Josh Rogin

05.20.13

Exclusive: Hillary’s Benghazi ‘Scapegoat’ Speaks Out

Raymond Maxwell, the only official at the State Department's bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to lose his job after the attacks, tells Josh Rogin that he’s been scapegoated by Hillary Clinton’s team.

Following the attack in Benghazi, Libya, senior State Department officials close to Hillary Clinton ordered the removal of a midlevel official who had no role in security decisions and has never been told the charges against him. He is now accusing Clinton’s team of scapegoating him for the failures that led to the death of four Americans last year.

Raymond Maxwell was placed on forced “administrative leave” after the State Department’s own internal investigation, conducted by an Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by former State Department official Tom Pickering. Five months after he was told to clean out his desk and leave the building, Maxwell remains in professional and legal limbo, having been associated publicly with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American for reasons that remain unclear.

Maxwell, who served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from August 2011 until his removal last December, following tours in Iraq and Syria, spoke publicly for the first time in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast.

“The overall goal is to restore my honor,” said Maxwell, who has filed grievances regarding his treatment with the State Department’s Human Resources Bureau and the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the interests of foreign-service officers. The other three officials placed on leave were in the Diplomatic Security Bureau, leaving Maxwell as the only official in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), which had responsibility for Libya, to lose his job.

“I had no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi,” he said.

Video screenshot

Watch the highlights of Hillary Clinton's testimony about Benghazi.

Maxwell was removed from his job December 18, the day after the ARB report was released, and subsequently placed on administrative leave, which is meant to give the State Department time to investigate whether Maxwell should be fired or return to work. Five months later, that investigation seems stalled, and Maxwell sits at home, where he continues to be paid, but is not allowed to return to his job.

The State Department declined to comment on the reasons Maxwell and the other officials were placed on administrative leave or on what the four were told about the reasons for the decision. It did confirm that the ARB did not recommend direct disciplinary action because it didn’t find misconduct or a direct breach of duty by the officials. “As a matter of policy, we don’t speak to specific personnel matters,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Since the leave is not considered a formal disciplinary action, Maxwell has no means to appeal the status, as he would if he had been outright fired. To this day, he says, nobody from the State Department has ever told him why he was singled out for discipline. He has never had access to the classified portion of the ARB report, where all the details regarding personnel failures leading up to Benghazi are confined. He also says he has never been shown any evidence or witness testimony linking him to the Benghazi incident.

Maxwell says he had planned to retire last September, but extended his time voluntarily after the September 11 attack to help the bureau in its time of need. Now, he is refusing to retire until his situation is clarified. He is seeking a restoration of his previous position, a public statement of apology from State, reimbursement for his legal fees, and an extension of his time in service to equal the time he has spent at home on administrative leave.

“For any FSO, being at work is the essence of everything, and being deprived of that and being cast out was devastating,” he said.

Soon after being removed from his job, Maxwell was visited at his home late one evening and directed to sign a letter acknowledging his administrative leave and forfeiting his right to enter the State Department. He refused to sign, responding in writing that it amounted to an admission he had done something wrong.

“They just wanted me to go away but I wouldn’t just go away,” he said. “I knew Chris [Stevens]. Chris was a friend of mine.”

“Behind Beth’s back, Maxwell ended up being put on administrative leave.”

The decision to place Maxwell on administrative leave was made by Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, according to three State Department officials with direct knowledge of the events. On the day after the unclassified version of the ARB’s report was released in December, Mills called Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones and directed her to have Maxwell leave his job immediately.

"Cheryl Mills directed me to remove you immediately from the [deputy assistant secretary] position," Jones told Maxwell, according to Maxwell.

The decision to remove Maxwell and not Jones seems to conflict with the finding of the ARB that responsibility for the security failures leading up to the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi should fall on more senior officials.

“We fixed [the responsibility] 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," Pickering said when releasing the ARB report.

The report found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department,” namely the Diplomatic Security (DS) and Near East bureaus. Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns testified in December that requests for more security in Libya, denied by the State Department, did reach the assistant secretaries, and “it may be that some of my colleagues on the seventh floor saw them as well."

But Jones was not disciplined in any way following the release of the report, nor was the principal deputy assistant secretary of State at NEA, Liz Dibble, who is slated to receive a plush post as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London this summer. In the DS bureau, the assistant secretary, the principal deputy, and the deputy assistant all lost their jobs. In the NEA bureau, only Maxwell was asked to leave.

Jones and Dibble were responsible for security in Libya, Maxwell and three State Department officials said. What’s more, when Maxwell was promoted to his DAS position in August 2011, most responsibility for Libya was carved out of his portfolio, which also included Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Although Maxwell did some work on Libya, all security-related decisions were handled by Dibble and Jones, according to the three officials.

