The Bureaucrat at the Center of Hillary’s Scandals
Patrick Kennedy has been linked to Benghazi and Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Here's how he survived years of GOP and FBI investigations.
In a town infamous for throwing bureaucrats under the bus, Patrick Kennedy’s survival is the stuff of legend.
The 67-year-old State Department official is largely unknown to the general public, but for Republicans in Congress, he is the dark force behind two of the biggest controversies of Hillary Clinton’s career.
In his role as under secretary for management and resources, Kennedy was the senior official overseeing both diplomatic security during the 2012 attacks in Benghazi and the records and IT departments during “emailgate” — the four-year period when Clinton used a private email server for official business.
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“Pat Kennedy is the most powerful guy you’ve never heard of,” said a former diplomat, who like many others spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering the influential government boss.
The State Department insists that the failures leading up to both incidents were the fault of more junior employees, not Kennedy. But his proximity to wrongdoing has made him a major target of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which grilled him for 13 hours as a part of its two-year, $7 million investigation. He also faced blistering attacks from lawmakers during seven other House and Senate investigations into Benghazi, underwent a deposition at the Justice Department by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch in June, and cooperated with a year-long FBI investigation into Clinton’s complex private email server that ended last month.
A less savvy bureaucrat might’ve fallen victim to those many minefields, but individuals close to Kennedy say he’s primed to stay on the job for several more years, leading many to marvel at his knack for self preservation.
“The guy has nine lives” a former diplomat said of Kennedy, who has spent more than 40 years at the State Department. “Everything just bounces off him.”
Kennedy’s longevity is a particular frustration to Republicans who have desperately sought to find a scalp at the department after FBI Director James Comey decided not to bring charges against Clinton despite the “extremely careless” way she and top State Department officials handled highly classified information.
Those who have cross-examined Kennedy, such as Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), attribute his survival to a masterful use of intentionally “vague language.”
“When the Benghazi committee interviewed him, he was a deft witness — he knew what to say and what not to say,” Pompeo told Foreign Policy. “Kennedy is the quintessential bureaucrat.”
Kennedy’s background, however, is conspicuously non-partisan — and he enjoys his current perch thanks to an appointment by George W. Bush. Throughout his adult life, he has served in senior positions for both Republicans and Democrats.
During the Bush administration, he was the chief of staff of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and later the chief of staff of the Transition Unit. He led the team that set up the newly-established office of the director of national intelligence in 2005 and continued working at DNI until 2007. He rankled many liberals in 2008 when he forbade foreign service personnel stationed in Germany from attending then-Sen. Barack Obama’s public rally in Berlin, calling it a “partisan political activity.” He was appointed to under secretary of state for management in 2007.
The sheer scope of his collective authority is a major source of his influence: To varying degrees, Kennedy oversees human resources, non-disclosure and separation agreements, diplomatic security, budget and planning, computer systems, the use of Blackberries, and consular affairs.
If a bomb blast goes off in Istanbul and Americans’ safety is at risk, the White House is likely to go directly to Kennedy, not the secretary of state or the deputy secretary of state.
“When anything happens in the world, someone at the White House is going to call Pat first,” said Beth Jones, the former acting assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs.
His authority over the Bureau of Human Resources and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) gives him a bird’s eye view into the allegations and watercooler gossip surrounding powerful diplomats stationed across the globe. As Jones, a longtime Kennedy ally, volunteered during an interview: He knows “where all the bodies are buried.”
But since he is a political appointee, many Republicans view him as a Clinton loyalist who has gone to great lengths to shield her from criticisms. “It is clear that Kennedy was protecting himself and his boss, Secretary Clinton, from any responsibility for the massive security failures related to Benghazi or for anything to do with Secretary Clinton’s homebrew server,” said Pompeo.
Many inside the department consider him indispensable because of what he delivers. “No one works harder and cares more about the day-to-day management of diplomacy,” said a foreign service officer.
His unrivaled understanding of the department’s finances and daily operations often puts him at the front lines against Congress, where he pushes back against budget cuts or high-charged attacks like those after Benghazi which many diplomats view as short-sighted or baseless.
“He’s an extraordinary public servant and a pillar of this Department,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby.
The work of running a massive bureaucracy with embassies across the globe is a largely thankless job, involving late nights toiling away in a Foggy Bottom office. Secretary of State John Kerry has not made the management of the department a priority during his tenure. With over 1.2 million miles under his belt, he is the most traveled secretary of state in U.S. history. That aggressive telecommuting regimen has given outsized power to Kennedy, though much of what he does goes unnoticed by the public.
Kennedy gained an almost mythical reputation as a budgetary genius at the height of the 2013 government shutdown when a congressional impasse forced the furlough of 800,000 federal workers. At the time, nearly 400,000 Pentagon employees were furloughed without pay, 72 percent of the civilian workforce at the CIA were told to stay home, and the Treasury Department’s offices that deal with sanctions on North Korea, Syria, and Iran functioned with drastically smaller work forces. But Kennedy, who orchestrated the department’s response to the budget crisis, saw to it that only 340 State Department employees were sent home.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t created enemies: 20 years in senior government positions makes that inevitable. To his critics, he operates like a mafia boss, awarding loyal bureaucrats with plum assignments and coveted ambassadorships, but punishing dissenters by taking them off lists for desired positions. He exercises this power through the “D Committee,” an influential panel he sits on that recommends career nominations for ambassador to the White House.
“Pat Kennedy is one of the main gateways to getting an ambassadorship,” said a career foreign service officer. “He comes to people’s aid or demise depending on what they’ve done for him.”
