By Paul Richter
WASHINGTON — The State Department was guilty of “systematic failures” in security that made the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Libya possible, a high-level investigative panel concluded in an unflinching examination made public late Tuesday.
The panel faulted the department for ignoring requests from U.S. diplomats in Tripoli for security assistance and for relying on ill-prepared local militias and inadequate equipment to protect the mission in Benghazi. It found that two key bureaus failed to properly coordinate their security planning, and it pointed to a failure in leadership by officials at several levels.
“Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a … security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place,” the report says.
The attacks by dozens of Islamist militants killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans and set off a broad reexamination of how the U.S. government protects its thousands of diplomats in dangerous parts of the world. The incident has also become the focus of a months-long battle between the Obama administration and Republican critics, who contend officials have sought to cover up their lapses.
United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice was among those caught up in the political fray, eventually withdrawing her name from consideration as secretary of State after fierce criticism of her comments on television talk shows regarding the Benghazi attacks.
According to the report, which is likely to represent the government’s lasting judgment on the attacks, the assault was the calculated effort of militants and not a “spontaneous” reaction of an outraged crowd, the first explanation offered by U.S. officials.
Yet the five-member independent panel said that, despite the lapses, no officials had failed to carry out their duties in a way that required disciplinary action.
It also determined that there had been “no immediate, specific intelligence” on the threat against the mission.
The report prepared for lawmakers includes classified sections.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a letter to congressional committees that she has accepted “every one” of the Accountability Review Board’s 29 recommendations, several of which remain classified.
She praised the board, saying that it had offered “a clear-eyed look at serious, systematic challenges that we have already begun to fix.”
To begin remedying the problems, officials are planning to reallocate $1.3 billion that was to be spent in Iraq to add hundreds of Marine guards and diplomatic security personnel, and to bolster security infrastructure in dangerous locations.
The board, which was convened in September, was led by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael G. Mullen. The two will meet Wednesday in closed session with the Senate and House foreign affairs committees to discuss the findings.
On Thursday, the committees will convene again in public session to discuss the report with Clinton’s deputies, William J. Burns and Thomas Nides. Clinton had agreed to appear before the committees Thursday, but asked to be excused last weekend after suffering a mild concussion in a fall. She has told the committees she would answer their questions in January.
The report criticizes officials for waiting to react to specific threats rather than anticipating the dangers that U.S. officials could face in a deteriorating security environment.
More than a year after the end of the end of a revolution that brought down Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, the nation is still overrun by rival armed groups and lacks a central authority that can guarantee security for foreign missions, as it is required to do under international agreements.
Accountability Review Boards are set up under federal law to examine failures and assign blame. This one found shortcomings in the bureaucratic system, in personnel and equipment.
The report details how the Libyan militias that were supposed to protect the compound were not capable of carrying out the assignment. It deems the mission’s fire-safety equipment and physical protections inadequate, and adds that the security arrangements were weakened by the relative inexperience and rapid turnover of personnel, despite their courage.
It also cites “diminished institutional knowledge, continuity and mission capacity.”
The report says the mission security shortcomings were made clear by Stevens’ trip to Benghazi. Stevens, one of the most respected U.S. diplomats in the region, believed that he faced no special threat in his visit to Benghazi, even though the general level of risk had been on the rise for much of the year.
And the security officials assigned to protect him were not even aware of the specifics of his plans to travel outside the compound during his visit, the panel said.
The investigative panel found that although officials in the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had sought more security staffing in Benghazi, they had generally not done enough to try to improve security at the lightly protected Benghazi mission.
It said their faith in a local militia and contract security personnel was “misplaced,” noting that some militia members had stopped accompanying the mission vehicles to protest their salary and hours.
Among State Department personnel, “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 report says.
The report says certain senior officials in the State Department’s Diplomatic Security and Near East Affairs bureaus, whom it didn’t identify, “demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability” in their responses. “However, the board did not find a reasonable cause to determine that any individual employee breached his or her duty,” it adds.
The report calls for a strengthening of security and for the department to “urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas.”