The Cable

Benghazi panel faults State Department for 'grossly inadequate' security arrangements

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.

That's what the State Department said in the days after the attack, but State Department officials later briefed the press on background just before congressional hearings on the issue.

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.

The Cable

Menendez and Hagel on opposite sides of Iran issue

If Chuck Hagel is selected as President Obama's next defense secretary, the former Nebraska senator could find himself battling the new head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) on the fraught issue of how to deal with Iran -- that is if Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) leaves that committee to become secretary of state.

The White House is expected to announce its new national security nominations as early as this Friday, Dec. 21, depending on how the president's "fiscal cliff" negotiations are proceeding with House Speaker John Boehner.

Why not earlier? Kerry is slated to chair the Dec. 20 SFRC hearing on Benghazi featuring testimony by top State Department officials, which would be politically awkward if he were named as their future boss before the hearing. If Kerry is nominated to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Menendez is the likely choice to replace him at the helm of the SFRC.

Menendez has opposed the Obama administration on some key foreign-policy issues over the last two years, none more openly than the issue of how to deal with Iran's ongoing progress towards a nuclear weapon.

This week, for example, Menendez is leading the effort, along with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) to collect Senate signatures for a letter to Obama, obtained by The Cable, that urges the president to use his second term to pursue a more aggressive policy toward Iran. 

The letter asks that Obama not pursue limited confidence-building measures in any future negotiations with Tehran, that Iran not be allowed to retain any enrichment capabilities at all, and that there be no diminution of pressure on the Iranian regime until it addresses all concerns over its nuclear program, closes the Fordow enrichment facility, and allows full inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the letter had 57 signatures.

Also Tuesday, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees unveiled a conference report on the fiscal 2013 national defense authorization bill that includes new sanctions on Iran, written by Menendez and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) -- measures that the White House opposed.

"The window is closing. The time for the waiting game is over," Menendez said on the Senate floor when unveiling the new sanctions last month

At the time, the National Security Council's legislative affairs office said the new sanctions were duplicative and confusing and told lawmakers that the White House opposed the Menendez-Kirk legislation.

"We do not believe additional authority to apply more sanctions on Iran is necessary at this time," the NSC told senators.

In previous such battles with the White House, Menendez's view has won the day, and new and increasingly harsh sanctions have passed the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support.

That may set up the New Jersey lawmaker for a clash with Hagel, who as a senator was a rare GOP voice arguing against increased sanctions on Iran. In 2008, Hagel was blamed for blocking an Iran sanctions bill that Senate Democrats supported. As early as 2001, Hagel said that sanctions on Iran and Libya were ineffective. He was one of only two senators that year to vote against renewal of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, along with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN).

As recently as May, Hagel told The Cable that he believed there was still time to pursue diplomacy with Iran.

"The two options -- attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran -- may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there's a ways to go before we get to those," Hagel said. "I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way."

Hagel may benefit from his ties to many of his former colleagues. But several Senate offices are gearing up to mount a campaign against Hagel, should he be nominated.

"There are a lot of senators, Democrats and Republicans, who are very outspoken on the need to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability through the imposition of sanctions and demonstration of a credible military threat," one senior Senate aide said. "Chuck Hagel is the antithesis of everything those members believe in."

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