As expected, the independent Accountability Review Board investigation into the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi has found more than enough blame to go around.
But before we get into the details, let’s get the various conspiracy-theory stuff out of the way:
– The board, led by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once again made it clear “that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity.” However, because its work was focused on the attack itself, rather than its aftermath or the politics involved, the board did not discuss whether U.S. officials had legitimate intelligence reasons to believe that such a protest had occurred or whether politics played any role in how the tragedy was presented to the American people.
– Contrary to claims by some, including Fox News, “The board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. The inter-agency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”
In fact, the investigation found, armed reinforcements from the Tripoli embassy had reached the facilities in Benghazi by the time the second deadly wave of attacks was launched early the next morning.
– Contrary to claims by some, including Fox News, no one in Washington or elsewhere issued orders to “stand down” or delay efforts to rescue Stevens. As the report states clearly, “The board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision-making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders.”
With that behind us, we can turn to more important questions: How did this happen, who was at fault, and most importantly, how can we prevent a recurrence?
Let’s take a look at the players identified in the report:
THE BUREAUCRACY: The board points out that the Benghazi facilities were never officially designated as either a consulate or as a permanent State Department station. Within the State Department, its designation as a temporary “special mission” made it difficult to find the financial resources to secure the Benghazi facility or assign enough security personnel to the site. It got caught in a Catch-22 that no one in leadership stepped up to correct.
CONGRESS: The State Department was denied the financial resources that it needed and had requested to improve security at its facilities around the world. In the words of the report:
“The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs, which, in total, constitute a small percentage both of the full national budget and that spent for national security. One overall conclusion in this report is that Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives.”
STATE DEPARTMENT LEADERSHIP: According to the report, “The board found that certain senior State Department officials within two bureaus demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection.”
The senior officials were not identified by name. However, the two bureaus in question are the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, responsible for overseeing operations in that region, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, responsible for security staffing and facility hardening. Three State Department officials resigned today in the wake of the report.
“Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing,” the report states.
It goes on to point out, however, that repeated denials of funding requests from Congress “has also had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation. There is no easy way to cut through this Gordian knot, all the more so as budgetary austerity looms large ahead.”
AMBASSADOR STEVENS: It’s a delicate issue, but the board clearly found fault with Stevens’ judgment as chief of mission in Libya. It noted:
“As the president’s personal representative, the chief of mission bears ‘direct and full responsibility for the security of [his or her] mission and all the personnel for whom [he or she is] responsible,’ and thus for risk management in the country to which he or she is accredited….”
“The Board found that Ambassador Stevens made the decision to travel to
Benghazi independently of Washington, per standard practice. Timing for his trip was driven in part by commitments in Tripoli, as well as a staffing gap between principal officers in Benghazi.
Plans for the ambassador’s trip provided for minimal close-protection security support and were not shared thoroughly with the embassy’s country team, who were not fully aware of planned movements off compound. The ambassador did not see a direct threat of an attack of this nature and scale on the U.S. mission in the overall negative trendline of security incidents from spring to summer 2012. His status as the leading U.S. government advocate on Libya policy, and his expertise on Benghazi in particular, caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments.”
The report, available here in full, also details the extraordinary heroism and good decision-making of security personnel on the ground in Benghazi, which prevented a very bad situation from becoming even worse.
Overall, though, the board’s findings aren’t particularly sexy or politically explosive. They document mundane bureaucratic mistakes by generally well-meaning people, including Stevens himself, that ended up having tragic consequences, and they suggest ways to minimize chances that such tragedies will be repeated.
– Jay Bookman