The State Department has acknowledged that five Americans killed in Afghanistan, including 25-year-old diplomat Anne Smedinghoff, were on foot when they were caught in the blast of a suicide bomber, and not in an armored vehicle as officials told bereaved relatives earlier this week.
The deaths of U.S. diplomatic personnel — and the State Department’s changing account of how they died — raise echoes for some of the security failures in Benghazi, Libya, where Islamist extremists killed four Americans in assaults on the U.S. diplomatic compound Sept. 11.
“The question about Benghazi I always wanted an answer to was whether it was a one-off or whether there were systemic problems with the way the State Department was doing risk management for high-risk posts,” said James Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation think tank. “We never found that out.
“Obviously, in a war zone, you can’t have zero risk and you can’t have zero casualties. But now, is this [incident] a one-off as well?” Mr. Carafano said.
The five Americans killed Saturday were Ms. Smedinghoff of River Forest, Ill.; Army Staff Sgt. Christopher M. Ward, 24, of Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Army Spc. Wilbel A. Robles-Santa, 25, of Juncos, Puerto Rico; Army Spc. Delfin M. Santos Jr., 24, of San Jose, Calif.; and a civilian defense contractor who has not been named.
They were members of a provincial reconstruction team delivering U.S.-donated books to a school in Qalat. Such teams are civilian-military partnerships designed to get U.S. personnel into the field to administer aid projects.
The governor of Zabol province, Mohammad Ashraf Nasery, the apparent target of the attack, was in an armored car and was not hurt in the blast, although three of his bodyguards were injured, according to reports over the weekend.
“Part of the initial confusion came about because there were reports in the media about the local governor and his convoy,” Mr. Ventrell said of the changing State Department account of the attack. “Some of our initial reporting also indicated that, and that’s why we weren’t able to clarify right away. So our initial read on it was different.”
Questions about the incident are likely to multiply in coming days, as more details about the attack are revealed. A witness reported Thursday that the provincial reconstruction team was lost, which is why the personnel were caught in the blast.
Ahmad Zia Abed, a reporter for Shamshad TV, told McClatchy News that about a dozen people, including media and diplomatic workers, plus their military escorts, were on the team.
When they arrived to deliver the schoolbooks, a man at the gate said they had the wrong building. They retraced their steps to the American base and were caught in the blast as they reached it, according to McClatchy.
Mr. Ventrell declined to comment about reports that the team was lost before being caught in the blast.
“In terms of all the rest of what happened that day, it’s still under investigation, so I don’t have a lot of other details to provide,” Mr. Ventrell said.
Mr. Ventrell said in Wednesday’s briefing that the school was “a short distance away” — reports on the ground say 200 yards — and that the U.S. civilians in the group were wearing personal protective gear.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan told The Washington Times that an investigation is conducted whenever troops are killed in action.
“Normally it is the Brigade Commander who initiates” the investigation, Lt. Col. Rich Spiegel said in an email, adding that he wasn’t sure whether that was the case in this situation.
He said he could not comment further on the ongoing investigation.
“The State Department has been at war longer than the rest of the country,” said Mr. Carafano, noting that al Qaeda struck U.S. embassies in East Africa with coordinated suicide attacks several years before Sept. 11, 2001. “They’ve been a target since forever. They should be very good at risk management by now.”
In Benghazi, U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed when a group of heavily armed extremists overran the U.S. diplomatic compound and, several hours later, attacked a nearby CIA annex.
In most cases in which U.S. diplomats are killed in the line of duty, an accountability review board must conduct a legally mandated investigation, but language in the law excludes fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mr. Ventrell said four other State Department employees were injured in the blast. He identified one of them — the most seriously hurt — as Kelly Hunt, a public affairs officer who was evacuated to Germany.
“She is receiving the best possible medical care,” Mr. Ventrell said, adding that Secretary of State John F. Kerry had spoken with Ms. Hunt’s parents twice since the weekend “and conveyed his sympathy to the family during this difficult time.”
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who has pushed for a Watergate-style investigation of the Benghazi attack, released a letter Thursday supporting his campaign from Sean Smith’s mother.
“Please, please help me find out who is responsible and fix it so no more of our sons and daughters are abandoned by the country they love,” she wrote, endorsing Mr. Wolf’s resolution calling for a special investigative committee to be empaneled by the House speaker.
Two groups representing former military and intelligence personnel also voiced support this week for the resolution, in one case with an open letter to Congress signed by more than 700 veterans.