By Patricia H. Kushlis
Whether Hillary’s reaction to the Accountability Review Board’s Benghazi Report upon reading it was to faint, hit her head, and suffer a rare blood clot following a concussion or whether the two sad events simply coincided and collided like asteroids in the night sky is a question we may never have answered.
The 39 page unclassified portion of the ARB report that was released to the public on December 20, 2012 was most notable for what it didn’t reveal as for what it did. Maybe some of my unanswered questions are contained in the classified sections – but that I won’t know for years. Unless, of course, the contents dribble out piecemeal between now and then. That’s possible. State usually leaks far less than the Pentagon or the Hill so first train your ear trumpets in those directions before leaning too hard towards Foggy Bottom.
The report corroborates that multiple mistakes were made – not just that tragic night – but in the months before. They go deep into the heart of the system’s weaknesses. Leadership – or actually lack thereof – is a problem the report alludes to with capital Ls although names of officials above the Assistant Secretary, or bureaucratic Firewall, as Diplopundit put it, are missing. This might be adequate for a networked organization but the State Department is institutionalized hierarchy personified and the report tells us that news of the attack was being called in as it happened to State’s 24/7 Diplomatic Security Center and relayed to the NSC and elsewhere. At least that piece of the building apparently works as it should.A follow up – even more scathing - 29 page report by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that appeared on December 30, 2012 tells us that the attack was reported real time to State and the information transmitted quickly to the Department of Defense. The bipartisan Senate report also highlighted ten major failings needing correction – within State, within Defense, throughout the Intelligence Community and across bureaucratic lines. Not all of these failures are contained in the ARB findings.
Here are a few of the most striking - listed in no particular order:
- the Pentagon’s failure to provide its relatively new Africa Command with the requisite resources to conduct embassy rescue operations in its theater of operation despite the fact that the Command had specific responsibility for doing so;
- the administration’s muddled messaging during the first days after the tragedy despite the fact it was patently clear to the intelligence community from the beginning that a terrorist attack had occurred;
- Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy’s testimony in which he told the Senate Hearing that the security situation in Benghazi had been a “flashing red light” well before September 11. This despite the fact that State had refused to provide the security needed. Yet, if it was unable to protect do so, State could have closed the Temporary Facility. What is perhaps most troubling about Kennedy’s testimony is that he must have had a major say in the decisions – Eric Boswell, head of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security worked for him – and as I pointed out earlier, the State Department personifies the traditional hierarchical bureaucracy. The buck would not have stopped with either Boswell or Lamb who Peter Van Buren argues was Cheryl Mills' (Hillary's chief of staff) choice not that of the Foreign Service. What is not said in either the ARB or the Senate report is where the funding and personnel decisions for the Benghazi facility - whatever its name - were made, how and who made them.
Back to 2008
Before Hillary Clinton set foot in the department, she knew that it suffered from severe financial and administrative stress. She smartly established a Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources bringing in Jack Lew - Obama's current Chief of Staff and now nominee to become the next Treasury Secretary - to fill the new position. Lew lasted at State about a year, spent his time addressing budgetary deficiencies and much to his credit, got Congress to approve major funding increases for the beleagured department before he moved on and over to the White House.
Hillary didn’t, however, tackle other flashing yellow light administrative shortcomings – leaving management of the department and the embassies to Patrick F. Kennedy who had been brought back to State by mentor and then Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in 2007. But before that Kennedy had been Chief of Staff at the US Transition Unit in Baghdad in 2004 where he worked for Negroponte and had held the same position in the CPA (2003) - a period of chaos in Iraq when millions upon millions of dollars disappeared.
Why Hillary kept Kennedy in the position after her arrival in 2009 is a mystery. Anyone who was responsible for coordinating the reorganization of the foreign affairs agencies under Madeleine Albright - a real hash job whose Sandy-like after-effects reverberate today - or forbidding American Embassy officers from attending Obama's speech in Berlin July 24, 2008 on the grounds it was partisan politics despite the fact that Americans have the freedom to assemble under the US Constitution shrieks foremost, in my view, of a serious lack of judgment.
