U.S. State Department officials resign under pressure over Benghazi killings

WASHINGTON Wed Dec 19, 2012 11:53pm GMT

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States in this September 11, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori/Files

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group said to have been protesting a film being produced in the United States in this September 11, 2012 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Esam Al-Fetori/Files

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three senior U.S. State Department officials were asked to resign after an official inquiry harshly criticized their offices for failing to provide adequate security at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, before it came under attack in September, a U.S. official said on Wednesday.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary for diplomatic security; one of his deputies, Charlene Lamb; and an unnamed official in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs were asked to step down because of the inquiry panel's report, which did not fault Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in connection with the attack.

State Department officials declined to comment on the matter, saying it was a personnel issue. The Associated Press first reported that the three officials had resigned.

An unclassified version of the report released Tuesday by the State Department concluded that the mission was completely unprepared to deal with a September 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

"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 appropriate for senior ranks," retired Admiral Michael Mullen, one of the leaders of the inquiry, told reporters on Wednesday.

The inquiry's chair, retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering, said the panel had determined that responsibility for security shortcomings in Benghazi belonged at levels lower than Clinton's office.

"We fixed (responsibility) at the assistant secretary level, which is, in our view, the appropriate place to look for where the decision-making in fact takes place, where - if you like - the rubber hits the road," Pickering said after closed-door meetings with congressional committees.

The report by the Accountability Review Board probing the attack and comments by its two lead authors suggested that Clinton, who accepted responsibility for the incident, would not be held personally culpable.

"The secretary of state has been very clear about taking responsibility here, (yet) it was from my perspective not reasonable in terms of her having a specific level of knowledge," said Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Pickering and Mullen spoke to the media after briefing members of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee behind closed doors on classified elements of their report.

Clinton had been expected to appear at an open hearing on Benghazi on Thursday, but is recuperating after suffering a concussion, dehydration and a stomach bug last week and will instead be represented by her top two deputies.

"GROSSLY INADEQUATE"

The unclassified version of the report cited "leadership and management" deficiencies, poor coordination among officials and "real confusion" in Washington and in the field over who had the authority to make decisions on policy and security concerns.

The scathing report could tarnish Clinton's four-year tenure as secretary of state, which has seen her consistently rated as the most popular member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet.

Clinton, who intends to step down in January, said in a letter accompanying the review that she would adopt all of its recommendations, which include stepping up security staffing and requesting more money to fortify U.S. facilities.

The National Defense Authorization Act for 2013, which is expected to go to Congress for final approval this week, includes a measure directing the Pentagon to increase the Marine Corps presence at diplomatic facilities by up to 1,000 Marines.

Some Capitol Hill Republicans who had criticized the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks said they were impressed by the report.

"It was very thorough," said Senator Johnny Isakson. Senator John Barrasso said: "It was very, very critical of major failures at the State Department at very high levels." Both spoke after the closed-door briefing.

Others, however, kept up their criticism of the administration and called for Clinton to testify as soon as she is able.

"The report makes clear the massive failure of the State Department at all levels, including senior leadership, to take action to protect our government employees abroad," Representative Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Senator Bob Corker, who will be the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the new Congress is seated early next year, said Clinton should testify about Benghazi before her replacement is confirmed by the Senate.

"I do think it's imperative for all concerned that she testify in an open session prior to any changing of the regime," Corker said.

Republicans have focused much of their firepower on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who appeared on television talk shows after the attack and suggested it was the result of a spontaneous protest rather than a premeditated attack.

The report concluded that there was no such protest.

Rice, widely seen as President Barack Obama's top pick to succeed Clinton, withdrew her name from consideration last week.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara)

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