The Accountability Review Board probing the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is subpoenaing documents and conducting interviews behind a veil of secrecy inside the State Department.
Retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, who was tapped by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to lead the board, says it has “decided to keep its deliberations confidential to preserve the integrity and objectivity of its work, in accordance with the statute providing for its activity.”
The statement was issued in response to requests by The Washington Times for information about the board — such as the size of its budget, the number of its staffers, a list of who has been interviewed and when its findings will be made public.
State Department officials have declined to answer those questions or divulge how often the board meets, and the secrecy appears driven by a desire to shield the investigation from the partisan politics that has engulfed the Benghazi attack.
Republican lawmakers have excoriated the Obama administration for its handling of security in Libya before the attack, and lambasted the White House for initially characterizing the incident, which coincided the 11th anniversary of 9/11, as something other than terrorism.
A hefty portion of the criticism has been aimed at U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice, who appeared on TV talk shows five days after the attack with assertions that it had resulted from spontaneous protests.
The underlying insinuation is that the White House — through Mrs. Rice — intentionally muffled intelligence on the incident to protect President Obama from accusations of a security meltdown in the Middle East before the general election.
Scrutiny has been amplified now that Mrs. Rice is on the administration’s short list to replace Mrs. Clinton.
Meanwhile, the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986 requires that an Accountability Review Board be convened to conduct an investigation in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on a diplomatic post.
The review board has broad powers of subpoena, according to the law, which stipulates that it consist of five members — four appointed by the secretary of state and one by the director of central intelligence.
In addition to Mr. Pickering, the Benghazi board includes retired Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, a former chairman of the joint chiefs; Catherine Bertini, a former director of the U.N. World Food Program; Hugh Turner, a professor at the University of Maryland; and longtime State Department official Richard Shinnick.
In a letter to House Republicans last month, Mrs. Clinton said the board is “charged with determining whether our security systems and procedures in Benghazi were adequate, whether those systems and procedures were properly implemented, and any lessons that may be relevant to our work around the world.”
She encouraged Congress to “withhold any final conclusions about the Benghazi attack” until after the board presents its findings.
Foreign policy insiders say the goal is to keep those findings as free of political manipulation as possible. While that may explain the board’s secrecy, it is likely that the board is delving into politically sensitive questions, such as the extent to which Mrs. Rice may have knowingly misled the American public in the days after the Benghazi attack.
“Since Susan Rice is part of the State Department, I’m sure that Tom Pickering and the [board] will attempt to address who knew what and when,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as assistant secretary of state for public affairs from 2009 through 2011. “Whether that satisfies the zealots on the issue remains to be seen.”
If neutrality and accuracy are the goal, Mr. Crowley said, Mr. Pickering will put a premium on them.
The 81-year-old is among the most decorated U.S. diplomats. He served in Republican and Democratic administrations from 1974 through 1996, holding ambassadorships to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, Jordan and the United Nations. From 1997 through 2000, he was undersecretary of state for political affairs.
“Tom Pickering is a veteran diplomat and will not be swayed by outside political forces,” said Mr. Crowley. “I’m confident he will be straight in his narrative of what happened and what needs to be done as a result because this is ultimately about finding that right balance where diplomats in post conflict situations can do their work and do it as securely as possible.”
Past review boards have tended to steer clear of politics, instead providing observations about the security of U.S. diplomats — observations that have tended to be ignored by lawmakers after the initial media frenzy over an attack has subsided.
The board that examined the 1998 terrorist bombings that killed 258 at the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania took about six months before making their findings public.
A January 1999 letter from officials who headed the board to then-Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright highlighted the “inadequacy of resources to provide security against terrorist attacks,” as well as the relatively “low priority accorded security concerns throughout the U.S. government.”
The letter preceded the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by just more than two years.