Instability in Mali, for instance, has created a new haven for groups that Clinton said are looking to extend their influence and plot further attacks like the one last week in Algeria and on Sept. 11 in Benghazi. That's the critical message for Congress from those recent tragedies.

Terrorism is a mobile blight. The United States has to be resolute in meeting that threat wherever it surfaces. Making sure we have the necessary intelligence to do so is where the energies of the administration and Congress ought to be directed.

The findings of the Benghazi inquiry point the way forward. What's not particularly helpful is the continued focus in Congress on why UN Ambassador Susan Rice said in the first days after that attack that it grew out of a spontaneous protest. It's been clear for some time now that it didn't. Rice and President Barack Obama should have been more candid in those first days that it was a premeditated terrorist attack, and that the lack of warning was a failure of intelligence. And Clinton should have heeded requests from diplomats in Benghazi for enhanced security.

In testifying Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its counterpart panel in the House, Clinton accepted responsibility for the "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" that the independent review board faulted in the attack. She said all of the board's 29 recommendations are being implemented in an effort to harden security at high-risk facilities around the world.

Everything that can be done to protect American diplomats in harm's way should be done. And Congress, which has cut funding for embassy security in recent years, should provide resources equal to the task. But nothing will change the reality that representing the United States in the world's hot spots is dangerous work. Historically there have been numerous attacks on American diplomats and facilities, among them the Marine barracks in Beruit in 1983, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, embassies in East Africa in 1998 and now in Benghazi.

Our diplomats in such places can't work in bunkers and still do their jobs, which involves engaging with the people of the nations where they're posted. They include nations in chaotic places such as North Africa, where stateless terrorist organizations must be denied the havens they need to launch attacks against Americans.