Mike Pompeo seeks to defund program named after envoy killed in Benghazi

Martin Pengelly
Photograph: Aliou Mbaye/EPA

Mike Pompeo rose to prominence during investigations of the deadly attack on a US facility in Benghazi in September 2012. Now, as Donald Trump’s secretary of state, he is pressing to defund a diplomatic initiative named for the US ambassador who died there.

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Foreign Policy reported the move, contained in the 2021 state department budget proposal, to eliminate a $5m contribution to the Stevens Initiative.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans – Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods – died after a crowd attacked a US outpost in Benghazi, a port city in northern Libya, on 11 September 2012.

Republicans in Congress investigated aggressively, at one point subjecting Hillary Clinton, secretary of state at the time of the attack and a presidential candidate at the time of the investigations, to an 11-hour grilling before a House committee.

Pompeo, then a Tea party-backed congressman from Kansas, played a prominent role, accusing Clinton of putting “political expediency and politics ahead of the men and women on the ground”.

Clinton parried but in the 2016 election, Trump wielded Benghazi and her supposed culpability for it as a talking point at raucous campaign rallies.

After Trump’s victory, Pompeo became CIA director before moving to follow Clinton as America’s most senior diplomat. On Sunday he was in Dakar, Senegal, meeting President Macky Sall.

According to the state department, Stevens was the first US ambassador in 30 years to be killed in the line of duty and the sixth to be killed by militants.

According to its website, the Initiative named after him was “conceived and developed in close partnership” with his family and “inspired by the meaningful international exchange experiences … Stevens had as a young man”.

It aims to use technology to facilitate “life-changing, cross-cultural experiences” between young people across the world.

The state department has been subject to extensive cuts since Trump took power. Nonetheless a US official who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity said cutting funding for the Stevens Initiative and other cultural programmes, for a proposed total saving of $420.7m, ran counter to “everything [Stevens] stood for”.

“Part of the reason his family made the argument in the first place they should name a programme after him is because he was very open in advocating for exchanges with other societies,” the official said.

State officials told Foreign Policy and the Washington Post the cut set out in the budget proposal did not mean the initiative or similar programmes would definitely lose all funding.

Attempts to cut funding to the Stevens Initiative have been made before. Congress blocked them.

Mohamed Abdel-Kader, executive director of the Stevens Initiative, told Foreign Policy it had “enjoyed a great relationship with the state department, the work that we do has a lot of impact with the students we serve and the program has enjoyed bipartisan support from Congress”.