The Corner

Hillary Clinton’s Management Failure

During her congressional testimony today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly defended her failure to see key cables dealing with Benghazi by noting how many cables the State Department receives. She explained there are 1.4 million cables to the department a year, all addressed to her as secretary.

That’s wrong — and this poor excuse is worth examining.

In fact, every cable sent from the department is signed “Clinton” as long as she is in Washington. If not, each cable bears the name of the acting secretary — usually deputy secretary Bill Burns. But it’s obvious that these cables are not actually from her, and many bear captions like “From the Assistant Secretary to the Ambassador.”

Similarly, cables sent to the department are not all to her; that is nonsense. They may be captioned “to SecState Washington,” but that of course means “to the Department.” They will often say for whom they are meant, e.g., “For NSC Powers, for DOD International Security Affairs, for State DRL, NEA, PM” and so on. And upon arrival at State they are distributed in accordance with set rules, to many bureaus and offices.

So which cables does the secretary actually see? There are two answers. First, an ambassador can caption a cable “From the Ambassador for the Secretary” or even “Eyes Only for the Secretary.” Obviously an ambassador can only rarely get away with this and his justification better be good. Such a cable will get to the secretary unless staff finds that it is foolish or worthless. One question not asked of Clinton: Did Chris Stevens ever send a cable during his entire tenure marked “From the Ambassador to the Secretary” and, if so, what did it say?

More often, a secretary of state sees the cables that his or her staff pulls out because they are important and should be seen. Figuring out what the incumbent secretary wants to see, will wish to see, and will be angry for not having seen is very difficult when there’s a new secretary — but what is Hillary Clinton’s excuse on September 11, 2012, after almost four years in office? There had been three and half years to set up a system, to let the career officers of the Secretariat and the Operations Center know what she wants, and to have her personal staff figure it out too.

That is to say, if she did not see the Benghazi cables in a timely fashion, if she did not see Chris Stephens’s cables describing the deterioration of security, and if she did not see his requests for more security, this was a huge management failure on her part. It is a poor excuse to say, “Gee, the Department gets lots of cables” — and perhaps even worse then to hide behind an Accountability Review Board that pins responsibility on assistant secretaries and no higher.

Having worked as an assistant secretary of state and a deputy national-security adviser, I can report that even in those posts one is entirely swamped by cable traffic and needs a system to cope with it — to be sure that the really important ones get through. From all the available evidence, Hillary Clinton failed to establish such a system for herself, and that management failure is a far more important fact about her tenure than being the third woman to hold the post or having flown more miles than Condoleezza Rice.

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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