Shouldering Benghazi

Amid the furor over the attack on our U.S. consulate and the death of four Americans serving in Libya, Secretary Hillary Clinton convened an internal State Department review -- and that Accountability Review Board has just released its report. Clinton has cannily already said she will adopt all of the recommendations in the report. Unfortunately, even doing so will not solve the problems that occurred in Benghazi.

The New York Times describes the report as sharply critical, but it is not. While acknowledging that "there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity," and "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels," the report concludes that the solution lies in more money with fewer congressional strings attached. Yet when Congress has given State money and allowed it latitude to program those resources, this has not resulted in an adequate supply of expert diplomats to high-risk postings or adequate security for our diplomats operating in those postings.

The report contains all the well-known State Department refrains: The world is newly complicated, diplomacy is underfunded, Congress must change its approach. Here's the medley of greatest hits, in language from the report itself:

"the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is being stretched to the limit as never before ... for many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work ... it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security ... [any] solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs ... the United States cannot retreat in the face of such challenges."

What the State Department does not acknowledge -- but what is at the core of its institutional failures -- is that it sets priorities, and that those priorities have not adequately changed with the changing needs of American diplomacy or the changing demands of security for our diplomats. Since 9/11, funding for the State Department and USAID has increased by 155 percent and the size of the Foreign Service has doubled, yet State has chosen to channel its increased resources to the functions the institution values more than diplomatic security. There is not even a mandatory training program for diplomats being assigned to high-risk posts.

Prior to the Benghazi attacks, State's advocates complained that post-9/11 funding increases had been predominantly in consular and diplomatic security rather than in new staff for multilateral organizations, international law, economics, science and technology, public/private partnerships, and international organizations. By which they meant that the terrorist attacks on the United States should have resulted in more involvement in activities to which State is already optimized, rather than in increasing security for embassies and screening people applying for visas even though those are critical vulnerabilities highlighted by attacks on American embassies in the past 15 years. The report just released uses this opportunity to argue for more language training; it offers insight into the institutional culture of an organization that begrudges security at the expense of additional staff to do what the department is already doing.

The report's top recommendation is that "the Department should urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas." The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review called for the same thing; yet in the two years since the QDDR was released, State has not developed such a risk model nor expended institutional effort in building consensus with the executive and with Congress. Having our diplomats actively engaged in dangerous circumstances -- as Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya and Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria have been -- is essential. If our diplomats remain bastioned inside our embassies, they could just as well perform their functions from Ohio as from Libya. But State has not made solving this problem a priority.

The report's second recommendation is to applaud State for having already created "a new Diplomatic Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for High Threat Posts." Its third is more personnel for assistant secretaries in Washington. This is deeply discouraging, because it reinforces State's tendency to believe that more money and more high-level positions are the solution, rather than clarifying accountability. The report states that "among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations." Yet, with its advocacy of external threat evaluators, increased staffing in Washington, and "multi-bureau support cells," it does not make recommendations for resolving that irresponsibility.

In one crucial way, the system worked in Libya: the ambassador-in-country determined whether the mission justified the risks. Ambassador Stevens undertook an extraordinary set of risks traveling to Benghazi, given the problems the report explains with local security forces. State allowed Benghazi to become "a floating TDY platform with successive principal officers often confined to the SMC due to threats and inadequate resources, and RSOs resorting to field-expedient solutions to correct security shortfalls." The report acknowledges similar security problems and proposed solutions have been extant since 1999. The tragedy of Benghazi is that, once again, State has proven itself incapable of arraying the institution to support the terrific individuals serving on the front lines of American diplomacy.  

The problems identified in the report are systemic problems, and fixing them is almost wholly within State's existing authorities. As Congress explores the Benghazi debacle, it ought to force State to look clearly at the deficiencies of its institutional culture, and align incentives to correct them. The questions State should be pressed to answer are: Why have you not fixed these problems before now? How can you make us confident you will fix them going forward?


Shadow Government

Who is ultimately to blame for the inadequate security in Benghazi?

The media coverage of the State Department's internal review of the Benghazi attack appears to be burying the lede.

