Benghazi Attacks: Investigative Update Interim Report on the Accountability Review Board

September 16, 2013

On September 16, 2013, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), as part of the ongoing investigation into the Benghazi terrorist attacks, released an interim report focused on the conclusions of the State Department Accountability Review Board (ARB). The ARB had placed blame on mid-level officials but did not examine the role of more senior officials involved in security decisions.  Relying on documents and testimony of State Department officials, the report describes the concerns and shortcomings of an investigation that Administration officials have incorrectly described as independent and exhaustive.

“The ARB was not fully independent,” said Chairman Issa on releasing the report.  “The panel did not exhaustively examine failures and it has led to an unacceptable lack of accountability. While Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen have honorably served their country, the families of victims and the American people continue to wait for more conclusive answers about how our government left our own personnel so vulnerable and alone the night of the attack.”

Key Findings:

The ARB was not comprehensive: Obama Administration officials held out the ARB Report as the product of a full and complete investigation.  Even the ARB co-chairs, however, acknowledged that the report was limited by the Board’s statutory mandate. [16-18]

The ARB did not conduct thorough interviews: One of the two bureaus the ARB criticized was the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA).  Elizabeth Dibble, NEA’s second-in-command, appeared before the ARB only once – in a 90-minute group interview.  The Committee obtained documents that showed Dibble was involved in numerous discussions about the U.S. presence in Benghazi and security resources deployed in Libya.  It is unclear that a 90-minute group interview was sufficient for the ARB to determine the extent of her role.  [20]

The State Department obstructed the congressional investigation: The State Department’s refusal to turn over ARB documents has made an independent evaluation of the ARB’s review difficult.  The ARB did not record or transcribe the interviews it conducted.  The State Department is withholding interview summaries created by ARB staff.  [21-22]

The ARB may have been affected by conflicts of interest: The independence of the ARB is tainted by actual and perceived conflicts of interest.  Witnesses testified that Senior State Department officials who were involved in discussions about Benghazi security were responsible for the process of selecting Board members and staff.  The ARB staff consisted of State Department employees who subsequently returned to their posts. Witnesses also testified that in many instances, Board members and staff had prior connections to the officials they evaluated. [23-29]

The ARB downplayed the decision to run the Benghazi facility as a temporary mission:  The ARB failed to adequately examine or explain the State Department’s decision to run the Benghazi mission on a temporary basis.  None of the four individuals the ARB singled out for “accountability” made this decision. [30-44] Witnesses testified that this decision was largely responsible for the inadequate security posture at the Benghazi mission.

Decisions at more senior State Department levels influenced diplomatic security actions: Diplomatic Security Bureau officials testified that the decision by Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy to approve a continued U.S. presence that exempted the mission site from security requirements restricted their ability to assign security agents.  Officials testified that because Benghazi was not designated as a permanent mission, they had to rely mainly on temporary assignments to address security needs instead of assigning dedicated agents through the normal process. [34] Diplomatic Security officials testified that they did raise concerns about the problems this process created to more senior State Department officials in the months prior to the attack. [35]

Secretary Clinton also wanted to extend the mission in Benghazi.  Several NEA officials recalled the Secretary’s desire to continue operating the Benghazi mission in September 2011, when the Department was discussing what to do with the Benghazi special mission compound in the wake of the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.  [66-67]