Secretary of State John F. Kerry has reinstated four employees implicated in security lapses from last year's terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, drawing sharp rebukes Tuesday from leading Republicans who said the moves mean nobody has been fired or held accountable.
Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine called the move "shocking" and "unacceptable," while Rep. Darrell E. Issa, a California Republican who has spent months investigating the attack, described it as "a game of musical chairs where no one misses a single day on the State Department payroll."
Mr. Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, promised to expand his investigation to include Mr. Kerry's decision.
"Obama administration officials repeatedly promised the families of victims and the American people that officials responsible for security failures would be held accountable," Mr. Issa said in a statement. "Instead of accountability, the State Department offered a charade."
The four employees, who had been on administrative leave since December, were told that they could return to active work Tuesday — though they will have new assignments rather than go back to their old jobs.
The State Department said it was following the lead of its own internal investigation, officially called an accountability review board. The board's report found that security was "grossly inadequate" at the U.S. diplomatic post that was attacked in Benghazi and that certain department officials "demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability."
But it stopped short of calling for any officials to be fired.
Deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Tuesday that after conducting his own review of the report, Mr. Kerry "reaffirmed their findings in this decision."
She said the decision last year by Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton to place the four on administrative leave, with pay, was enough punishment.
"What the secretary and his team have been doing over these past few months is doing more fact-findings, going into what happened on the ground but also looking again at the totality of these four employees' careers at the State Department," Ms. Harf said. "They've served in tough places. There were a lot of examples where they've had very exemplary careers here. So that was all looked at as we made this determination about what was appropriate."
The State Department has been officially mum on the names of the four employees who were placed on administrative leave as a result of the Sept. 11 attack, which included an assault on a clandestine CIA house set up near the U.S. diplomatic post in the eastern Libyan city.
But news reports and diplomatic sources, as well as congressional inquiries, have identified them as Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security at the time; Scott Bultrowicz and Charlene Lamb, who were serving under Mr. Boswell; and Raymond Maxwell, who was serving as a deputy assistant secretary of state focused on North Africa.
Ms. Harf wouldn't name the four on Tuesday, nor would she say what their new assignments would be.
It was not immediately clear whether the officials had been notified about their new jobs.
In July, President Obama nominated Gregory B. Starr to become assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security — the post previously held by Mr. Boswell.
Mr. Maxwell said he received a memo from the State Department's human resources department informing him that his administrative leave status had been lifted and that he should report for duty Tuesday.
"No explanation, no briefing, just come back to work. So I will go in tomorrow," Mr. Maxwell said in an interview with The Daily Beast, which was first to report on the reinstatements Monday night.
As the only employee suspended from the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs to have been placed on administrative leave in the case, Mr. Maxwell has claimed to have had no involvement in decisions related to Benghazi prior to the attacks.
The actions of the other three officials, however, have featured prominently in congressional hearings over the past year. During one hearing, roughly a month after the attack, Ms. Lamb acknowledged having denied requests for increased security made by U.S. officials on the ground in Libya.
In testimony before the House oversight committee, she said Mr. Boswell and Mr. Bultrowicz had signed off on the decision.
Republicans said Mr. Kerry's move to restore the four employees undercuts efforts to impose accountability within the administration.
"After the [accountability review board] identified systemic failures and leadership deficiencies that contributed to the grossly inadequate security in Benghazi, it is unacceptable for the State Department to hold no one responsible for the broader mismanagement that occurred prior to the attack," Ms. Collins said in a statement. "To reinstate all the employees who were placed on administrative leave without holding anyone else, including higher-level officials like Patrick Kennedy ... is shocking."
Mr. Issa said he will expand his investigation to look at Mr. Kerry's decision. He previously said he was looking at how the accountability review board reached its conclusions and that investigators never interviewed the four employees or their supervisors.
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