One State Department official close to the issue told The Daily Beast that Clinton’s people told the leadership of the NEA bureau that Maxwell would be given another job at State when the Benghazi scandal blew over. Maxwell said Jones assured him he would eventually be brought back to NEA as a “senior adviser,” but that Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, reneged.

“The deal that NEA made with Cheryl Mills and the seventh floor was to keep Ray within NEA and just give him another portfolio. For whatever reason, it didn’t go down like that, and that was a complete shock to Beth [Jones], because that was the deal that Beth made with Cheryl,” the official said. “Behind Beth’s back, Maxwell ended up being put on administrative leave.”

Jones and Mills both declined to comment for this article, but a source close to Mills denied that any kind of deal was made or reneged on regarding Maxwell’s future employment. The decision to place Maxwell on administrative leave was based on the classified portion of the ARB’s report, which named Maxwell specifically, the source said, but since the ARB didn’t say that Maxwell had committed a “breach of duty,” he couldn’t be outright fired.

“Administrative leave was the best option available within the very narrow authority that anyone had. That was the harshest discipline the department could mete out,” a State Department official involved in the decision making process said. “There really weren’t any other options available. If they could have been fired, they would have been.”

One person who reviewed the classified portion of the ARB report told The Daily Beast that it called out Maxwell for the specific infraction of not reading his daily classified briefings, something that person said Maxwell admitted to the ARB panel during his interview.

“The crime that he is being punished for is not reading his intel. That explains why Jones and Dibble were not disciplined,” this person said.

Maxwell had no response to this allegation other than to say he has not been officially counseled on what he did wrong and has not been allowed to read the classified report. Also, he believes that Clinton’s staff, not the ARB, was in charge of the review of the attack that took place during her watch.

“The flaws in the process were perpetrated by the political leadership at State with the complicity of the senior career leadership,” he said. “They should be called to account.”

“There are people who seem to have responsibility who have yet to be held accountable.”

Eight months after the attack, congressional investigators and outside groups are still pressing the State Department to explain how the ARB came to the conclusion that four midlevel officials were the only ones with responsibility for the failures that led up to the attack.

The chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), has announced that he will subpoena Pickering to compel him to submit to a deposition. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the chairman of the subcommittee on national security, told The Daily Beast in an interview that he wants to know exactly why Maxwell and the three other officials were placed on administrative leave and have not been granted due process to defend themselves.

“I certainly would like to hear their side of the story. It seems fair that they should be given that opportunity. If they can’t get it within the administration, I think Congress would love to hear their story,” he said. “Secretary Clinton says she takes responsibility, but that seems like lip service rather than the reality, because there are people who seem to have responsibility who have yet to be held accountable, and I don’t understand that.”

Chaffetz and Issa sent a letter in January to State asking why Clinton, Deputy Secretary Tom Nides, and Burns were not interviewed by the ARB. Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy admitted in October 10 congressional testimony that he was in the loop on decisions regarding security requests in Libya before the attack. He was interviewed by the ARB, but not identified as having done anything wrong.

“The ARB tried to blame everyone but hold no one responsible, except for some of the lower level people who were not in control of the situation,” said Chaffetz. “You have a report that seems incomplete at best.”

Susan Johnson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), told The Daily Beast that administrative leave does damage to a foreign-service officer’s reputation and career if it goes on for more than a couple of weeks, much less several months. The treatment amounts to a de facto disciplinary action, she said.

“There’s a feeling that foreign-service officers often end up as scapegoats when scandals rise to congressional or public attention,” she said. “Our broader concern is to ensure some measure of fairness and transparency, ensure some reasonable process that meets some kind of minimal standard here.”

The AFSA sent a letter to Burns in January asking a number of questions about the review process and the criteria senior department leaders used in choosing to discipline the four individuals removed from their jobs in relation to the Benghazi attack.

“The State Department began an administrative process to review the status of the four individuals placed on administrative leave. That review process continues, and Secretary Kerry will be briefed with an update, and decisions will be made about the status of these employees,” Psaki told the Beast. “This internal administrative process can take some time.”

She added: “It is also important to remember that the four people discussed are all long-serving government officials who over the years have provided dedicated service to the U.S. government in challenging assignments.”

Maxwell just wants his day in court. He wrote a poem on his personal blog in April which referred to the State Department’s treatment of the four officials removed from their jobs after Benghazi as a “lynching.”

Last week, he posted another poem about the growing Benghazi scandal.

“The web of lies they weave gets tighter and tighter in its deceit until it bottoms out -at a very low frequency – and implodes,” he wrote. “Yet all the while, the more they talk, the more they lie, and the deeper down the hole they go.”