The Accountability Review Board appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to look into the deadly assault on the Benghazi consulate has come back with a damning series of findings. The panel, chaired by retired diplomat Thomas Pickering, found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” which resulted in security “that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” Not surprisingly, the panel affirmed what the intelligence community has been saying for months now, that contrary to what administration spokesmen said immediately afterward, there was no protest before the attack; it was simply a well-executed terrorist attack.
But for all of the rigor of the panel’s work, it was narrowly focused on the State Department’s handling of the situation. There is little said about the military response to the attacks, beyond the sending of a drone aircraft and the evacuation of the diplomats in Benghazi; and there is even less about the White House role in managing the response to the crisis, even though senior officials, up to and including the president, must have been aware of the attacks as they were occurring. Nor is there anything in the report about the failure, so far, to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. Why, for example, has the administration seemingly decided to treat this as a law enforcement matter, with the FBI in the lead, rather than treating it as an act of war, with the armed forces in the lead? A fuller explanation of those issues awaits, presumably, more congressional digging.
The panel also included a series of recommendations for improving diplomatic security, which Secretary Clinton is said to be implementing. That is well and good, but there is a danger in the government of swinging too far from one extreme to another. So security that may have been overly lax before Benghazi may become now so restrictive that diplomats (and intelligence operatives) will be unable to meet with the population of the countries where they are posted. While clearly the State Department must do a better job of embassy security, it must recognize that it is impossible to eliminate all risk and few diplomats would want to serve in such a sterile environment that they cannot do their jobs properly. A reaction on the part of the U.S. government to the Benghazi attacks is proper and necessary; an over-reaction should be avoided.