The Corner

The Benghazi Report: No Accountability at the Top

Does the new report on the State Department’s failures in Benghazi really deliver “accountability?” No: In fact it actually sacrifices a few career officials and protects the higher-ups.

While the report has been called scathing and tough, it does not fix any real responsibility on top officials: the secretary of state, the two deputy secretaries of state, or the assistant secretary for the Near East. The Diplomatic Security bureau takes a lot of hits, but I don’t see in it any serious discussion of the roles played by the under secretary for management, who supervises that bureau, nor of the “Seventh Floor” — the very top officials of the department.

For example, the report says that there were “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department,” namely the Diplomatic Security (DS) and Near East (NEA) bureaus. Why is the head of the DS bureau forced out, and the head of NEA allowed to remain?

In fact a further question might be asked, one that is ignored by the report: Did the fact that the Near East bureau had only temporary leadership at the top contribute in any way to the tragedy? Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman had left in the spring for a new post as under secretary general for political affairs at the United Nations. Feltman had served as ambassador to Lebanon and was very familiar with crises, security, and armed attacks — but he was gone. Instead of seeking a similarly experienced successor, the Obama administration put in a place holder as acting assistant secretary — Elizabeth Jones, who had left the Department in 2005 and then worked at the lobbying and public relations firm APCO Worldwide.

Perhaps having Feltman or a similarly skilled official there would have changed nothing, but it seems odd that Jones skates above criticism. The report states that “with attention in late 2011 shifting to growing crises in Egypt and Syria, the NEA Bureau’s front office showed a lack of ownership of Benghazi’s security issues, and a tendency to rely totally on DS for the latter.” Well, the assistant secretary is in charge of the “front office” — so why no culpability? “We fixed (responsibility) at the assistant secretary level, which is, in our view, the appropriate place to look for where the decision-making in fact takes place, where — if you like — the rubber hits the road,” said Thomas Pickering, who led the report team. But that is inaccurate: He fixed it at the assistant secretary level only in the DS bureau and below that level in the NEA.

It is even odder that Secretary Clinton, who once said “I take responsibility. . . . I take this very personally,” also gets off without criticism. It’s not that absolving her or her top deputies is necessarily wrong, but where it leads is bound to affect morale in the department. Look at these events from the perspective of career officials at the office director or deputy assistant secretary level, and what just happened? People like you were just ruined, while people up the chain got off scot free. Being on the Seventh Floor appears to grant immunity. I’m sure that’s what is being said around the water coolers at State, and from what I can see they are not wrong. Pickering led what was called an “Accountability Review Board.” A better name might have been “Accountability for Mid Level Officials Review Board.”

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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