Stinging Benghazi report leads to three resignations

An independent panel faults two State Department offices for the security shortcomings that contributed to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11.

Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters/File
The US Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during Sept. 11. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday that she accepted the findings of an independent panel that faulted the State Department for security shortcomings that contributed to the deadly September attack and has ordered widespread changes to bolster US diplomatic security overseas.

A stinging independent inquiry into the Sept. 11 attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, faults a confused and unresponsive State Department for security shortcomings that contributed to the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya.

On Tuesday night, the investigative panel released its declassified version of the report, which concludes with more than two dozen recommendations for improving diplomatic security in dangerous places like Benghazi and eastern Libya. The recommendations range from keeping security personnel on a particular assignment longer so they develop knowledge of local conditions to calling for US security at diplomatic missions to become more “self-reliant.” (The US had turned to local militias to help protect the Benghazi site.)

Three State Department officials, including two involved with security at Benghazi, resigned Wednesday in the wake of the report, according to news reports.

Tuesday's report shifts the focus on the Benghazi attack away from the political questions of who knew what and when to the broader question of diplomatic security in increasingly unstable places.

Republican outrage at how the Obama administration initially characterized the attack has already led Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, to withdraw her name from consideration as a replacement for Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State. Ambassador Rice famously appeared on Sunday news shows and characterized the attack as a demonstration against an anti-Islam video. She did not link it to terrorists.     

The Benghazi attack was carried out on a lightly guarded diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA annex by extremists at least loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda.

Secretary Clinton, who has already accepted full responsibility for the Benghazi tragedy, said in a letter to Congress that she was committed to acting on each of the report's 29 recommendations. Some of the steps are already being taken, department officials say.

For example, the State Department is asking Congress to allow it to shift hundreds of millions of dollars in budgeted spending to security measures, such as assigning more US Marines to diplomatic posts. It has also named a senior diplomat to focus on diplomatic security in dangerous places.

In addition, the department is working to ensure that experienced security personnel are assigned to unstable settings like Benghazi, and that they stay in those posts longer, the officials add.

The five-person investigative panel, which includes retired former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and is led by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering, faulted the US security team for relying excessively on specific threats – rather than overall security trends – before taking action.

The small Benghazi mission had not registered any threats of a direct attack, but there were ample signs of the area’s deteriorating conditions, the report said. These included an attack on a British diplomatic motorcade and an earlier bombing outside the US diplomatic facility.

The Benghazi assault has also prompted debate over how to beef up security without restricting the “people-to-people diplomacy” considered essential by a growing number of today’s diplomats.

US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was among the Americans killed in the attack, was one of these “new” diplomats, and a number of his colleagues have said that he would not want his death to result in diplomats being confined to bunkers.

But the report does fault the State Department for not acting on the ambassador’s report in August of a “security vacuum” in Benghazi, while also suggesting that Ambassador Stevens allowed his familiarity with Benghazi to sway his personal decision to visit the city with a sparse security detail.

Stevens, who served as the US envoy to the Libyan opposition centered in Benghazi before being named ambassador after Muammar Qaddafi’s demise, had not been in Benghazi for 10 months before his September trip. And despite his own reports of deteriorating security and the Tripoli embassy’s request for more security for the Benghazi mission, he traveled to Benghazi with only two American security agents, the report finds.

“His status as the leading US government advocate on Libya policy, and his expertise on Benghazi in particular, caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments,” the report states.

The report specifically faults two State Department offices – Near Eastern Affairs and Diplomatic Security – for the security shortfall and for failing to better coordinate their efforts to protect diplomatic missions like Benghazi in the turbulent region of the Arab Awakening. The report also says that a number of officials in these departments and elsewhere exercised poor leadership in addressing the Libyan security challenge.

The head of Diplomatic Security, Eric Boswell, resigned Wednesday, as did Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for embassy security. The third official to resign is from the Near Eastern Affairs bureau, according to sources.

Mullen and Mr. Pickering were to discuss the classified version of the report with congressional committees in closed-door sessions on Wednesday, while senior State Department officials are to appear at public congressional hearings on the report Thursday.

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