Three US State Department officials have resigned after a damning investigation into the killing of the American ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi in on 11 September found “systematic failures” of leadership and “grossly inadequate” security.
The report said that US personnel on the ground acted with “courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation” during two sustained attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi and a nearby annex that killed Stevens and three other American officials.
But it also described confusion, lack of transparency and inadequate leadership at senior levels, and strongly criticised the use of a Libyan armed militia as security for the Benghazi consulate.
Those who resigned included the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, Eric Boswell; the deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security, Charlene Lamb; and a third official who was not named.
The independent review board – chaired by a former US ambassador, Thomas Pickering, with Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as his deputy – strongly condemned the handling of security by Lamb and Boswell, and their lack of co-operation.
“Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place,” the report said.
Lamb appeared at a congressional hearing into the attack in October where she defended the security measures taken in Benghazi. “I made the best decisions I could with the information I had,” she said.
The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said she would implement all of the report’s recommendations for improving the protection of US missions, some of which were classified. That includes asking Congress to permit a shift in spending to ramp up diplomatic security.
Congress was briefed in secret on classified aspects of the report on Wednesday. It is expected to hold a public hearing on Thursday following months of mostly partisan attacks against the White House and the US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who were accused of attempting to cover up al-Qaida involvement in what was described as a terrorist attack.
The issue helped force Rice to withdraw her bid to become US secretary of state in the face of Republican hostility. But the report does not come to a conclusion as to who was responsible for the Benghazi killings, or what their links were.
The report did not add a great deal to what is already known about the attack but it did discount the contentious claim which caused problems for Rice, and which she later rowed back on, that that the assault was prompted by protests in Cairo over an anti-Muslim video placed on the web by a man in California.
It also provided insight into the ferocity of the assault on the US consulate in Benghazi saying it involved “arson, small arms and machine gun fire, and the use of RPGs, grenades, and mortars” against the main consulate compound, a security annex and on officials travelling between them.
According to the timeline in the report, the attack began at about 9.40pm with “dozens of individuals, many armed” entering the consulate compound through the main gate. A US guard hit the alarm. He told the inquiry that there had been no warning from the militia assigned to defend the consulate or the unarmed security guards, and that some of them swiftly fled.
The intruders grabbed cans of fuel used for the generator to set fire to one of the buildings in the compound and to burn cars. They then broke into a building which also housed the “safe area” where Stevens was being protected by US security officials.
“Men armed with AK rifles started to destroy the living room contents and then approached the safe area gate and started banging on it,” the report said.
Then the attackers left, perhaps driven away by the smoke from the fire which engulfed the safe area and “made breathing difficult and reduced visibility to zero”. Stevens and the two security men with him tried to escape the “thick, black smoke”.
The ambassador became separated. He was later found by Libyans who broke into the consulate and taken to hospital, but he was already dead from smoke inhalation. Another American official also died from the smoke.
The US embassy in Tripoli scrambled to react, chartering a plane to carry seven security personnel to Benghazi. The US Africa Command also sent a surveillance drone over Benghazi.
The report said that shortly after the security team from Tripoli arrived at the annex it came “under mortar and RPG attack, with five mortar rounds impacting close together in under 90 seconds”.
Two security personnel died in the fighting at the annex.
The report blames a number of contributing factors for the security failures from budget cuts to the fact that security personnel relied too heavily on intelligence to warn of impending attacks and didn’t pay enough attention to what was going on around them, including a series of assaults over previous months in the International Red Cross and British diplomats.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Mullen criticised officials in Washington for rejecting requests from personnel in Benghazi for better security. “We did conclude that certain State Department bureau-level senior officials in critical positions of authority and responsibility in Washington demonstrated a lack of leadership and management ability,” he said.
“State Department bureaus that were supporting Benghazi had not taken on security as a shared responsibility, so the support the post needed was often lacking and left to the working level to resolve.”
Instead, security was assigned to a Libyan armed militia group, the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade (February 17), to protect the Benghazi consulate. Lamb defended that decision during her congressional testimony in October. But the report said this was clearly inadequate and that when the attacks came the militia neither raised the alarm nor stayed around to fight.
“At the time of Ambassador Stevens’ visit, February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying Special Mission vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours,” the report said.
It also said the Libyan government’s response during the attack was “profoundly lacking”.
The report prompted strong criticism of the State Department by some politicians. “My impression is the State Department clearly failed the Boy Scout motto of be prepared,” said Senator John Barrasso, Republican of Wyoming. “They failed to anticipate what was coming because of how bad the security risk already was there. … They failed to connect the dots. They didn’t have adequate security leading up to the attack and once the attack occurred, the security was woefully inadequate.”
Another congressman, Adam Schiff, Democrat of California and a member of the House intelligence committee, said the report showed security was “plainly inadequate, intelligence collection needs to be improved, and our reliance on local militias was sorely misplaced”.