Secretary of State Hillary Clinton anticipated many of the recommendations for improving embassy security contained in the report she assigned to an outside panel diagnosing what went wrong during September’s attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
On Tuesday, on the heels of the release of an unclassified version of the report by the Accountability Review Board led by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Clinton released a letter sent to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., who held a top secret hearing on the report Wednesday morning. Clinton said she accepts all 29 of the Pickering report’s recommendations and vowed that “we will have implementation of every recommendation under way by the time the next secretary of State takes office.”
The death of a U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans during what was later declared a terrorist attack by al Qaeda affiliates became a political controversy in Congress and during this fall’s presidential election. It called into question President Obama’s record on fighting terrorism, the State Department’s competence in protecting diplomats in high-risk areas, and recent cuts in the department’s budget on overseas security.
The report faulted two bureaus for “systemic failures and management and leadership deficiences” stemming from using undertrained security personnel and an overreliance on local militia for protection. “Communication, cooperation and coordination between Washington, Tripoli and Benghazi occurred collegially at the working-level but were constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness and leadership at senior bureau levels,” the report said.
On Wednesday, three State Department officials in the bureaus criticized in the Pickering review resigned. They reportedly include Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security, and Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary in charge of embassy security. The third was not named.
State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs are “to be commended for their efforts” to provide additional security and staffing resources to Benghazi….[but] there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations,” the report added.
Ret. Adm. Mike Mullen, who served on the accountability board with Pickering and three others from the intelligence community, told reporters Wednesday that while responsibility for the deaths lies with the terrorists, the “security was grossly inadequate for the threat environment.” He said State’s components “hadn’t taken on shared responsibility,” office buildings did not meet standards for high-threat areas because they were characterized as temporary and personnel lacked proper equipment. “A sustained and stronger staffing platform in Benghazi over the year 2012 would have made it a harder target for terrorism,” Mullen said.
Many of the security personnel sent to Libya -- which has remained an unstable nation since the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi -- had not taken the proper training courses for overseas work in high-risk areas, the report said.
Pickering said no individuals were found to have “willfully breached” security protocols. “We fixed responsibility at the assistant secreary level, where decision-making takes place, where rubber hits the road,” he said.
Security personnel “did the best with what they had, but what they had was not enough,” he said, adding that his board “enjoyed superb cooperation” from the State Department, which “showed its commitment to transparency at the highest levels.”
Pickering and Mullen expressed regret that State’s embassy construction budget was cut in recent years, with the planned 10 new embassies scaled back to three. They called on Congress to remedy that situation.
Tight budgets, the report said, have “had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation. There is no easy way to cut through this Gordian knot, all the more so as budgetary austerity looms large ahead. At the same time, it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security.”
Among the report’s 29 recommendations (five of which remain classified) are relying less on host countries for security; reviewing the balance between “acceptable risk and expected outcomes” in high-risk regions; reexamining the organization of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security; improving home bureau support for regional overseas offices; appointing an outside panel to formulate best practices in high-risk-area security; and implementing unrealized recommendations from reports following the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa.
Clinton, whose expected testimony this week on the Benghazi issue was postponed after she suffered a concussion, used her letter to cite several changes under way at State that coincide with the report’s proposals.
State is partnering with the Pentagon to dispatch hundreds of additional Marine Security Guards to bolster posts. And it has appointed the first-ever diplomatic security deputy assistant secretary for high threat posts.
Clinton promised to “assure that regional assistant secretaries assume greater responsibility and accountability for their people and their posts.” State also has launched periodic reviews of 15 to 20 high-threat overseas posts by Interagency Security Assessment Teams. It has required the secretary to conduct an annual review of high-threat posts; formalized procedures for communicating with Congress on security events at overseas facilities; and it is “strenthening mutual security arrangements between State and other government agencies in places where they are not co-located.”
Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, released a statement commending the board report for highlighting that “while we cannot retreat in the face of such challenges, we must work more rigorously and adeptly to address them, and that American diplomats and security professionals, like their military colleagues, serve the nation in an inherently risky profession … Congress must support the State Department “by providing resources for security in areas riven by conflict or when the host government authority is non-existent or very weak,” she said. “The Benghazi experience also points to the necessity of inter-agency coordination, especially among the Department of State, the Defense Department and the CIA.”
The board’s recommendations and its analysis of the tragedy seem “correct” to Michael O’Hanlon, director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution. “Clearly, budget constraints played a role in the resistance to the original requests for increased security and clearly the desire to maintain the Libya operation as a light footprint approach also argued against needed security in the months before this September 11,” he said in an email.
A more mixed view came from Michael Rubin, an Arab world specialist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Simply throwing money at security locking diplomats in the embassy would be the wrong way to go,” he said. “Money isn’t enough, common sense also important, and in this case, common sense was lacking in management. It’s good that Clinton is accepting the board’s recommendations, but the failure to stand up and explicitly accept accountability for management woes during her tenure is troubling. Clinton’s political ambition shouldn’t absolve her of basic responsibility.