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State Dept. opens U.S. consulate attack probe

Oct. 3, 2012 - 05:45PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 3, 2012 - 05:45PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — Past investigations into attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions have blamed both the administration and Congress for failing to spend enough money to ensure that the overseas facilities were safe despite a clear rise in terror threats to American interests abroad.

An Associated Press examination of two reports that are easily accessible to the public — those created after the devastating Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania — may offer clues to the possible outcome of the current investigation begun by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton into last month's attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

That attack by what is now believed to be al-Qaida-linked militants has become fraught with election-year politics as Republicans accuse administration officials of dissembling in the early aftermath on what they knew about the perpetrators and for lax security at the diplomatic mission in a lawless part of post-revolution Libya.

Two House Republican leaders this week accused the administration of denying repeated requests for extra security at the Benghazi consulate, where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

A five-member accountability review board appointed by Clinton will begin this week looking at whether security at the consulate was adequate and whether proper procedures were followed before, during and immediately after the attack.

"The men and women who serve this country as diplomats deserve no less than a full and accurate accounting wherever that leads, and I am committed to seeking that for them," Clinton told reporters at the State Department on Wednesday.

Previous inquiries into attacks on diplomatic missions have taken months to complete, and two of them found fault with both the executive and legislative branches going back years and spanning both political parties.

"Over the course of this review, there will naturally be a number of statements made, some of which will be borne out and some of which will not," Clinton warned. "I caution everyone against seizing on any single statement or piece of information to draw a final conclusion."

The State Department has convened at least a dozen accountability review boards to look into the deaths of American personnel in attacks on official buildings or vehicles overseas since the mid-1990s. Those attacks were committed in countries that included Jordan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

However, only the findings of the Kenya and Tanzania bombing investigations are easily accessible to public.

The two boards — both chaired by a Republican-appointed former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. William J. Crowe — were not set up by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright until November 1998 — three months after the attacks. And they did not issue their final reports until January 1999.

Clinton stressed Wednesday that such an investigation "will take time" as Republicans have expressed impatience for full details of any possible negligence before the Nov. 6 presidential election.

The chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who plans to hold a hearing next week to question State Department officials about alleged security lapses, said he understood that the accountability review board's work was "critically important."

"It should not, however, be used by the State Department as an excuse for delaying efforts to address problems or answer specific questions," Issa said.

Clinton cautioned that the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, which will be led by another former Republican-appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, should not be rushed to judgment.

"I am asking the board to move as quickly as possible without sacrificing accuracy," she told reporters. "In the interim, we will provide as much accurate information to the Congress and the public."

The previous boards dealt with similar complaints and allegations of mismanagement and dereliction of duty that now surround the Benghazi attack.

In addition, like the board created for Benghazi at the height of a hotly contested presidential election campaign, the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam panels were convened at a moment of bitter partisan divide in Washington. In the fall of 1998, then-President Bill Clinton was dealing with the threat of impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

While drawing direct comparisons between the investigations is difficult due to the clearly different circumstances and times, several broad themes are consistent, namely questions over unanswered or rejected requests for enhanced security and concerns about whether threat information was ignored or dismissed inappropriately.

The East Africa boards sifted through but ultimately rejected allegations that any specific government employee — civilian or military — had been negligent in addressing the threats or security of the embassies.

Instead, they were blistering in their criticism of government in general for failing to prioritize and invest money in improving security at U.S. diplomatic missions despite a clear rise in threats to American interests abroad and the widely publicized 1985 recommendations of the Inman Report on securing such facilities published two years after the bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut.

"The boards did not find reasonable cause to believe that any employee of the United States government or member of the uniformed services breached his or her duty in connection with the August 7 bombings," they concluded.

"However, we believe there was a collective failure by several administrations and Congresses over the past decade to invest adequate efforts and resources to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic missions around the world to terrorist attack," they said.

Several Republican lawmakers have alleged that Stevens and his staff made repeated requests for security improvements at the Benghazi consulate that the State Department denied. Clinton told Congress she was waiting for the results of the investigation before answering those claims directly.

In 1998, there were widespread reports that Prudence Bushnell, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, had sought security upgrades, including possibly moving the embassy away from downtown Nairobi, that were denied or delayed.

The boards found those claims to be factually correct, but stressed that resource constraints made many improvements low priorities given more serious security deficiencies at other embassies.

Republican lawmakers also have claimed that Washington disregarded, played down or shrugged off an increasingly serious stream of threats to U.S. and Western interests in Benghazi.

The same complaints were made in relation to the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings.

Crowe and his fellow board members found in their reports that the threats that U.S. officials had been aware of in the months and weeks before the bombings had not been specific or credible enough to warrant significant changes to the embassies' security postures.

In presenting his reports 13 years ago, Crowe offered what may well end up being the general conclusion of the Benghazi inquiry.

He rejected criticism by media commentators and lawmakers who were "quick to lay the blame totally on the State Department, and to have found a villain, and go after it pretty heavy."

"That is certainly not the view of the commission," he told reporters on Jan. 8, 1999. "We have come to the opinion that (it was) a collective fault for the U.S. government, including the people that appropriate funds in this country, and that terrorism is now threatening to grow to the point where it's everybody's business."

"And everybody's got to accept a role and responsibility," Crowe said. "We would never say that it was totally the State Department's fault."

Associated Press writer Larry Margasak contributed to this report.

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