Politics

09.15.13

Congress: Hillary’s Benghazi Investigation Let Top Officials Escape Blame

A new report reveals that the State Department’s Benghazi investigation failed to hold senior officials accountable for the deaths of four Americans. Josh Rogin reports.

The State Department’s investigation into the September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, was not independent and failed to hold senior State Department officials accountable for the failures that led to the deaths of four Americans, according to a new investigative report compiled by the House oversight committee.

The Administrative Review Board, chosen by then–secretary of State Hillary Clinton, unfairly placed the blame for the terrorist attack on four midlevel officials while ignoring the role of very senior officials in Clinton’s State Department for decisions about security in Benghazi, according to the new report led by chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA). Also, the structure of the ARB and the culture in Clinton’s State Department raised questions about the independence and integrity of the review, according to Issa’s committee.

“The ARB blamed systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies within two bureaus, but downplayed the importance of decisions made at senior levels of the Department. Witnesses questioned how much these decisions influenced the weaknesses that led to the inadequate security posture in Benghazi,” the report stated. “The ARB’s decision to cite certain officials as accountable for what happened in Benghazi appears to have been based on factors that had little or no connection to the security posture at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Libya.”

The Daily Beast first reported in May that the four officials removed from their jobs and placed on administrative leave as a result of the State Department’s ARB report on Benghazi had never been told what they were accused of, had never been given an opportunity to appeal their punishments, and were never officially fired. One of the officials, former deputy assistant secretary of State Ray Maxwell, had little to no role in Libya security policy and was not even alleged to have been connected to the security failures leading up to the Benghazi attack.

The Daily Beast first reported last month that the Kerry State Department decided to allow those four officials to return to work in the department, although not in their previous jobs. Although former undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, the head of the ARB, said that responsibility should be placed at the assistant secretary level, top officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones, were never disciplined.

Video screenshot

In January 2013, Hillary Clinton testified about Benghazi before the Senate. Watch the highlights.

“It appears increasingly likely the Department’s primary objective was to create the public appearance of accountability.”

The new report by Issa’s committee questions why Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, who admitted to having a role in overseeing the decision to reject requests for more security in Benghazi before the attack, was never blamed or disciplined by the ARB. Moreover, Kennedy played a key role in selecting the members of the ARB and the staff that helped the ARB do its works, Issa’s report revealed.

“The haphazard decision to place the four officials cited by the ARB on paid administrative leave created the appearance that former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s decision to announce action against the individuals named in the ARB report was more of a public relations strategy than a measured response to a tragedy,” Issa’s report said. “Therefore, one year after the Benghazi attacks, no one at the State Department has been fired for their role leading up to the Benghazi attacks. It appears increasingly likely the Department’s primary objective was to create the public appearance of accountability.”

Several officials told Issa’s committee that Kennedy was deeply involved in security decisions and would have been directly involved in the decision not to approve requests for more security in Benghazi before the attacks.

“The ultimate decision maker is Undersecretary Kennedy,” testified Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of diplomatic security, who was punished by the ARB.

“The way the undersecretary for management runs things, there is no decision that DS makes that doesn’t have his input and his imprimatur, his approval,” Maxwell testified. “There is no decision that DS doesn’t make that doesn’t have his disapproval.”

The report also questions Clinton’s personal awareness and role in the mistakes that contributed to the attacks.

“Did Secretary Clinton have views on the need to extend the Benghazi mission, both in the fall of 2011 and summer of 2012? Was she consulted on these questions and what, if any, influence did her opinion have on the Department’s decisions?” the report asks.

Issa’s investigation also found that the ARB was rushed in its investigation and completed its work in only 10 weeks, undermining claims by Clinton and President Obama that the ARB conducted a full and complete investigation into the attacks. Also, the committee identified several conflicts of interest between the ARB and the people it was investigating. Jones admitted to the committee that she had close personal and professional relationships with both Pickering and the executive director of the ARB staff, Uzra Zeya. Pickering also knew Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Liz Dibble, who had a role in Benghazi security decisions, but was not punished after the ARB report. Dibble was subsequently named deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in London.

“For some, including the Department itself, this report represented the final word on the internal failures that contributed to the tragedy in Benghazi. For others, however, the report overvalued certain facts, overlooked others, and failed to address systemic issues that have long plagued the State Department,” the report said.

Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, testified to Issa’s committee that top people in Clinton’s State Department, including Kennedy, were allowed to escape any accountability for the failures that preceded the Benghazi attack. The ARB interviewed Kennedy, but not Clinton, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, or Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides.

“It’s an accountability of midlevel officer review board, and the message to my colleagues is that if you are above a certain level, no matter what your decision is, no one is going to question it. And that is my concern with the ARB,” Nordstrom testified May 8.

Issa’s staff interviewed over two dozen current and former State Department officials to compile its 100-page report on the ARB. The Daily Beast viewed an embargoed copy of Issa’s report. The full report will be released Monday.

The State Department defended its handling of the four midlevel officials punished following the ARB report in an August 29 letter to Issa. The letter stated that since the ARB had not found any active breach of duty by the four officials, Kerry was not able to fire them and was therefore required to bring them back to work in the State Department.

In a statement Sunday responding to Issa’s investigation into the ARB, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Douglas Frantz defended the ARB and disputed Issa’s claim that the State Department has not been cooperating with the committee. Franz accused Issa of playing politics with the Benghazi tragedy. 
 
“The response to the tragedy in Benghazi by the Accountability Review Board and the State Department has been thorough and transparent. In fact, it set a new standard for transparency measured by tens of thousands of pages of documents turned over to Congress, testimony in public and closed hearings, and a declassified report for the public,” said Frantz. “Twisting the facts to advance a political agenda does a disservice to those who lost their lives and those who have devoted the past year to understanding what happened and implementing security procedures to make certain it does not happen again. Attacking the ARB now is an attack on the integrity of one of America’s most respected diplomats and one of the nation’s most respected military leaders, both of whom spent their lives serving presidents of both parties.” 
 
Franz also said that the ARB did not shield officials from questioning or blame.  
 
“State Department officials, including former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have appeared at nine congressional hearings, and the department has provided thousands of pages of material to members of Congress and their staffs. Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy has represented the department at more than 20 open and classified briefings and hearings before Congress to discuss the implementation of new security procedures worldwide,” Frantz said. “The facts show that the ARB report was prepared by people of unquestioned integrity, that the process has been transparent and open, and the lessons have been learned and are being implemented.”

Update: House Oversight Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-MD) sent The Daily Beast a statement criticizing Issa’s new report and defending the ARB.

“This Republican report is not an official Committee report, but rather a completely partisan staff report that the Chairman apparently did not want Committee Members to see before he leaked it to the press. Rather than focusing on the reforms recommended by the ARB, Republicans have politicized the investigation by engaging in a systematic effort to launch unsubstantiated accusations against the Pentagon, the State Department, the President, and now the ARB itself,” Cummings said.

Pickering and ARB co-chairman retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen will testify before the committee September 19, Cummings noted.  

“Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen are respected public servants who dedicated their lives to this country, and accusations that they engaged in a ‘cover-up’ at Secretary Clinton’s bidding are completely unfounded,” he said. “I look forward to hearing from them this week at a public hearing where they can finally address these accusations directly, and I hope Republicans will finally join us in an effort to ensure the full implementation of recommendations to improve security for our entire diplomatic corps serving overseas.”