WASHINGTON — “Systematic failures” in State Department leadership contributed to security lapses in the Sept. 11 attacks in eastern Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, an independent review board concluded in a report released late Tuesday.
Two senior members of the Accountability Review Board will present their findings Wednesday to the Senate and House foreign relations committees in closed hearings, with top State Department officials scheduled to appear in open sessions Thursday to answer the report’s sharp criticisms.
While the report doesn’t fill in the gaps on what the Obama administration knew about the attacks and when — one of the most controversial points in the government’s handling of the aftermath — the panel did find that there was no anti-American demonstration preceding the attack, as senior officials had once insisted.
“The board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity,” stated the unclassified version of the report that was released publicly.
The Accountability Review Board’s report portrays a total system breakdown in the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and a nearby CIA annex.
The diplomatic security presence at the consulate was “grossly inadequate,” despite repeated requests from the mission for additional staffing. The compound was also “severely under-resourced” in security equipment, and both Washington and the U.S. embassy in Tripoli paid “inadequate” attention to what was obviously “a deteriorating security situation” in Benghazi, according to the report.
Intelligence agency reports also failed to provide any “immediate, specific tactical warning” of the Sept. 11 attacks, the panel found, adding that “known gaps existed in the intelligence community’s understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.”
The panel also criticized the “misplaced” reliance on the “armed but poorly skilled” U.S.-friendly Libyan militia that was guarding the building along with the locally contracted Blue Mountain Libya security firm. The panel found that, at the time of Stevens’ visit to the compound, the Libyan militiamen had stopped accompanying U.S. diplomatic convoys in protest over salary and working hours.
The Libyan government didn’t fare much better in the report, though it was noted that the authorities did provide a military plane that was used to fly out all remaining U.S. personnel and the bodies of the dead on Sept. 12.
The panel found the Libyans’ response to be “profoundly lacking” on the night of the attacks, reflecting “both weak capacity and near absence of Libyan central government influence and control in Benghazi.”
Stevens, the ambassador, whom the board praised as “an exceptional practitioner of modern diplomacy” for his dedication to the Middle East and his proficiency in Arabic, also played a role in the security lapses, the report suggested.
Plans for his trip from the Tripoli embassy to the Benghazi consulate weren’t properly shared with the security team, “who were not fully aware of planned movements off compound.” The review board wrote that Stevens failed to envision such an attack despite the flurry of attacks that spring and summer. And his status as an expert on Libya, an Benghazi in particular, “caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments.”
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 wrote.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had agreed to testify, canceled her appearance before the committees, citing doctor’s orders as she recovers from a stomach virus and a concussion she sustained from fainting.
Instead, Clinton wrote to lawmakers saying she accepted all of the review board’s recommendations on “serious, systemic challenges that we have already begun to fix,” according to the text of the letter posted on the State Department’s website.
The sternly worded Benghazi report comes just as Clinton is finishing out her term as secretary and is a blow to her legacy, which was already in question because of murky policy on the bloody crisis in Syria and an uneven response to the Arab Spring uprisings.