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A 'rigorous and unsparing' review? ARB Benghazi report full of gaps, unanswered questions

 

More than a year after the Benghazi terrorist attack that led to the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans, there will be a public airing of the review process that was intended to quell all questions about U.S. government failings that could have led to the massacre.  Instead, serious questions remain unanswered.

The House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee hearing this Thursday, September 19, will feature Amb. Thomas Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, who headed the Accountability Review Board (ARB), which was convened by then Secretary Hillary Clinton to determine the adequacy of security, availability of intelligence, and whether “any U.S. government employee… breached her or his duty.”   

The administration hoped that putting two “grey hairs’ in charge of vetting this messy problem would disarm any critics. White House spokesman, Jay Carney, insisted that the ARB review was “led by two men of unimpeachable expertise and credibility that oversaw a process that was rigorous and unsparing.”  It was neither.

Pickering and Mullen are not seasoned investigators. If they were, they would not have spearheaded a project that defied all procedures known to those of us who have led investigations.  

Pickering and Mullen are not seasoned investigators. If they were, they would not have spearheaded a project that defied all procedures known to those of us who have led investigations.  

No oath was administered.  

No stenographer was present during witness interviews.  

Instead, the ARB utilized note takers who recorded their impressions of relevant statements.  

Not one witness was permitted to review those notes to correct errors or omissions. To this day, the State Department has not given any witness access to those notes.  

No witness was permitted to review the draft of the unclassified ARB report before it was published.  Witnesses have been refused access to the classified report.  Why have witnesses been precluded from examining documents that would reveal whether they were accurately recorded?

The witness list is classified, but the ARB has admitted it “spared” Secretary Clinton from being interviewed. Who else was exempted from this “rigorous” process?

The ARB refused to interview my husband and law partner’s client, Mark Thompson, despite his repeated requests. Thompson, responsible for coordinating deployment of a multi-agency team for hostage taking and terrorism attacks, was excluded from all decisions and meetings during the attacks.  Why?

My client, former U.S. Embassy Tripoli DCM Gregory Hicks, testified on May 8, 2013 before the Oversight Committee that Amb. Stevens was in Benghazi in mid-September 2012 because Secretary Clinton, on the day she swore him in, requested he prioritize making our temporary facilities there a unified, permanent diplomatic outpost.    

Amb. Stevens was under a September 30 deadline (the end of the fiscal year) to submit a detailed request for funding the needed changes.  September was the new Ambassador’s first opening for the fact-finding trip to Benghazi, which had been coordinated with Washington for several weeks. Moreover, Secretary Clinton was considering a trip to Libya before the end of 2012 to tout the outpost’s new status, so timing was even more crucial.  Hicks specifically informed the ARB of these facts.

Yet, the ARB stated that Amb. Stevens “made the decision to travel to Benghazi independently of Washington….”  Notwithstanding Secretary Clinton’s explicit intent to make the facility permanent, the report refers to the Benghazi facilities as “transitory” and “temporary.”  Why, contrary to specific information, did the ARB hold the ambassador responsible for the trip?  

The ARB could not decide whether security was requested.  The report first blamed Amb. Stevens: “Embassy Tripoli did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security for Special Mission Benghazi.” 

On the very next page, it took a 180, blaming the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), claiming security was “inadequate despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing.”

In fact, Amb. Stevens and his predecessor Amb. Gene Cretz vigorously argued for increased security for Benghazi and Tripoli throughout 2012.  

Hicks, just prior to leaving for Benghazi on July 31, 2012, also pleaded for more security. State not only ignored these repeated requests, but moreover decreased security, which went from 30 to 10 personnel in August 2012.  

Part of the downsize was DOD’s decision to remove the Tripoli Special Forces from the Ambassador’s authority.   

Who approved that decision?

The ARB found that “certain senior” officials “demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability” in responding to the security concerns at Benghazi.  

As a result, four individuals were placed on paid leave in December 2012. None were informed what conduct was the basis for their rebukes. All were mid-level management.  

And then last month Secretary Kerry waived a magic wand, reinstating all four.  

Why were they publicly humiliated if there was no basis to do so?  

Why is there now no one to accept accountability for the shameful security?     

The ARB found there “simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”   

Maybe not for the ambassador and Sean Smith, but Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed six hours later at the annex.  

A fly-over by U.S. air power would have dissipated the attackers. 

It has been widely reported that active forces in the area could have reached Benghazi before the dawn attack, in Croatia for example. Where did the ARB obtain its information about force availability?  

How did anyone know when the attacks began at 3:45 p.m. Washington time that we should not send help because they would cease six hours later?

If House Oversight does its job, there should be a lot of “splainin’ to do.”

Victoria Toensing is a former Chief Counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, U.S. Department of Justice, where among other assignments she created the anti-terrorism section. She is a founding partner of diGenova & Toensing.