Dec. 19, 2012 -- The State Department has released its independent, internal investigation into the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, concluding the attack was the result of the State Department's "systemic failure" in addressing the security needs of the consulate.
The 39-page unclassified report, released Monday, is highly critical of decisions made by senior officials from the Diplomatic Security and Near East Affairs bureaus as demonstrating "a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by the Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection."
The attacked killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, information specialist Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods — who were contractors working for the CIA. Stevens' slaying was the first of a U.S. ambassador since 1988.
The investigation was conducted by the Accountability Review Board appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in late September. The five members spent the last two months interviewing over 100 officials and pouring over thousands of documents and watching hours of video, before issuing conclusions and recommendations to Clinton about what happened before the attack and how another attack may be prevented.
The board concluded that several decisions in Washington left the security posture at the Benghazi consulate "grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place." However the report did not single out any individual officials, finding no "reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty."
The report makes the point that the State Department has been subject to so many budget cuts from Congress over the years that there is a culture of "conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation," and gives several examples of how Washington failed the staff at the Benghazi consulate, essentially vindicating claims made by regional security officers that senior officials in Washington consistently turned down security requests from the Embassy in Tripoli.
"Overall, the number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing," said 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."
Though the state department has repeatedly pointed to the local militia in Benghazi as being an integral part of the security plan at the consulate, in reality the militia proved inadequate and ineffective, according the report's findings.
While the report had harsh criticism for the bureaucrats in Washington, it had nothing but praise for security officials on the ground, whom it said "performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation."
The report sheds new light on the death of Stevens as well. U.S. officials still do not know who exactly transported him to a Benghazi hospital after finding him in the consulate after the smoke cleared, calling them "good Samaritans." The investigation found that doctors tried for 45 minutes to revive the ambassador, who was likely dead from smoke inhalation when he arrived at the hospital.
The Accountability Review Board also disputed any claims that the Pentagon did not respond in a timely manner or turned down assistance requests. An unmanned drone was dispatched to Benghazi on the night of the attack, but other military options were too far away to provide immediate help.
"The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," said the report which went on to praise the military response. "The safe evacuation of all U.S. government personnel from Benghazi twelve hours after the initial attack and subsequently to Ramstein Air Force Base was the result of exceptional U.S. government coordination and military response and helped save the lives of two severely wounded Americans."
Despite the sharp criticism for the State Department, the board does make it clear that ultimately the gunmen who carried out the attack are ultimately responsible.
"The Board remains fully convinced that responsibility for the tragic loss of life, injuries, and damage to U.S. facilities and property rests solely and completely with the terrorists who perpetrated the attack,"
But the report finds that there were warning signs; a sharp increase of attacks on Western interests in Benghazi, a knowledge from the intelligence community that even if there was no actionable intelligence on a future attack it was known that radical Islamic groups were operating in the area, that required better planning and protection than what the consulate had.
Clinton, who is at home recovering from a stomach flu causing her to faint and suffer a concussion, received the report Monday morning. After reviewing it, she issued eight page cover letters to the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees, where she said that she accepted the report's conclusions in their entirety.
"The Accountability Review Board report provides a clear-eyed look at serious, systemic challenges that we have already begun to fix," said Clinton. "I am grateful for its recommendations for how we can reduce the chances of this kind of tragedy happening again. I accept every one of them."
Clinton added that she has already established a task force that met for the first time today, which will make sure that the board's findings are implemented "quickly and completely."
Clinton also addressed the issue of chain-and-command and bureaucracy problems between the field and Washington. She announced she is naming the first-ever Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of High Threat Posts, a senior level position devoted solely to focusing on security at high risk posts. Clinton also said that in the future, regional Assistant Secretaries based in Washington at the highest levels will have greater responsibility and accountability for their people and posts in the field.
"Ambassadors are charged by the President to 'take direct and full responsibility' for the security of all personnel under their authority 'whether inside or outside the chancery gate,'" said Clinton. "The leadership of our regional bureaus will be embracing the same accountability and responsibility for the staff serving in these areas."
Clinton closed her letter by giving a spirited defense of diplomacy, stressing that while the attack showed systematic problems in how the State Department addresses security, the work of diplomats cannot be dictated by security concerns alone.
The House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees have received the full classified report before being briefed in a closed session by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and member Admiral Mike Mullen in a closed session.
On Thursday Deputy Secretaries of State Bill Burns and Tom Nides will testify before Congress in an open session, representing Clinton, who is unable to attend because of illness.
House Foreign Affairs chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement on Dec. 15 that while the committee accepts Burns and Nides presence at the hearing, the committee will still require "a public appearance by the Secretary of State herself" to answer questions.
On Monday Secretary Clinton sent letters to the chairs of both committees making it clear that she is open to further engagement after the holidays, when Congress is back in session and she is feeling better, said state department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.