He’s also able to block initiatives he doesn’t like through his mastery of the arcane rules and regulations that govern everyday life at the department — some of which he drafted himself.
“Like Stalin, his power comes from his understanding and control over the bureaucracy,” said a former State Department official.
“In dealing with him or his office, they are always presenting you with rules but you don’t know where they come from: some previous secretary, the president, the Congress and so you don’t know how to figure out what would need to be done to get exceptions,” added the official.
Unlike Stalin, Kennedy wears an “aw shucks” demeanor, as one former diplomat put it. In the winter, he dons cardigans. In more temperate seasons, his sweater vests are ubiquitous.
His ability to influence investigations into alleged misbehavior also make him a strategic ally in the building. But those powers can be a double-edged sword: He has been accused of intervening in probes involving impropriety on the part of diplomats. In 2013, former State Department investigator Aurelia Fedenisn claimed that Kennedy shut down an investigation into allegations that Obama bundler and U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman was soliciting underage prostitutes in a park near his residence.
A memo from the department’s inspector general said an investigator learned that Gutman “routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” It also said that plans to surveil Gutman in order to confirm the allegations were nixed by Kennedy who instructed the investigator to “return to Washington.”
Kennedy denied the allegation. “I have never once interfered, nor would I condone interfering, in any investigation,” he said in a statement at the time. Gutman also denied he had solicited prostitutes.
Currently, Kennedy is on the hot seat for not standing in Clinton’s way when she decided to use a private email server during her time in office — an arrangement that risked exposing classified secrets to foreign adversaries and concealing her correspondence from legitimate public disclosure requests. Though the Justice Department decided against prosecuting Clinton, the State Department is currently undergoing an investigation that will determine if any administrative punishments are warranted for the mishandling of classified information, such as the removal of security clearances for Clinton, her aides, or other State Department officials.
During a deposition he underwent in June, Kennedy said he sent or received at least 50 messages from her account during her four years in office. Clinton’s address was “firstname.lastname@example.org,” which made it immediately clear she was not using a government address.
One State Department official involved in IT said knowledge of Clinton’s use of a private account was fairly well known in the bureaus of Administration, Information Resources Management, and Diplomatic Security, all of which report to Kennedy. “It’s hard to believe he didn’t at the very least know of and tacitly approve the arrangement,” said the official.
In publicly defending Kennedy, the State Department said he did not know the extent to which Clinton was exclusively using a private email account for government business.
“Kennedy’s portfolio is extensive, but it does not involve day-to-day records management duties,” said Kirby, the department’s spokesman. “He received a relatively small number of emails from Secretary Clinton during her four-year tenure and he focused on responding to the substantive, often urgent matters contained in them.”
“Having some knowledge is different from having a complete picture of how Secretary Clinton used email,” he added.
In May, a State Department inspector general report harshly criticized Clinton for not seeking legal approval for the email server. But it also noted that “longstanding, systemic weaknesses related to electronic records and communications” at the State Department go “well beyond the tenure of any one secretary of state” — a finding that doesn’t reflect well on the department’s old guard.
But for Kennedy, “emailgate” pales in comparison to the vitriol that rained down on him after jihadis stormed a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, killing four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Over the course of several hearings, Republicans blamed Kennedy for signing off on a continued U.S. presence in Benghazi following the chaotic overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi. When the State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) found that there was “no credible evidence that relevant decisions on security in Benghazi rose above the assistant secretary level” — in essence, clearing Kennedy — Republicans then accused him of rigging the oversight effort.
“Patrick Kennedy supervised the selection of the Benghazi ARB staff,” charged Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee at the time. “This placed the staff in a position in which their duties required them to evaluate the performance of supervisors, colleagues, and friends.”
During a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, Kennedy shot back: “I had absolutely nothing to do with the assignment of staff to the board,” he said.
As he underwent withering attacks, many at Foggy Bottom sympathized with Kennedy because they viewed the Benghazi criticisms as overblown or purely political in nature. But there are pockets of resentment, particularly inside the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, where some agents say Kennedy has used his power to block long-needed reforms that pose a challenge to his authority.
In the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, for example, the State Department was advised to move the Bureau of Diplomatic Security outside Kennedy’s control. His position — known as “M” in State-speak — has too many other responsibilities outside of diplomatic security, “such as personnel, budget, procurement, medical services, contracting and a host of other key matters,” an advisory panel argued. But the changes were never implemented, a fact two DS officials blamed on Kennedy’s resistance.
The State Department denies Kennedy nixed the split. Kirby told FP that detaching DS would have been “counter-productive to ongoing efforts that security is seen as a shared responsibility among all State Department personnel.” And the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security already has a direct channel to the secretary of state should he or she need to discuss pressing security matters, Kirby added.
At 67, Kennedy’s future is the subject of intense speculation. If he retires, some senior officials have expressed concern about the lack of an heir apparent who has the knowledge it takes to manage the bureaucracy. “He needs to groom a successor, but he hasn’t done that,” said one foreign service officer.
But some of Kennedy’s allies suspect he’s aiming to stay on for several more years — an outcome more likely under a future Clinton administration. “If the next secretary of state asks him to stay on, I bet anything he’ll say yes,” said Jones, a longtime acquaintance of Kennedy and his wife.
Janice Jacobs, a former senior State Department official and longtime Kennedy ally, agreed.
“Quite frankly, I’m not sure what Pat would do in retirement. He gives a new definition to the word workaholic,” she added.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration