With recent events in the Middle East drawing the attention of lawmakers, CIA Director David Petraeus today briefed members of the Senate Intelligence Committee and leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Our entire committee, all 15 of us, eight Democrats, seven Republicans, were present for a briefing by Director Petraeus that lasted a couple of hours. And it was a very good briefing,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the intelligence panel, told CNN.
The meeting, which also included Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), came in response to the killing of four Americans in attacks on a U.S consulate in Libya. Unrest has also erupted at diplomatic posts in Egypt and Yemen.
“There was a protest, and it could well be that quickly, some two dozen people took that as an opportunity to attack,” Feinstein said of the Libya attack. “They have attacked the Benghazi consulate before. I believe it was on June 6. So this is not a new thing,” Feinstein said.
On embassy security, she noted, “I think one of the great lessons out of this is that our consulates in these very troubled nine Middle Eastern nations must be in very secure locations, if we have them there at all,” Feinstein said.
Feinstein praised the cooperation coming from the Libyan government after the deaths of the four Americans, but she was more cautious about Egypt.
“I have helped Egypt in the past. I want to continue. But we need to see which way this government is going to go,” Feinstein said. “And I think the statements of the government in the next few days, also, are going to indicate which way this government goes. And that’s important for us here to listen to that.”
On leaving the meeting, Levin said: “I have more concerns about [Egypt] than about Libya. I think the Libyan government is committed. I think the Egyptian government has been slow to respond. That is not based on any briefing.”
According to reports, the Libyan government has made at least one arrest in the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The incidents have raised questions about U.S. policy after the wave of uprisings in the Middle East during the past two years, particularly as elected governments have taken over in Libya, Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan.
McCain was critical of President Barack Obama’s stewardship of foreign policy and his response to the current crisis.
“I remember the president, when he was a Senator, being very harsh in his judgment,” McCain said. “I remember his condemnation of the surge and how that would never possibly work. And he’s got us out of Iraq, and we’re out of Iraq, and Iraq has fallen apart. We’re having incredible problems with Afghanistan, again, because they all think we’re leaving and there’s no American leadership.”
“So he can say what he wants about back and forth about who said what when, but overall, this is the weakest leadership … incredibly weak leadership, and that message is resonating throughout the Middle East,” McCain continued.
Democrats have been equally critical of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for his quick condemnation of the White House response. McCain said that criticism missed the point.
“Look, it is such a minor item compared to the fact that we are seeing everything fall apart,” McCain said. “We spent 1,474 lives in Iraq, and he pulls them all out, and the place has fallen apart. Right today, armed shipments are flying by Iranians over Iraq into … Syria. Disgraceful.”
“Nor has this president said a word about the 20,000 who have been massacred” in Syria, he continued. “That’s far more important to me than who said what in the morning or where.”
The incidents have also spurred Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to seek to strip foreign aid from Egypt and Libya. Paul was already seeking to cut off aid to Pakistan until it frees a doctor who helped the United States track down Osama bin Laden.
Democrats and some Republicans do not want to cut off aid, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said that he is prepared to hold Senate votes through the weekend to expedite work on a veterans’ benefits bill, apparently without allowing the Paul amendment or any others.
“If you ask questions, should we send money to countries that don’t like us and disrespect us,” Paul said in a speech on the Senate floor, “80 percent to 90 percent of the American people are with me on this.”
During an exchange on the floor, Senate Foreign Relation Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) criticized Paul for making “a kind of arrogant statement” about the unrest in countries engaged in transitions to democracy.
“Are they having difficulties? Yeah. Go back and look at the United States of America in the 1700s. We had some difficulties,” Kerry said. “You know, we had to write slavery out of the Constitution, and a bunch of other things, and it takes time.”
Kerry also said the governments are not responsible for the actions of mobs in their countries.
“The arrogance of suggesting that we’re going to judge whether or not they’re civilized today or tomorrow because a mob or a bunch of militants take matters into their own hands would just be the most … sort of self-defeating, narrow effort you could possibly conceive of,” Kerry said.