Key Republican lawmakers on Wednesday embraced the findings of the State Department’s internal inquiry into the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, even though its long-awaited report stopped short of probing questions of an Obama administration cover-up in the attack’s aftermath.
The report by the Accountability Review Board noted that senior State Department officials ignored intelligence and security warnings that might have prevented the fatal onslaught on the diplomatic mission and prompted the removal of four department officials Wednesday.
Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the findings make “clear what we already knew” about security failure, adding that he is “not satisfied” with the administration’s “near total lack of progress” in bringing to justice the terrorists who killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith and two former Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
His critique was echoed by other Republicans who had read or been briefed on the report, which was highly critical of the State Department’s diplomatic security and Near Eastern affairs bureaus for having left the Benghazi post with security that was “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
Four State Department officials resigned from their posts Wednesday, and the names of three were widely reported: Eric Boswell, assistant secretary for diplomatic security; Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary in charge of security at U.S. embassies around the globe; and Raymond Maxwell, a deputy assistant secretary who had responsibility for the North Africa region.
“The ARB identified the performance of four officials, three in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and one in the Bureau of Near East Asia Affairs,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. “The secretary has accepted Eric Boswell’s decision to resign as assistant secretary for diplomatic security, effective immediately. The other three individuals have been relieved of their current duties. All four individuals have been placed on administrative leave pending further action.”
The State Department did not publicly identity anyone besides Mr. Boswell.
The Accountability Review Board was headed by retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and included retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The pair provided a briefing on the report Wednesday to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where Democrats were quick to praise the board’s work and compliment Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for issuing a letter to congressional committees this week saying she had accepted “every one” of the board’s 29 recommendations, several of which remain classified.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the board had conducted a “thorough, unflinching review of the situation in Benghazi, Libya, before and during the terrorist attacks.”
“I concur with the Review Board’s conclusions that security at Benghazi was inadequate and that pleas from State Department personnel for added security before the attacks went unheeded,” said Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat. “Secretary of State Clinton has done the right thing by accepting and implementing the board’s recommendations.”
More questions ahead
Several Republicans generally agreed.
“Our investigation into the terrorist attack in Benghazi isn’t about finger-pointing. This is about figuring out what went wrong so we can prevent future attacks,” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, Florida Republican and a member of the House intelligence and armed services committees. “We need stronger leadership at the State Department, we need the administration to heed warnings from the intelligence community, and we need significantly better security at our diplomatic posts around the world.”
Others took a harder posture toward the Obama administration and Mrs. Clinton, who had been scheduled to testify before Congress this week on the board’s findings, but canceled her appearance because of health problems.
“I appreciate the Accountability Review Board’s work reviewing the facts,” said Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, adding that the board’s stark account of the situation on the ground in Libya before the attack raises new questions.
“The board’s conclusions follow and confirm the accounts of U.S. security officials based in Libya who testified before the Oversight Committee in October and contradicts senior officials in Washington who testified that the security posture was adequate,” Mr. Issa said. “In light of the report, I am concerned that the carefully vetted testimony of senior State Department officials at the October hearing was part of an intentional effort to mislead the American people.”
Mr. Issa also said he is “deeply concerned that the unclassified report omits important information the public has a right to know,” including “details about the perpetrators of the attack in Libya, as well as the less-than-noble reasons contributing to State Department decisions to deny security resources.”
“At some point, Secretary Clinton will need to personally address the remaining issues,” he said.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pointed out how the findings had “made it clear that ‘a lack of proactive leadership and management ability’ on the part of the State Department is to blame for the series of errors that resulted in the loss of life during the terrorist attack.”
“It is my expectation that Secretary Clinton will come before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and answer for these failures,” said Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen, who made headlines last week by assuring others on the Hill and in the media that Mrs. Clinton had agreed to testify.
“Questions must be answered as to why Benghazi was not seen as a priority by the State Department and was routinely ignored,” the Florida Republican said. “The recent resignations of three State Department officials is not the end, as the administration must continue to be held accountable for its dangerous systemic and management failures in order to avoid another Benghazi in the future.”
The board’s unclassified findings criticized the State Department for depending too heavily on unreliable local Libyan militias for security in the war-torn North African nation, and for being lulled by the absence of specific warnings of an imminent attack rather than responding to the general security environment, which had been deteriorating for some time in eastern Libya.
However, the findings did not delve into the politically charged accusations that the Obama administration engaged in a cover-up in the aftermath the Benghazi attack.
Several Republican lawmakers have accused the administration of initially attributing the attack to spontaneous protests over a U.S.-made anti-Islam video in order to maintain the president’s foreign-policy image before Election Day and not undermine his campaign message that al Qaeda had been decimated.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice became the lightning rod for criticism because she trumpeted that line on the Sunday TV talk shows five days after the attack. Last week, Mrs. Rice withdrew her name from consideration to replace Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state.
Mrs. Rice was the official who stuck longest and hardest to the administration’s initial and inaccurate claims that the attack on the consulate was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam video made in America, rather than a hastily planned assault by al Qaeda supporters and other extremists.
The Accountability Review Board’s report confirmed that there was no protest outside the mission and that the attack was entirely the work of terrorists.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pickering stressed to reporters during a briefing Wednesday at the State Department that security at the Benghazi diplomatic post fell far short of what would have been needed to prevent the terrorist attack.
The two former SEALs who scrambled to respond to the attack “did the best they possibly could with what they had, but what they had was not enough, either for the general threat environment in Benghazi and most certainly against the overwhelming numbers of attackers and the weapons which they faced,” Mr. Pickering said.
“While we had a lot of forces in Europe, both at sea and on land, it is not reasonable that they could have responded in any kind of timely way,” Adm. Mullen said. “This was over in a matter of about 20 or 30 minutes with respect to the [attack on the diplomatic post] specifically.
“We had no forces ready or tethered, if you will, focused on that mission so that they could respond,” he added. “Nor would I expect that we would have.”