Deja Vu All Over Again
Then there's that thorny not-so-little issue of State's mismanagement of diplomatic security in Africa August 7, 1998 when Al Qaeda blew up the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killing over 220 people including 12 Americans and injuring over 4,000.
For the record: Kennedy was Acting Under Secretary for Management from 1996-7 and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security in 1998 and Eric Boswell's first carnation as Head of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (he was in the same position when Benghazi ignited in September, was supposedly fired but is apparently still in place) was from 1996-98. So Boswell and Kennedy would have been in top management positions in State responsible for Embassy security when then US Ambassador Prudence Bushnell's requests for better security for Nairobi were refused.
Then there's a minor question of impropriety with respect to Kennedy's apparent favoritism of Aurora, LLC in its desire to build the US Embassy in Dijbouti despite its track record of poor work performance and consequent screening out from the bidding process by the contract officer in charge of it. A special report by POGO indicates that Kennedy tried to delay the RPF so that Aurora could somehow be allowed to bid despite its failed previous performance. That's - at the very least - not kosher.
That same November 18, 2010 POGO report also strongly criticises State for having failed to appoint an independent Inspector General as required and includes an e-mail between Kennedy and the Acting IG (Harry Giesel, another retired Foreign Service Officer brought via Kennedy) in which Giesel refers to State's weakness in auditing Iraq contracts but the need to keep the function within State management's purview (and presumably him in his job). The devastating POGO investigation came out in 2010. It is now 2013. Giesel is still Acting IG - five years after he e-mailed Kennedy and three years after the POGO report was published.
Yet Hillary never nominated an independent Inspector General who could and should have provided a much needed internal investigatory arm or balance wheel designed to right internal bureaucratic excesses and personnel improprieties as the legislation prescribed. Why not?
Money doesn’t buy everything
The tragedy in Benghazi is simply one example of many problems that enmesh and have enmeshed the US foreign affairs bureaucracies for years including – and perhaps especially - the State Department.
The Benghazi set up was foremost a CIA intelligence gathering post at least as reported by the New York Times soon after 9/11/2012. According to the ARB it had never been declared officially to the Libyan government so, I wonder, why should it have had official Libyan diplomatic or consular protection? But what was it? The ARB calls it "The U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi” or the “U.S. Special Mission compound (SMC) and Annex." The Senate report, appropriately entitled “Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi,” calls the compound a "Temporary Mission Facility." This temporary facility designation lowered its status on State’s security funding ladder. Just as the Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam had not been designated as critical recipients of exhanced security funding in 1998. But who makes those decisions?
Yet State knew the terrorist threat against Westerners had been increasing in Benghazi over the preceding months and it also knew that without proper security – either from the host country or the US government – closure would have been an option. But no one recommended this including the late Ambassador Stevens. Why not?
And why was a thin State Department veneer brushed over this facility especially when the Department refused to devote adequate funds and personnel to staff and secure it properly to make it its own?
According to the ARB report, the temporary facility – not, repeat not, a Consulate – was entirely staffed with short-term, inexperienced rotating TDYers – none of whom would have had the requisite knowledge let alone amount of time there to develop the contacts needed to understand the situation on the ground. Put another way, regardless of their qualifications or which agency they worked for, these people would not have been in Benghazi long enough to be effective.
In contrast to the ARB, the Senate report describes the TDYers solely as Diplomatic Security. The ARB also describes rapid turnover at the top or principal officer position – one of any number of reasons that Stevens may have decided to visit when he did.
We know that the late Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens spoke Arabic and had begun his overseas career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco before joining the Foreign Service in 1991. His record shows that he was a risk taker or he would not have gone into Benghazi during the civil war to act as US special representative to the then rebel forces. But he was also a lawyer – and lawyers are trained to be cautious.
A dangerous assignment is not for the faint-hearted but Stevens’ trip to Benghazi September 2012 seems to have been undertaken almost on the spur of the moment. Why? What was so important that the new Ambassador thought he needed to go there right then? Neither report addresses these questions.
