Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed this week that several employees who were "removed" from their positions in the wake of the Libya terror attack are still being paid and have not actually left her department.
But she also gave a surprising answer when asked why: Her hands are tied, she said.
Amid complaints from lawmakers that no government official has really been held accountable for missteps in the run-up to the attack, Clinton claimed current federal regulations limit what disciplinary actions can be taken.
The sticking point appears to be what constitutes a "breach of duty," which is the threshold for action. Whether it turns out the secretary has more leeway, lawmakers expressed a keen interest Thursday in changing the law.
"I'm sure that Congress will work on this important issue so that those held responsible for ignoring repeated requests for more security will not continue to enjoy their paid vacations, which is what administrative leave with salary is," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., former chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement to FoxNews.com.
Ros-Lehtinen said her understanding is that department lawyers determined the review board "did not cite the correct causes that would have allowed such disciplinary action."
The congresswoman pointedly questioned Clinton on Wednesday during a House hearing about the four employees who were supposedly punished after a long-awaited report on the Sept. 11 attack was released late last year. She accused the department of doing "nothing to correct the record" when media reported at the time that department officials were being held accountable.
"There's just been a shuffling of the deck chairs," Ros-Lehtinen said.
Clinton confirmed that, while four individuals were "removed from their jobs," three of those employees who were placed on administrative leave are still on leave and being paid.
The New York Post reported last month that the fourth, Assistant Secretary of State Eric Boswell, resigned from his position but not the department. The State Department has not disputed that.
But Clinton claimed Wednesday that "we have taken every step that is available."
"Under federal statute and regulations, unsatisfactory leadership is not grounds for finding a breach of duty," she said. "And the (review board) did not find that these four individuals breached their duty."
Clinton was referring to the findings of the Accountability Review Board, which said "certain senior State Department officials within two bureaus in critical positions ... demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability appropriate for the State Department's senior ranks."
The board, though, said it did not find any employees "engaged in misconduct or willfully ignored his or her responsibilities, and, therefore did not find reasonable cause to believe that an individual breached his or her duty so as to be the subject of a recommendation for disciplinary action."
That language is important, because of the rules laid out by the Omnibus Diplomatic and Antiterrorism Act of 1986.
According to the law, an accountability review board can recommend disciplinary action if it believes someone has "breached the duty of that individual."
As the Libya board explained, though, "poor performance" does not necessarily "constitute a breach of duty" that could lead to disciplinary action.
The board recommended a change. In the Libya report, the board said the "unsatisfactory leadership performance" at issue "should be a potential basis for discipline recommendations by future ARBs" -- and recommended the department regulations be changed.
Clinton, too, said she was submitting legislation to "fix this problem."
"Because I agree with you," she said. "There ought to be more leeway."
Lawmakers were nevertheless dubious.
"I come from industry. I come from government. And there are individuals that just have to be cut loose when they're not performing their tasks," Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., told Clinton on Wednesday. "What's the hold-up from a management perspective of saying, `You three let me down, this should have been brought to my attention. I no longer need your services?'''