Perhaps the most uncomfortable aspect of an independent panel’s review of the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. posts in Benghazi is that part of the blame for security lapses lay with the incident’s most prominent casualty: Ambassador Chris Stevens.
The Accountability Review Board’s report, released late Tuesday and the subject of congressional hearings this week, praised Stevens as “an exceptional practitioner of modern diplomacy” who personified the U.S. commitment to a democratic Libya. However, the report suggests on numerous pages, Stevens also failed to respond seriously to the deteriorating security situation around him, while his prominent stature made Washington unusually deferential to him on security and policy matters.
As chief of mission for Libya, the report’s authors said, Stevens would have been the authority on the dangers posed to U.S. interests by the various local militias roaming the city – a threat that the report says was inadequately taken into consideration by officials in Tripoli and Washington.
The two top officials on the review board, retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Michael Mullen, chose their words carefully at a news conference Wednesday as they weighed Stevens’ responsibility in the security lapses, saying that he did support having more security personnel. But they also said that he was the ultimate authority on the deteriorating local security conditions.
“As the chief of mission, he certainly had a responsibility in that regard, and actually he was very security conscious and increasingly concerned about security,” Mullen said. “But part of his responsibility is certainly to make that case back here, and he had not gotten to that point where you would, you might get to a point where you would be considering, ‘It’s so dangerous, we might close the mission.’”
The report of the review board, appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is more pointed in its suggestions that Stevens shared in what the authors painted as a major security breakdown at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The embassy Stevens oversaw in Tripoli “did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security” in Benghazi.
Plans for his trip from the Tripoli embassy to the Benghazi consulate also weren’t properly shared with the security team, “who were not fully aware of planned movements off compound.” And the review board wrote that Stevens simply didn’t envision such a scenario at the Benghazi compound, despite a flurry of disturbing attacks against diplomatic targets that spring and summer. Two of the attacks involved homemade explosives lobbed at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, with one of them blowing a large hole in an outside wall.
But Stevens’ status as an expert on Libya, and Benghazi in particular, the report stated, “caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments.” Among the panel’s recommendations were consultations with outside, nongovernmental experts on the risks in high-threat areas and a reorganized security structure that would allow regional agents to report directly to superiors in Washington – two measures that appear to prevent a situation in which an ambassador has unchecked authority over local security matters.
“In the months leading up to the attacks, credible reports were brought to the attention of the State Department alleging insufficient security in the area. These reports also contained warnings of rapidly growing radical militias that threatened anti-American attacks,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement on the board’s findings. “Despite all of the information available to them, the State Department failed to construct an adequate safety plan, declined to provide sufficient security personnel and failed to consider closing the mission given the growing threat.”
While the board found that there was a collegial level of coordination among Washington, Tripoli and Benghazi, relations at the senior levels were constrained by a lack of transparency and responsiveness among the various bureaus and personnel in the field.
“There appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations,” the panel concluded.