Poor coordination in Washington and an overwhelming neglect of security risks at the U.S. mission in Benghazi exacerbated the damage cause by "a series of terrorist attacks" there on Sept. 11, an independent review of the State Department's handling of the events has found.
"A series of terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11-12, 2012, resulted in the deaths of four U.S. government personnel, Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty; seriously wounded two other U.S. personnel and injured three Libyan contract guards; and resulted in the destruction and abandonment of the U.S. Special Mission compound and Annex," reads the unclassified version of the report of the State Department's independent Accountability Review Board, which was set up to investigate the attacks.
"Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department ... resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place," the report, chaired by retired ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, says.
The "two bureaus" referenced in the report were the bureau of diplomatic security (DS) and the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA). Those bureaus are headed by Eric Boswell and Beth Jones, respectively, though the report does not mention either by name.
Instead, the board faulted "certain senior State Department officials" in those bureaus for "a lack of proactive leadership and management ability appropriate for the State Department's senior ranks in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection." It did not find, however, that "any individual U.S. Government employee engaged in misconduct or willfully ignored his or her responsibilities," and therefore did not recommend any disciplinary action.
That said, the panel's indictment of the State Department's security preparations are damning. The number of security staff in Benghazi before the attack was inadequate, despite repeated requests for more staffing, and there was an over-reliance on local Libyan guards and poorly skilled employees of a British security contractor, the report found.
"Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing," the report states. "In the weeks and months leading up to the attacks, the response from post, Embassy Tripoli, and Washington to a deteriorating security situation was inadequate."
There was no protest outside the U.S. mission, the report confirms. There were also no specific, credible threats of an impending attack on the Benghazi compound, the report says.
The ARB makes 24 specific recommendations, including reexamining dependence on local security at diplomatic posts, reorganizing the diplomatic security leadership and management structure, increasing training for incidents such as these, increasing the number of Marines and diplomatic security agents at high-threat posts, and increasing foreign language training in languages such as Arabic.
"The Accountability Review Board provides a clear-eyed look at serious, systemic challenges that we have already begun to fix," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to the leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee. "I am grateful for its recommendations for how we can reduce the chance of this kind of tragedy happening again. I accept every one of them."
In her letter, Clinton outlined several steps the State Department took in the hours and days after the attack. The State Department increased security at diplomatic posts worldwide, she wrote, immediately ordered an investigation, and "intensified a diplomatic campaign aimed at combating the threat of terrorism across North Africa and bolstering the region's emerging democracies."
"We will have implementation of every recommendation underway by the time the next Secretary of State takes office," Clinton wrote. "There is no higher priority for me or my Department."
Clinton initiated the Accountability Review Board, as required after any diplomatic incident resulting in a loss of life or serious injury, in the days after the attack and the board began its work in early October. In addition to Pickering, the board was led by former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen (ret.), Catherine Bertini, Hugh Turner, and Richard Shinnick.
A few copies of the classified version of the report were sent to the relevant committees Tuesday afternoon. Pickering and Mullen will brief lawmakers in a classified setting Wednesday. Deputy Secretary Tom Nides and Deputy Secretary Bill Burns will testify in open session in both chambers Dec. 20.
After that, the State Department will defer comment to the FBI.
"Well, with regard to the investigation, that's, as you know, fully in the hands of the FBI now. So they will be responsible for giving whatever press information they feel comfortable with. But my understanding is that they don't intend to do any briefing on the status of the investigation, their work with the Libyans, until they're completed, which they are not yet," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at Tuesday's press briefing.
Nides will lead the team responsible for the implementation of the board's recommendations, a notice sent to all State Department employees Wednesday said. That team will also include Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, Director General of the Foreign Service Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Executive Secretary John Bass, and Deputy Legal Advisor Mary McLeod. State Department Counselor Harold Koh is leaving government to return to Yale Law School.
"The implementation team met today and will continue meeting regularly to ensure execution of the Board's recommendations as well as other actions directed by the Secretary. Bureaus and offices across the Department can expect to receive taskings in support of this effort from the Executive Secretariat," the notice stated.
The State Department's Inspector General's office will oversee the implementation and report on that independently, acting IG Harold Geisel said in an Oct. 26 letter to Congress.
The report stated that the State Department's diplomatic security bureau is doing a "fine job" overall but is being stretched to its limits by increased demands to protect diplomats in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The report calls on Congress to support the State Department with the proper resources to protect diplomats.
"No diplomatic presence is without risk, given past attempts by terrorists to pursue U.S. targets worldwide. And the total elimination of risk is a non-starter for U.S. diplomacy, given the need for the U.S. government to be present in places where stability and security are often most profoundly lacking and host government support is sometimes minimal to non-existent," the report stated.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.