Today, State Department officials testify before the Senate and House of Representatives’ respective foreign affairs committees on the findings of the Accountability Review Board’s (ARB) report on the September 11 terrorist attack against the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi.
Released yesterday, the report demonstrates the State Department’s profound failure to address diplomatic security in a high-risk area of operation.
To the disappointment of some in Congress, the report does not examine the interagency discussion in the months prior to the attack nor the White House’s response. Rather, it assesses the security procedures and systems at the U.S. mission in Benghazi and the effectiveness of their implementation.
Clearly there were many shortcomings. The ARB spreads the blame for inadequate diplomatic security from Congress’s supposed cuts to the State Department budget to the Libyan militias that were charged with defending the facility, to Ambassador Christopher Stevens himself. It also highlights the stark lack of leadership and bureaucratic stovepiping within the State Department.
Absent from the report are answers to four key questions that would provide significant insight into how diplomatic security in Benghazi was assessed and managed:
- What counterterrorism and early warning measures were in place to proactively address security threats? The report states that “intelligence provided no immediate, specific tactical warning of the September 11 attacks.” However, it does not provide an assessment of the counterterrorism measures that were in place to address the threat of extremist activity. Furthermore, the report specifies the reliance on local militias to provide early warning capabilities, but notes that there were considerable concerns regarding the effectiveness of these militias as well as their loyalties. Why did the mission continue to use these militias if their services were unreliable?To learn how to prevent attacks against U.S. overseas facilities in the future, it is necessary to know what counterterrorism efforts, if any, were undertaken to reduce the threat of an attack in the first place. The most effective means to stop terrorist threats is to thwart them before they move to execution. What actions were taken to identify and disrupt terrorist operations aimed at diplomatic personnel and facilities? What actions were taken to provide early warning before an attack?
- What risk assessments were performed and what risk mitigation measures were adopted prior to the attack? While the report urges a review of risk mitigation, it omits what, if any measures were already in place. As the ARB clearly notes, eastern Libya in particular has long been a haven for extremist activity. The instability on the ground created a significant risk to U.S. personnel. Risk assessments that evaluate threat, criticality, and vulnerability and then adopt the most prudent combination of risk-mitigation measures are a proven strategy for enhancing physical security. It is vital to understand how the State Department evaluated risk and how it elected to mitigate that risk.
- What contingency planning was undertaken and exercised to respond to armed assaults against U.S. facilities in Benghazi? The report indicates that when the mission came under attack, security personnel moved swiftly to take defensive positions and evacuate to the mission’s annex. However, the report fails to examine what, if any contingency planning was present and if it was implemented.Early warning planning and risk assessment are integral to countering threats against U.S. personnel and facilities, but they have their limits. Incomplete data and inaccurate judgment are challenges that could result in unforeseen consequences. Contingency planning that is flexible and adaptable is therefore crucial to ensure an adequate response to potential threats. In order to fully assess the response to the Benghazi attack, it is important to assess what contingency plans were in place, how developed they were, and whether they were exercised or implemented.
- How is the interagency response to the incident organized and managed? This needs to be explored at length. The ARB narrowly focused its attention on the security systems and procedures rather than the broader interagency response. When a crisis erupts that puts the lives of U.S. personnel as well as U.S. interests at risk, the whole of government should respond with alacrity and with all of the resources that are reasonably available. A complete examination of the U.S. response, therefore, should address the command, control, and coordination of efforts to organize and integrate interagency efforts after the threat in Benghazi became evident.
Until answers to these four questions are adequately addressed, the investigation into the attack on the mission in Benghazi will remain incomplete.
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