Could State Department woes tarnish Hillary Clinton’s image?

A brewing scandal that potentially suggests some degree of State Department mismanagement during Hillary Clinton’s tenure could hurt not only her legacy, but also prospects for a 2016 presidential bid, some say.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
In this Feb. photo, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton laughs as she gives a speech during a ceremony honoring her at the Pentagon in Washington.

A brewing State Department scandal over allegations of stymied investigations into cases of diplomatic sexual misconduct could end up most hurting someone who isn’t even in the department anymore: Hillary Rodham Clinton.

With some recent polls suggesting that the former secretary of State’s stellar standing with the public has been hit by continuing attention to last September’s deadly terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, another scandal that suggests some degree of State Department mismanagement during Mrs. Clinton’s tenure could hurt not only her legacy, but also prospects for a 2016 presidential bid, some political analysts and former State Department officials say.

The State Department – since February under the stewardship of Secretary of State John Kerry – insists that all cases of alleged improprieties are fully investigated and calls suggestions of quashed inquiries “preposterous.” If the “scandal” ends up being a tempest in a teapot, some say, Clinton could emerge unscathed.

The alleged cases of diplomatic misconduct and quashed investigations range from charges that a US ambassador in Europe evaded security detail to engage the services of prostitutes, to charges that members of Clinton’s advance security team purchased such services while on foreign assignment.

Other accusations include existence of a “drug ring” near the US Embassy in Baghdad that supplied drugs to State Department security contractors, as well as claims of serial sexual assaults by a department security official in a string of overseas assignments.

What seems clear is that Republicans have no intention of leaving the latest charges of mismanagement in the Clinton State Department alone.

The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce of California, said he is “appalled” by “reported interference in the investigations” into alleged misconduct, and he called on Secretary Kerry to deliver a full explanation of the allegations.

Chairman Royce – whose committee questioned Clinton on the Benghazi attack in a January hearing before she left office – said in a statement that he is directing his staff to begin investigating the allegations of “interference with the independence of” the State Department’s internal investigations.

The charges of diplomatic misconduct and subsequent quashing of investigations surfaced Monday in a CBS report based on a 2012 memo out of the State Department’s Office of Inspector General. The memo concerns an inspector general’s report evaluating the performance of the investigative division of the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

A former State Department investigator who worked on the inspector general’s report made it available after becoming concerned that a final draft, released in March, watered down the investigation’s findings.

The report’s accusations of ambassadorial misconduct regarded the US ambassador to Belgium, Howard Gutman. Ambassador Gutman responded quickly to the accusations, saying in a statement Tuesday that he was “angered and saddened by the baseless allegations.” He called the “smearing” of his four years of service in Belgium “devastating.”

The 2012 memo also singled out Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s undersecretary for management, for allegedly bringing a halt to the investigation into Gutman. In a statement Tuesday, Mr. Kennedy flatly denied the allegations, saying it was his job to ensure that all department employees are held to high standards “no matter their rank.”

“I have never once interfered, nor would I condone interfering, in any investigation,” Kennedy said.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said, “We take every allegation seriously,” but she also insisted that the 2012 memo includes a list of “unsubstantiated allegations.”

Besides the allegations against specific individuals, the inspector general’s report found fault with the State Department’s system for investigating such charges. The report said, for example, that the department has no “firewall” to isolate the department’s investigative arm and stop officials in positions of power from “exercising undue influence in particular cases.”

In response to that finding, the State Department said Tuesday it would call in independent former law enforcement officials and experts to study the current structure and determine if the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has enough independence to do its job.

As for the specific allegations against individuals, the inspector general’s memo seemed to acknowledge that at least some of the accusations may have surfaced and gained heft over the proverbial water cooler.

“Sometimes the sources [of the allegations] are one or more agents who became aware of the case from colleagues in what, given cubicles, can be a collegial environment,” the memo said.

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