State’s Beng­hazi re­view board works in se­crecy

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The Accountability Re­view Board prob­ing the at­tack on the U.S. Con­sulate in Beng­hazi, Libya, is sub­poe­naing doc­u­ments and con­duct­ing in­ter­views be­hind a veil of se­crecy in­side the State De­part­ment.

Re­tired Am­bas­sador Thomas R. Pick­er­ing, who was tapped by Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton to lead the board, says it has “de­cided to keep its de­lib­er­a­tions con­fi­den­tial to pre­serve the in­tegrity and ob­jec­tiv­ity of its work, in ac­cor­dance with the statute pro­vid­ing for its ac­tiv­ity.”

The state­ment was is­sued in re­sponse to re­quests by The Washington Times for in­for­ma­tion about the board — such as the size of its bud­get, the num­ber of its staffers, a list of who has been in­ter­viewed and when its find­ings will be made pub­lic.

State De­part­ment of­fi­cials have de­clined to an­swer those ques­tions or di­vulge how of­ten the board meets, and the se­crecy ap­pears driven by a de­sire to shield the in­ves­ti­ga­tion from the par­ti­san pol­i­tics that has en­gulfed the Beng­hazi at­tack.

Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have ex­co­ri­ated the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for its han­dling of se­cu­rity in Libya be­fore the at­tack, and lam­basted the White House for ini­tially char­ac­ter­iz­ing the in­ci­dent, which co­in­cided the 11th an­niver­sary of 9/11, as some­thing other than ter­ror­ism.

A hefty por­tion of the crit­i­cism has been aimed at U.S. Am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions Su­san E. Rice, who ap­peared on TV talk shows five days af­ter the at­tack with as­ser­tions that it had re­sulted from spon­ta­neous protests.

The un­der­ly­ing in­sin­u­a­tion is that the White House — through Mrs. Rice — in­ten­tion­ally muf­fled in­tel­li­gence on the in­ci­dent to pro­tect Pres­i­dent Obama from ac­cu­sa­tions of a se­cu­rity melt­down in the Mid­dle East be­fore the gen­eral elec­tion.

Scru­tiny has been am­pli­fied now that Mrs. Rice is on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s short list to re­place Mrs. Clin­ton.

Mean­while, the Om­nibus Diplo­matic Se­cu­rity and An­titer­ror­ism Act of 1986 re­quires that an Accountability Re­view Board be con­vened to con­duct an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in the af­ter­math of a ter­ror­ist at­tack on a diplo­matic post.

The re­view board has broad pow­ers of sub­poena, ac­cord­ing to the law, which stip­u­lates that it con­sist of five mem­bers — four ap­pointed by the sec­re­tary of state and one by the di­rec­tor of cen­tral in­tel­li­gence.

In ad­di­tion to Mr. Pick­er­ing, the Beng­hazi board in­cludes re­tired Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, a former chair­man of the joint chiefs; Cather­ine Ber­tini, a former di­rec­tor of the U.N. World Food Pro­gram; Hugh Turner, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mary­land; and long­time State De­part­ment of­fi­cial Richard Shin­nick.

In a let­ter to House Repub­li­cans last month, Mrs. Clin­ton said the board is “charged with de­ter­min­ing whether our se­cu­rity sys­tems and pro­ce­dures in Beng­hazi were ad­e­quate, whether those sys­tems and pro­ce­dures were prop­erly im­ple­mented, and any lessons that may be rel­e­vant to our work around the world.”

She en­cour­aged Congress to “with­hold any fi­nal con­clu­sions about the Beng­hazi at­tack” un­til af­ter the board presents its find­ings.

For­eign pol­icy in­sid­ers say the goal is to keep those find­ings as free of po­lit­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion as pos­si­ble. While that may ex­plain the board’s se­crecy, it is likely that the board is delv­ing into po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive ques­tions, such as the ex­tent to which Mrs. Rice may have know­ingly mis­led the Amer­i­can pub­lic in the days af­ter the Beng­hazi at­tack.

“Since Su­san Rice is part of the State De­part­ment, I’m sure that Tom Pick­er­ing and the [board] will at­tempt to ad­dress who knew what and when,” said P.J. Crow­ley, who served as as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state for pub­lic af­fairs from 2009 through 2011. “Whether that sat­is­fies the zealots on the is­sue re­mains to be seen.”

If neu­tral­ity and ac­cu­racy are the goal, Mr. Crow­ley said, Mr. Pick­er­ing will put a pre­mium on them.

The 81-year-old is among the most dec­o­rated U.S. diplo­mats. He served in Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions from 1974 through 1996, hold­ing am­bas­sador­ships to Rus­sia, In­dia, Is­rael, El Sal­vador, Nigeria, Jor­dan and the United Na­tions. From 1997 through 2000, he was un­der­sec­re­tary of state for po­lit­i­cal af­fairs.

“Tom Pick­er­ing is a veteran diplo­mat and will not be swayed by out­side po­lit­i­cal forces,” said Mr. Crow­ley. “I’m con­fi­dent he will be straight in his nar­ra­tive of what hap­pened and what needs to be done as a re­sult be­cause this is ul­ti­mately about find­ing that right bal­ance where diplo­mats in post con­flict sit­u­a­tions can do their work and do it as se­curely as pos­si­ble.”

Past re­view boards have tended to steer clear of pol­i­tics, in­stead pro­vid­ing ob­ser­va­tions about the se­cu­rity of U.S. diplo­mats — ob­ser­va­tions that have tended to be ig­nored by law­mak­ers af­ter the ini­tial me­dia frenzy over an at­tack has sub­sided.

The board that ex­am­ined the 1998 ter­ror­ist bomb­ings that killed 258 at the U.S. Em­bassies in Kenya and Tan­za­nia took about six months be­fore mak­ing their find­ings pub­lic.

A Jan­uary 1999 let­ter from of­fi­cials who headed the board to then-Sec­re­tary of State Madeleine K. Al­bright high­lighted the “in­ad­e­quacy of re­sources to pro­vide se­cu­rity against ter­ror­ist at­tacks,” as well as the rel­a­tively “low pri­or­ity ac­corded se­cu­rity con­cerns through­out the U.S. government.”

The let­ter pre­ceded the at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by just more than two years.

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