Mid-level officials take the fall for Benghazi

Mid-level officials take the fall for Benghazi

One State Department mid-level official has resigned over the security failures related to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi and three others have been placed on "administrative leave." But lawmakers and experts are asking why the disciplinary action stops there.

Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell resigned. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Embassy Security Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Raymond Maxwell, and a third as yet unidentified diplomatic security official were placed on "administrative leave" pending further action.

"The ARB identified the performance of four officials, three in the Bureau of the Diplomatic Security and one in the Bureau of Near East Asia Affairs," State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement late Wednesday evening. "The Secretary has accepted Eric Boswell’s decision to resign as Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, effective immediately. The other three individuals have been relieved of their current duties. All four individuals have been placed on administrative leave pending further action." 

Lamb, Maxwell, and the still unnamed DS official have not "resigned." As federal employees, they are entitled to an administrative process to determine what, if any disciplinary action might be taken against them. It’s possible they could simply be reassigned to new roles inside the State Department after the Benghazi issue blows over.

Nuland’s statement indicates that State is pointing to the report of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that was released Wednesday as the source of the names of officials to be disciplined. The ARB was led by Tom Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen. In a press briefing Wednesday, Pickering explained the logic the ARB used to come up with its disciplinary recommendations.

"We fixed it at the assistant secretary level, which is in our view the appropriate place to look, where the decision-making in fact takes place, where, if you like, the rubber hits the road," he said.

That explanation left lawmakers, employees inside the State Department, and outside experts scratching their heads, because Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones will apparently escape any disciplinary action, letting her subordinate Maxwell take the fall.

"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," wrote former NSC Middle East official Elliott Abrams. "Why is the head of the DS bureau forced out, and the head of NEA allowed to remain?"

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) challenged Deputy Secretaries of State Bill Burns and Tom Nides in a Thursday Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on why the disciplinary actions were limited to officials at the assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary level.

"And why I find that quite puzzling is because Benghazi and Libya in general is not some remote outpost, is not Luxembourg. I mean, this is a country that we were involved in militarily not so long ago in a high-profile intervention," he said.

Rubio wanted to know whether Stevens had raised his concerns about security to Burns or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during their trips to Libya earlier in 2012. Burns said that security had been discussed, but not in specifics.

"And you know, as Secretary Clinton has said, all of us as senior leaders in the department are accountable and responsible for what happened. And I certainly fault myself," said Burns. "You know, I accompanied the remains of my four colleagues back after the attack in Benghazi… And on that long flight home, I certainly had a lot of time to think about sharper questions that I could have asked, sharper focus that I could have provided."

When pressed by Rubio over whether the March and July cable requesting more security had reached the upper echelons of the State Department, Burns said they had.

"Well, they certainly would have been reviewed up through assistant secretary level, and it may be that some of my colleagues on the 7th floor saw them as well." Burns said. "There were certainly memos that came up to the 7th floor that talked about the deteriorating security situation in eastern Libya, yes, sir."

Maxwell, according to several State Department sources, had been slated to retire in September but was asked to stay on as DAS for the Maghreb after the attack. Maxwell might have been in a position to directly receive the requests for more security in Benghazi, giving him a direct connection to the security failures, those sources speculated. Those details are confined to the classified version of the ARB report. But State Department officials insist that he would not have been able make any decisions about such matters with consulting with Jones, who would have had the final say.

"Either they have some kind of documentary evidence that puts Maxwell in a bad light specifically, or this could be the Foreign Service elite protecting itself. Maxwell is not a member of the elite, but Jones is," one senior foreign policy hand who has worked in the State Department said.

Jones, who had already retired, was brought back to State by Deputy Secretary Bill Burns after Assistant Secretary Jeff Feltman moved to the U.N. Jones is close to Burns, fueling speculation that her stature allowed her avoid punishment.

"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,’" Abrams wrote.