WASHINGTON — Three senior State Department officials in charge of diplomatic security resigned Wednesday after an independent panel found “systematic failures” in leadership that contributed to security lapses in the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. posts in eastern Libya.
Members of the Accountability Review Board, appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the aftermath of the deadly attacks, presented their findings to the Senate and House foreign relations committees in closed hearings, with top State Department officials scheduled to appear in open sessions Thursday to answer the report’s sharp criticisms of security conditions at the time of the siege that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
The report stopped short of deeming the lapses a dereliction of duty, which would have required proof of intentional misconduct, and instead blamed poor leadership of senior officials for leaving the Benghazi consulate a highly vulnerable target in a volatile city where other visiting diplomats already had shut down operations or taken more precautions.
“We did conclude that certain State Department bureau-level senior officials in critical positions of authority and responsibility in Washington demonstrated a lack of leadership and management ability appropriate for senior ranks in their responses to security concerns,” retired Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and deputy chairman of the review board, told reporters Wednesday.
Three of those officials resigned after the findings were made public: Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary in charge of embassy security; and a third unidentified official with the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, according to a knowledgeable congressional official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The resignations were first reported by The Associated Press.
The State Department would neither confirm nor deny the resignations. At least one lawmaker on the foreign affairs committees, however, acknowledged the resignations in a statement on the review board’s findings.
“The report made strong recommendations regarding personnel who should be held accountable, and I am pleased that some individuals in positions of responsibility have resigned today,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “However, such resignations are a small step toward addressing this issue, which can only be fully resolved by an open and transparent internal review of the State Department’s relevant policies, operations and procedures.”
The consulate in Benghazi, according to the review board’s report, had an inadequate number of security agents, a lack of protective equipment, and was overseen by officials who failed to appreciate and craft a response to the city’s rapidly deteriorating security situation. The Libyan militia that was assigned to protect U.S. convoys was on strike at the time of the attack, upset over wages and working hours.
While the report doesn’t fill in the gaps on what the Obama administration knew about the attacks and when — one of the most controversial points in the government’s handling of the aftermath — the panel did find that there was no anti-American demonstration preceding the attack, as senior officials once had insisted.
“The board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity,” stated the unclassified version of the report that was released publicly.
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The Accountability Review Board’s report portrays a total system breakdown in the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and a nearby CIA annex, though the CIA wasn’t mentioned once in the public version of the report. The full, classified version included recommendations related to intelligence matters, Ambassador Tom Pickering, the board chairman, told a news conference.
Intelligence agency reports failed to provide any “immediate, specific tactical warning” of the Sept. 11 attacks, the panel found, adding that “known gaps existed in the intelligence community’s understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.”
The panel also criticized the “misplaced” reliance on the “armed but poorly skilled” U.S.-friendly Libyan militia that was guarding the building along with the locally contracted Blue Mountain Libya security firm. The Libyan government’s response was also “profoundly lacking,” reflecting “both weak capacity and near absence of Libyan central government influence and control in Benghazi,” the report said. The panel did note that the authorities provided a military plane that was used to fly out all remaining U.S. personnel and the bodies of the dead on Sept. 12.
Stevens, the ambassador whom the board praised as “an exceptional practitioner of modern diplomacy” for his dedication to the Middle East and his proficiency in Arabic, also played a role in the security lapses, the report suggested, noting that he hadn’t properly coordinated with the security team for his trip from the embassy in Tripoli to the consulate in Benghazi.
The review board offered 29 recommendations as “lessons learned” from the Sept. 11 attacks — 24 were made public, while the others are believed to be specifically related to classified intelligence matters.
The broader recommendations included an urgent review to determine a balance between acceptable risk and security needs in high-threat areas, a minimum security standard for temporary posts like the one in Benghazi, greater congressional funding to respond to vulnerabilities at diplomatic missions, and changes in staffing rotations to ensure that the personnel in the field have enough time to build up institutional knowledge of the area in which they’re working.
The security agents in Benghazi, for example, rotated in and out of the country in 40 days, which the review panel said was “a major factor” in the consulate’s weak security posture.
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“I strongly agree with the recommendation that State Department facilities — especially those in high-risk areas — need adequate security and that increased resources will be necessary,” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement. “I intend to work with my colleagues on the Senate Appropriations Committee to ensure that Congress provides the State Department with the funding it needs to keep Americans working overseas safe.”
Secretary of State Clinton, who had agreed to testify before the committees Thursday, canceled her appearance, citing doctor’s orders as she recovers from a stomach virus and a concussion she sustained from fainting.
Clinton wrote to lawmakers saying she accepted all 29 of the review board’s recommendations on “serious, systemic challenges that we have already begun to fix,” according to the text of the letter posted on the State Department’s website.
The sternly worded Benghazi report comes just as Clinton is finishing out her term as secretary and is a blow to her legacy, which was already in question because of murky policy on the bloody crisis in Syria and an uneven response to the Arab Spring uprisings.
©2012 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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