Several of the accounts I read focused on the apparent paradox of, on the one hand, a report sharply critical of senior (actually, mid/senior-level, since the finger appears to be pointed no higher than the assistant secretary level) State Department officials for the "grossly inadequate" security that contributed to the death of the ambassador, and, on the other hand, a report that recommended no extra accountability. As the Drudge headline has it: "The Buck Stops... Nowhere." The media accounts also cover other aspects of the report, for instance that it further repudiates the infamous "talking points" that the administration was peddling in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. But the focus of media attention clearly is on the question of accountability.

The apparent paradox was sufficiently puzzling that I decided to read the unclassified version of the report itself with one question in mind: "Why did the State Department managers tolerate such inadequate security?" One theory is that the administration was so wedded to the rosy scenario in Libya and the "lead from behind/light footprint" that they systematically misread intelligence and operational requirements to fit their preconceived image of reality. Social scientists call this a motivated bias, and I have long thought this was at work in the administration's handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attack. Perhaps it also shaped how they went into the problem in the first place.

The State Department report provides tantalizing hints that this might be the case:

"...the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests..." p. 5

"...Special Mission Benghazi's uncertain future after 2012 and its 'non-status' as a temporary..." p. 5

"...the successful nature of Libya's July 7, 2012, national elections -- which exceeded expectations -- renewed Washington's optimism in Libya's future..." pp. 16-17

"...Simply put, in the months leading up to September 11, 2012, security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a 'shared responsibility' in Washington, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security. Key decisions, such as the extension of the State Department presence in Benghazi until December 2012, or non-decisions in Washington, such as the failure to establish standards for Benghazi and to meet them, or the lack of a cohesive staffing plan, essentially set up Benghazi as a floating TDY platform with successive principal officers often confined to the SMC due to threats and inadequate resources, and RSOs resorting to field-expedient solutions to correct security shortfalls." pp. 29-30

"...The Board found, however, that Washington showed a tendency to overemphasize the positive impact of physical security upgrades, which were often field-expedient improvements to a profoundly weak platform, while generally failing to meet Benghazi's repeated requests to augment the numbers of TDY DS personnel...." p. 33

"...The Board found that there was a tendency on the part of policy, security and other U.S. government officials to rely heavily on the probability of warning intelligence and on the absence of specific threat information. The result was possibly to overlook the usefulness of taking a hard look at accumulated, sometimes circumstantial information, and instead to fail to appreciate threats and understand trends, particularly based on increased violence and the targeting of foreign diplomats and international organizations in Benghazi...." p. 38

These and other similar data points could be pieces of a mosaic that reflects an administration too quick to declare mission accomplished and move on.  

But the authors of the State Department report have a different ultimate culprit in mind, and they are not shy about naming it: Congress.  

After a brief preamble, the report begins with two overarching context-setters:

(1) The Diplomatic Security mission is very hard these days and is doing a great job overall.

(2) The State Department has not gotten the resources it needs. Here is the money quote:

"For many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work, with varying degrees of success. This has brought about a deep sense of the importance of husbanding resources to meet the highest priorities, laudable in the extreme in any government department. But it has also had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation.

There is no easy way to cut through this Gordian knot, all the more so as budgetary austerity looms large ahead. At the same time, it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained -- particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security. The recommendations in this report attempt to grapple with these issues and err on the side of increased attention to prioritization and to fuller support for people and facilities engaged in working in high risk, high threat areas. 

The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs, which, in total, constitute a small percentage both of the full national budget and that spent for national security. One overall conclusion in this report is that Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives."  p. 3 (emphasis added)

In other words, the executive branch did not create the conditions for this tragedy by fundamentally misreading Libya; rather, Congress created the conditions by fundamentally underfunding the State Department.

I believe that the State Department does need more resources, so I am a comparatively sympathetic audience for this argument. I wonder, however, whether Congress might be more sympathetic to the argument that the administration bears more blame than the authors of the report seem prepared to assign.

Update: Since I filed my post, three of the State Department management figures most directly implicated in the report have resigned. Perhaps that resolves the accountability paradox, but it doesn't resolve the deeper question that animated my original post: What set the conditions for this mismanagement? 

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images