(EDS: REWRITES throughout, UPDATES number of officials to four. NO pickup. ADDS photos, contributor line.)
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David E. Sanger contributed reporting.
c.2012 New York Times News Service<
WASHINGTON — Four State Department officials were removed from their posts on Wednesday after an independent panel criticized the "grossly inadequate" security at a diplomatic compound in Benghazi that was attacked on Sept. 11, leading to the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, resigned. Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security, and another official in the diplomatic security office whom officials would not identify were relieved of their duties. So was Raymond Maxwell, a deputy assistant secretary who had responsibility for the North Africa region.
The four officials, a State Department spokeswoman said, "have been placed on administrative leave pending further action."
The report by the independent panel has criticized officials in State's Bureau for Diplomatic Security displaying a "lack of proactive leadership." It also said that some in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs "showed a lack of ownership of Benghazi's security issues."
The report did not criticize more senior officials, including Patrick F. Kennedy, the undersecretary for management, who has vigorously defended the State Department's decision-making on Benghazi to the Congress and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At a news conference at the State Department on Wednesday, Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador who led the independent review, said that most of the blame should fall on officials in the two bureaus.
''We fixed it at the assistant secretary level, which is, in our view, the appropriate place to look, where the decision-making in fact takes place, where, if you like, the rubber hits the road," said Pickering, who did not identify the officials.
At the same time, the report that Pickering oversaw suggested that there was a culture of "husbanding resources" at senior levels of the State Department that contributed to the security deficiencies in Benghazi. Without identifying Kennedy or other senior officials, the report said that attitude "had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation."
Two deputy secretaries of state, William J. Burns and Thomas R. Nides, are scheduled to testify to congressional committees on Thursday. The question of whether senior officials at the State Department should be held accountable is likely to be raised by lawmakers at the hearing.
''The board severely critiques a handful of individuals, and they have been held accountable," said Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., who is the incoming chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The degree that others bear responsibility warrants congressional review, given the report's rather sweeping indictment. And the Foreign Affairs Committee must hear from Secretary Clinton concerning her role, which this report didn't address."
Clinton, in a letter to Congress, outlined a number of steps the department is taking to improve security, including hiring hundreds of additional Marine guards for high-risk embassies and consulates around the world.
In an apparent gesture of support for the U.S. diplomatic corps, President Barack Obama praised the State Department's personnel, whom he said often worked "at great risk," at a diplomatic reception at the State Department Wednesday night.
Another issue, which might be raised and which was largely skirted by the independent panel, concerns what role the U.S. military should play in protecting diplomats abroad.
The Pentagon had no forces that could be readily sent to Benghazi when the crisis unfolded. The closest AC-130 gunship was in Afghanistan. There are no armed drones thought to be within range of Libya. There was no Marine Expeditionary Unit — a large seaborne force with its own helicopters — in the Mediterranean Sea. The Africa Command, whose area of operation includes North Africa, also did not have on hand its own force able to respond rapidly to emergencies — a Commanders' In-Extremis Force, or CIF. Every other regional combatant command had one at the time.
The Defense Department has repeatedly declined to say whether the Africa Command requested that any of these forces be on hand during the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nor has it said whether Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta or Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave any thought to moving forces in the region as a precaution.
The unclassified version of the Benghazi report concluded that "there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference." But the report did not address whether it would have been prudent to station quick-reaction forces in the region or whether the U.S. would have been in a position to quickly respond militarily had Stevens been kidnapped and the crisis dragged on, as was initially feared.
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The U.S. military's best-trained team to extract diplomats under fire — Delta Force commandos — was half a world away, in Fort Bragg, N.C. "What this report shows is that we need a fundamental rethink of the problem," said one senior Pentagon official who has spent considerable time examining the issue of protecting U.S. diplomats since the attack in September. "It's not the military's job to protect diplomats; it's the host government's. But in the absence of a real government, we never asked the question, 'So how do we do this?'"
But as the military budget declines, some ranking officers are wary about taking on new commitments, even ones that involve protecting Americans.
''It is not reasonable nor feasible to tether U.S. forces at the ready to respond to protect every high-risk post in the world," Mike Mullen, the retired admiral and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who served as vice chairman of the independent review, said Wednesday.