CHICAGO — A U.S. mission to deliver books to a school in Afghanistan that ended in the death of a young foreign service officer from River Forest, Ill., was plagued by poor planning that “failed at all levels,” according to a scathing Army report obtained by the Chicago Tribune.
Anne Smedinghoff, 25, three U.S. soldiers and an interpreter died on April 6, 2013, when a suicide bomber’s car exploded outside the walls of a U.S. military base in Zabul province in southern Afghanistan.
The Army report for the first time criticizes civilian and military leaders for not following security protocols in the lead-up to the mission.
Soldiers tasked with safely escorting Smedinghoff and other State Department civilians to a local school never received vital information for what was described in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza,” the report states.
“The platoon did not know the exact number of people they were escorting, they did not conduct a formal risk assessment, they did not have a specific threat analysis, and they had the wrong location for the school,” the report states.
The Army report notes that insurgents likely attacked the group — which included Jonathan Addleton, a top State Department official for southern Afghanistan — because they thought such a high-profile incident would garner widespread attention.
“The purpose of this attack was to make a powerful statement that would be broadcast throughout the country,” the report states. “Because local and national media were gathered for the school event, many images and stories would be released immediately.”
The report was initially commissioned after the attack and approved in June. But in July, new evidence concerning Smedinghoff’s death and the medical treatment she received was put into the investigation.
The report, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act this week after it was requested in August, also found that:
—A top State Department official, Jonathan Addleton, was at the book drop-off with Smedinghoff and may have been the main target, although insurgents were perhaps targeting anyone partaking in the mission. The report also notes that the planning and security that should be afforded such a VIP was not provided in this instance. Addleton’s presence at the event that day had not been previously disclosed.
—The State Department shared too much information with Afghan officials, and the group may have been targeted because specifics on the event’s exact time and who would attend “had leaked out.”
—The book event at the school was described in military briefings as a “Media Extravaganza” event. One soldier on the ground wrote in a statement that he described the event as providing “Happy Snaps,” or photo opportunities, for top officials in Kabul. The company supplying the books also desired “more media reporting.”
—The Army unit at the base didn’t want to provide security because it didn’t understand why it should be carrying out such a mission and the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day. What’s more, civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear.
The document also offers a detailed description of the lethal attack and the confusion that followed.
Smedinghoff’s family said it was initially told that she had been in a convoy, and not on foot, at the time of the attack.
Tom Smedinghoff, Anne’s father, said he had not seen the Army investigation before Wednesday.
“I’m not sure what to say,” he said shortly after receiving the report.
He noted that “there’s a lot more detail than I’ve ever known before” about his daughter’s death.
When Smedinghoff and the others walked through the base’s south gate that morning of April 6, 2013, they turned left and headed to where they thought the school was. But a guard at the compound door where they knocked said they needed to go to another door, so the group turned around and headed back the way they came, the report states.
They were caught in the initial blast at about 11 a.m., when a remote-controlled bomb hidden under a pallet that was leaned up against the base’s southern wall detonated.
Five to 10 seconds after that initial blast, a man driving a blue Toyota — who the report states had been shooed away from the gate when the group was leaving the base — drove within the formation of soldiers and civilians and blew up his car, gravely injuring Smedinghoff, the interpreter and the three soldiers, among others.
Smedinghoff suffered a pelvic fracture, an open wound on her right lower leg and a severe hip injury but was “awake and alert” during the medic chopper flight to a nearby larger base, according to the report. But her blood pressure plummeted due to internal bleeding, and she died at 1:02 p.m.
Smedinghoff received “appropriate and aggressive” treatment between the time she was caught in the blast and the time she died, the report said.
Smedinghoff, a 2005 graduate of Fenwick High School in Oak Park, was expected to have a bright future within the State Department. Less than a month before her death, she helped organize a visit to Kabul by Secretary of State John Kerry and served as his escort. After her death, Kerry met Smedinghoff’s family in Chicago and spoke of his memories of her during the Kabul visit.
According to the report, planning for the book giveaway began with a U.S. Embassy email on March 18, 2013, to a State Department civilian at the base. It was to take place at a boys’ school just outside the south wall of the base in the city of Qalat and would be covered by Afghan media.
The email, sent from the special projects coordinator of the embassy’s public affairs section, requested “an event to publicize the distribution of books provided by Scholastic, Inc.,” the report said.
“Scholastic donated quite a lot of books for use in the schools in Afghanistan and it took a very long time for those books to get here,” a copy of the email enclosed in the Army report states. “Scholastic would like to see more media reporting.”
Qalat was chosen because a local official had requested such a visit and “partly because we would like Scholastic to feel as though we are doing something,” the email states. “Because we think the visuals would be nice, we thought that Qalat would be the perfect place for a media tour.”
A spokesman for Scholastic told the Tribune on Wednesday that the company did not mandate any kind of publicity event.
“As part of our mission to provide children worldwide with access to books, 46 locations in Afghanistan received My Afghan Library, a project developed with the U.S. State Department. Scholastic never requested any publicity events in support of this effort which brought beautiful new children’s books in Pashto and Dari to the children of Afghanistan,” Scholastic said in a statement Wednesday.
“The tragic death of Anne Smedinghoff on April 6, 2013 was devastating for everyone involved in the project.”
Military leadership at the base initially balked at the request for a security escort, but one official was told on April 4 that “this mission is getting a lot more visibility, and that … Addleton was going, and that meant we needed to support this mission with a security element.”
The Army report lists Addleton as the “Senior Civilian Representative” for southern Afghanistan.
The civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear, and the soldiers did not know how many people they were going to escort, making their job harder, the report said.
“This uncertainty was due to the failure of the State Department team to properly coordinate this trip with military leadership,” it said.
Planning for the mission failed to provide enough detail for an operation that included a “Senior Civilian Representative” such as Addleton, according to the report.
“The pre-mission activities did not have the proper focus because the routine nature of this patrol led to a sense of complacency by the civilians and military leadership,” the report states.
Initial local accounts of the attack last year stated that the provincial governor may have been the target, but the Army report states otherwise.
“I assess that the intended target was US civilians and military and that the insurgents were specifically targeting this media event,” the report’s author states. “AMB Addleton may have been the target, but ultimately the target was anyone in the group, and specifically Soldiers for the (suicide car bomber).”
The report says State Department officials shared a lot of information with Afghan government officials regarding precise departure times from the base that morning and Addleton’s VIP inclusion. The military did not share such information with the Afghans, the report states.
“My assessment is that attackers learned of the change in time due to information leaking from the (provincial governor’s) office,” the investigating officer, whose name is redacted, writes.
The State Department said it did not have an immediate comment Wednesday.
The report makes a series of recommendations, including higher command approval and scrutiny for any events involving senior civilians such as Addleton or high-ranking officers.
The Army administratively disciplined two officers after the attack, according to the report.