State Department watchdog finds no bias in Benghazi audit

The State Department's watchdog says it has found no evidence of any bias in the independent audit of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, contradicting Republican allegations that it was set up to protect Hillary Clinton.

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House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has been leading the charge that the Benghazi panel was stacked with Clinton allies. He held a hearing with the co-chairmen of the panels last week during which Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) said many people consider their report a “whitewash.”

The Inspector General's Office, however, drew sharply different conclusions in a report released Wednesday.

“The Accountability Review Board process operates as intended — independently and without bias — to identify vulnerabilities in the Department of State’s security programs,” the OIG said.

The OIG reviewed all 12 Accountability Review Boards (ARB) convened between 1998 and 2012 and interviewed the four secretaries of State who served during that period: Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Clinton. It found that none of the panels interviewed the acting secretary — a top Republican criticism of the Benghazi audit.

“It is important to note that the OIG team found no reason to question the selection of previous ARB members,” the OIG report said. “None of the 12 ARBs interviewed the Secretary to ascertain her/his role in the events leading up to the incident under review. 

“ARB members interviewed by the OIG team stated that after reviewing documentation, they did not find reason to interview the Secretary; rather, the ARBs focused their inquiries at the operational levels of the Department responsible for implementing and overseeing security policies and programs. ARB members were unanimous in saying that they felt empowered to interview anyone, including the Secretary, as the facts or events warranted.”

Republicans immediately shot back that the State Department OIG itself has come under criticism in the past for a perceived lack of independence. A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office - the watchdog for the entire federal government - raised concerns about the use of Foreign Service officials as acting inspector generals for extended periods of time.

Wednesday's Benghazi report was overseen by Acting Inspector General Harold Geisel, who was tapped for the role by Condoleezza Rice in 2008 after 25 years serving in senior management at the State Department. The department will have its first confirmed Inspector General in more than five years when Steve Linick, the former watchdog for the federal housing agency, takes over.

The State Department seized on the report to call for Republican attacks on the Benghazi audit to stop.

“This independent report underscores that the partisan and political assault on the ARB must end," said Alec Gerlach, a spokesman for Secretary of State John Kerry. 

"The IG looked at all 12 ARBs conducted between 1998 and 2012 and determined that the ARB process occurs ‘independently and without bias.’ Chairman Issa might want to read the report before he again slanders the independence and integrity of Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering," Gerlach said. 

The OIG report praiseed Clinton and Kerry for taking a hands-on approach in making sure the recommendations of the Benghazi audit are carried out. Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission on Sept. 11, 2012. 

“The Department’s handling of the Benghazi ARB recommendations represents a significant departure from the previous norm in that Secretary Clinton took charge directly of oversight for the implementation process. She designated the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources as the coordinator for implementation with strict guidelines for a reporting schedule,” the OIG report said. 

“This high-level oversight of the Benghazi ARB implementation process has been sustained through the transition from Secretary Clinton to Secretary Kerry. This level of attention from both secretaries and their senior staffs is a reflection of their personal concern in this matter and the unique scope of the Benghazi ARB recommendations.”

Democrats pounced on the report as evidence ongoing Republican investigations of Benghazi are misguided. 

“Today’s report by the Inspector General should put to rest once and for all the absurd and baseless Republican claims that the ARB was a ‘whitewash’ or a ‘cover-up’," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on Issa's panel, said in a statement. 

"Instead of questioning the integrity of Admiral [Michael] Mullen, Ambassador [Thomas] Pickering, and other board members who conducted this comprehensive and impartial review, Republicans should end their desperate search for political scandal and join our efforts to implement responsible reforms.”

The report found that all the past secretaries of State struggled with the balance between keeping their diplomats safe and making sure they could carry out their mission in unstable and sometimes dangerous places.

“All four former secretaries described the inherent tug of war between risks and rewards as the Department conducts its business in dangerous places around the world,” the report said. 

“Typically, the strong preference among those responsible for advancing U.S. policy objectives is to keep posts open whenever possible, even in dangerous places, while those officials responsible for security give priority to the risks and the possibilities for harm.”

This story was updated at 1:31 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. 

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