The rationale of his formally opening an American Corner in a local library has faded into the netherworld as well it should. But why did he stay overnight and bunk down in the office building? What did he think needed his attention so urgently that the trip couldn’t have waited until he had proper security for his visit? Had he decided that added security would never come thanks to Foggy Bottom’s tin ear? Or was this simply a case of addiction to adrenaline highs that former New York Times war correspondent Christopher Hedges described so eloquently in War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning? Or was this a situation in which Stevens had become overconfident of his own wellbeing due to his knowledge of the city from his experience there during the civil war? Or could this have been a situation where the CIA was calling misguided shots behind the scenes or was so concerned about the lack of State Department security that Stevens thought he needed to see the situation himself?
Yes I know that Ambassadors can overrule their staffs’ advice. Reading between the lines that’s likely what happened in Libya but it was a bad decision that cost not only Stevens but others their lives.
Back home in Foggy Bottom
But what happened in the State Department and why has the blame for the Benghazi tragedy been affixed to only four people – one of whose identity remains unknown – and why are these people reportedly still on the job after having – reportedly – been immediately fired upon the release of the ARB report on December 20?
- Eric Boswell, a State Department retread who had been brought back by President George W. Bush to head the Bureau of Diplomatic Security – a position Boswell had held from 1996-8 pre-first time retirement (don't forget the Embassy bombings in August 1998 that would have happened on his watch);
- the almost now disappeared Charlene Lamb, Deputy Asst. Secretary for Diplomatic Security. Lamb, a Senior Foreign Service Officer and diplomatic security specialist who refused to consider additional security – or reauthorization of special security – for Benghazi and in disastrous Congressional testimony in advance of the ARB report, told a hearing that additional reliance on Libyan contract guards was appropriate for the situation. This despite the fact there was an ongoing unsettled contract dispute with the local guards. Now I don’t know what that woman was smoking, but anyone who has served in posts other than - say northern Europe, Singapore and Japan - would question that call. For the record, Lamb’s State Department biography has been gone from State’s webpage for almost a month - like the air gunning out of the portraits of Stalin’s high ranking purge victims in the 1930s. I guess, however, that State’s technological gurus are not as thorough as Stalin’s whiteout artists because Lamb’s bio remains on a State Facebook page – at least until someone in the department reads this and takes action.
- Raymond Maxwell, Deputy Asst. Secretary of State in the Near East Bureau responsible for North Africa, is the third of four said to have bitten the dust. He, like Lamb, is/was a career Senior Foreign Service Officer who had previously served in a variety of State Department administrative positions - but few, if any, more than two years. His biography does not appear on State’s website either – but then maybe there are different media visibility criteria for different Deputy Assistant Secretaries. In any event, his ether-sphere disappearing act (although here is his just-posted Diplopedia entry) and the specific reasons for his maybe departure from State or at least the Deputy Asst. Secretary position are unclear.
- Finally, a fourth unidentified employee was also supposedly fired but the individual’s name remains a secret. It was, however, likely not Elizabeth Jones, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Near East Bureau - the permanent position itself has been vacant for several months. Or who knows. Jones, yet another retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Officer brought back to the fold, has been the “placeholder” in this tough job since June. Between positions in State, Jones worked for five years as an Executive Vice President for APCO, a lobbying firm in Washington, DC. What’s this about a revolving door for the favored?
The Peter Principle in Spades
For an institution that needs to rely on its employees’ wits, not their muscles, it appears as if the events in Benghazi are just more examples of terrible management. Multiple misjudgment calls over months made by people who apparently did not belong in the positions they held. Catastrophic errors in judgment set the scene for the tragedy that occurred. These decisions were made by high level career Foreign Service Officers– supposedly chosen from among this country’s best and brightest. But the consequences of their bad decisions in preventing the tragedy that early fall night also trains light on additional serious shortcomings in the management and protection of our missions abroad not just in State but also at the Pentagon and elsewhere in the foreign affairs and intelligence communities.
It’s too late for Hillary to houseclean as she should have four years ago. Calling her up to the Hill to confess guilt – or deflect blame – won’t make a difference in the next encounter between American diplomats and militant Islamic terrorists. But John Kerry, her likely successor, should make tending State’s garden, investigating its Byzantine byways and focusing on its financial and human resources – a top priority. Benghazi needn’t have happened. There needn't be a reprise.
See also: Patricia H. Kushlis, "So Many Questions, So Few Answers." WhirledView, September 23,2012.