Middle East/North Africa

State could have fired employees over Benghazi attack, says Pickering

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The State Department could have fired two employees over last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the chairman of the independent panel that investigated the crime told The Hill. [WATCH VIDEO]

“Our report recommended two people should leave their jobs, nothing more, nothing less,” former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the chairman of the Accountability Review Board, told The Hill in an e-mail.

{mosads}Asked if that meant firing or reassignment, he said “either,” but that it was “up to the Department of State.”

“We left open their staying on in the Department,” Pickering said.

The department instead announced last month that it has reassigned the two employees, along with two others who were also faulted by the panel but weren’t singled out for disciplinary action.

That decision is expected to come under stark criticism next week when the House rekindles its Benghazi investigation following the first anniversary of the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last Sept. 11.

Pickering’s comments mark the first public suggestion that two of them could have been fired as a result of Benghazi. The ARB report, released in December, faulted “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” at high levels of the State Department for inadequate security at the U.S. mission.

The ARB stopped short of officially recommending disciplinary action, however, because it lacked the authority to do so absent a finding of “breach of duty.” The State Department has repeatedly highlighted that fact to explain its decision not to fire anyone.

“The ARB recommended that two of these individuals no longer hold positions they held at the time,” Thomas Gibbons, the acting assistant secretary of State for Legislative Affairs, wrote in an Aug. 23 letter to House oversight chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) obtained by The Hill. “Consistent with its authority, it did not recommend termination or other formal disciplinary action.”

Pickering’s comments, however, indicate the State Department could have used the ARB’s conclusions to taken further action on its own.

The ARB also urged the State Department to change its regulations so that future review boards can officially recommend disciplinary action in case of “findings of unsatisfactory leadership performance by senior officials.” The department is working with Congress to pass such legislation.

“It is very clear that under the law and in connection with the State Department regulatory practice, one has to find willful misconduct or similar kinds of action in order to find breach of duty,” Pickering told reporters when the ARB was released. “And indeed, one of our recommendations is – there is such a large gap between willful misconduct, which leads, obviously, to conclusions about discipline, letters of reprimand, separation, the removal of an individual temporarily from duty, that we believe that gap ought to be filled.”

The two staffers singled out for reprimand in the classified section of the report are Eric Boswell, the former assistant secretary for diplomatic security, and Charlene Lamb, the former deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security, The Hill has learned. The State Department did not respond to questions about their new roles.

The State Department has also reassigned Scott Bultrowicz, the former principal deputy assistant secretary for diplomatic security and director of the Diplomatic Security Service, along with Raymond Maxwell, the deputy assistant secretary of State who oversaw Libya and the other Maghreb nations.

The four employees were placed on administrative leave following the release of the review board’s report in December. They were discreetly reassigned to new roles in August.

The State Department has argued it took appropriate measures with the employees faulted in the report.
“What we’ve done over these past few months is go back and look at all the facts and also take into account the totality of these four employees’ overall careers at the State Department,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said last month. “And what we found in that review is that … they have served honorably, often in very tough places. And that was all taken into account.”

The State Department’s personnel decisions will likely be in the spotlight next week.

The House Foreign Affairs panel is holding a hearing Wednesday titled “Benghazi: Where is the State Department Accountability?”

“The State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) found that “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” resulted in a security posture that was “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place” at Benghazi on 9/11,” the committee said in announcing the hearing with Patrick Kennedy, the State Department’s under secretary for management. “This hearing will examine why no one inside the State Department has yet been held accountable for the failures and deficiencies identified.”

Issa is holding a hearing on Thursday with Pickering and his ARB co-chairman, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, as well as family members of the Benghazi victims.

“Considering that the State Department’s ‘accountability’ review board has yielded no disciplinary action, none of the terrorists have been brought to justice, and we still don’t have key answers about what happened before, during and after the attack, Benghazi remains an important and unresolved matter,” Issa said in a statement Wednesday.

Please send tips and comments to Julian Pecquet: jpecquet@thehill.com

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