The laundry room at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Photo: MCT/Newscom)

On Thursday, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House and Senate Intelligence Committees should bring us closer to an understanding of what went so disastrously wrong at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi during the terrorist attack on September 11 that left one U.S. ambassador and three CIA security personnel dead.

The answers, however, will have implications beyond Benghazi for American diplomatic security and for the war against terrorism.

As noted in a recent Heritage Issue Brief, “Lessons from Benghazi: Rethinking U.S. National Security” by James Carafano and Morgan Roach, the questions Congress should ask tomorrow include:

1)      What counterterrorism and early warning measures were in place to proactively address security threats? There was overwhelming evidence that the security situation was deteriorating in Benghazi, and Congress needs to know from the State Department what measures were used to provide early warnings of terrorist operations against embassy personnel.

2)      What was done to assess the risks and mitigate the vulnerability of State Department staff in Benghazi? Eastern Libya has long been a base for extremist militias, and as the U.S. consulate was located in a former private residence, it had to be fortified significantly. Not enough was done, clearly, as an explosion on June 6 blew a hole in the wall big enough for 40 men to walk through.

3)      What contingency planning was undertaken and exercised to respond to armed assaults against U.S. facilities in Benghazi? Contingencies are inevitable in a volatile environment such as Libya, even when good early warning systems are in place. By the way events unfolded in Benghazi, contingency planning does not appear to have been well developed.

4)      How is the interagency response to the incident organized and planned? In Washington, several agencies need immediate cooperation and coordination to execute a response to an attack on a U.S. embassy, including the White House, the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, and State. What mechanisms are in place, and how quickly can they respond when needed? One such interagency group, the Counterterrorism Security Group, was apparently never convened during the Benghazi crisis—despite the fact that it fit precisely its mission.

Getting to the bottom of what happened in Benghazi is critical for the future security of U.S. embassies. Members of congressional committees have an obligation to ask the tough questions—and the Obama Administration has an obligation to finally provide some clear answers.