What happened at the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September? Put aside the partisan wrangling that was so much a part of the presidential campaign. The State Department moved quickly to set up an independent investigation, led by Thomas Pickering, a much accomplished diplomat, and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On Wednesday, the panel issued its findings and recommendations, offering a scathing assessment of decision-making at the department.
Here is the basis for developing improved policies and for weighing the important question of how American diplomats should operate in unstable and dangerous environments, such as those across the Middle and Near East.
The inquiry found much respect and deference for the judgment of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. That reflected his understanding of a fractured Libya, having arrived early on the scene, as rebels intensified their successful bid to oust Moammar Gadhafi. Stevens was a diplomat who thrived on local engagement. The shame would be if the report leads American missions to retreat behind fortresses, emphasizing security at the expense of effective diplomatic work.
The report found that Stevens did not foresee the consulate facing such a ferocious and sustained attack, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades fired at the compound, the assault resulting in his death and that of three other Americans. Yet Stevens did warn about a “security vacuum,” and the report sharply criticized State Department officials for pushing aside requests for more guards at the mission and failing to ensure security upgrades.
The inquiry concluded that American intelligence focused too narrowly on specific warnings of attacks, paying inadequate heed to the widening and deepening disorder in Benghazi. More, for all of Stevens’ knowledge, he appeared an exception. The report noted the lack of experience of the staff members, rotating quickly through the mission, for as little as 40 days.
The assessment has proved severe enough that four department officials have stepped down from their posts. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, has accepted the 29 recommendations. On several fronts, the department already has moved to make improvements. For starters, it has asked Congress to transfer more than $1.3 billion to upgrade security. Worth adding is that amid all the wailing about excessive government spending, such crucial priorities must not be neglected.
For the first time, a senior official has been given the job of ensuring sufficient protection for embassies and consulates in dangerous places.
Testifying on Capitol Hill last week, department officials discussed the need to learn from mistakes. “We need to do better,” said William Burns, the deputy secretary of state. Part of the trouble was the rapid unraveling in Libya, the emerging militias, the violence and chaos. That explains, in part, the mixed messages of Susan Rice and others. The report found there wasn’t enough time for “U.S. military assets” to respond to the attack. In many ways, the primary focus rightly was the diplomatic mission, seeking to enhance American influence, or serve well the country’s interests.