After Benghazi Attack, Improving American Security Abroad

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Fox News that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton "got away with murder" for her handling of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who led the independent investigation into the attacks, talks about the future of diplomatic security.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

After the attacks last September 11th on the United States mission in Benghazi and the many questions about the State Department's handling of them, Secretary Clinton appointed an independent panel to investigate. Veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, returned with conclusions and recommendations, but questions persist. Even if the Senate begins hearings of the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham vows to block confirmation until the current secretary, Leon Panetta, testifies on Benghazi. Ambassador Pickering is now a trustee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and he joins us here in studio 3A. It's good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

THOMAS PICKERING: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And what more do we need to know?

PICKERING: Well, it's all of the unclassified report. If you've had a chance to read it. I think it makes pretty interesting reading and I think the bulk of the recommendations certainly, there import, is all there. That there were things that need to be take care of and I was delighted that the secretary from the very beginning wanted us to report it as we saw it. There was clear invitation to try to get to the bottom of it - we did. I thought she was enormously courageous by immediately responding to the report to say she accepted all 29 recommendations and would carry them out, and has appointed a number of task forces in the State Department under her deputy who deals with resources management, Tom Nides, to put all that together. And I understand, from her testimony last week, that's going ahead. And in every sense of the word, this is a real opportunity for the state department, under her leadership and Senator Kerry's leadership, to move the State Department back into the position where it needs to be.

There's s a critical factor here, Neal, that I worried about as we did the report and I know that she's been concerned about, which is that we don't let the pendulum over-swing; that we now put ourselves back into position of fortress embassies out which we never go to do the diplomatic work of the country. The diplomatic work of the country requires that we get out and meet people, that we talk to them, we understand their points of view, that we relay those back, and that that play a significant role in formulating our policy toward the countries in which we're working. Happily, not all of our posts are like Benghazi. It was, in some ways, quite unique, both in it's exposures and its vulnerability. But we have to do business in a world where there are going to be Benghazis, and it's important that we do business, that we not hole up in bank faults.

CONAN: You mentioned the secretary's testimony last week. Of course, it was late because of her medical conditions or circumstances, and then finally, she testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And it was Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, who's been pushing this issue, I think, very strongly - along with Senator John McCain of Arizona, a fellow Republican - and they've been asking a lot of questions. And it was afterwards that, at least, according to what he told Fox News, Senator Graham said he thought Secretary Clinton, in her testimony, had gotten away with murder.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I haven't forgotten about Benghazi. Hillary Clinton got away with murder in my view. She said two things that will come back to haunt her, that they had a clear-eyed assessment of the threats in Libya, and that they had close contact with Libyan government. I don't believe either one of them.

CONAN: Did - was there a clear-eyed assessment of the situation in Libya?

PICKERING: I think the report speaks for itself in that particular region when it points out that there were two areas in which the assessment question, we thought, could've been done better.

One was the heavy reliance, as our report makes clear, on the thought that they would get sufficient warning, that in the event of any - an attempt that that would be a factor in the circumstances. And the second was that all of our intelligence, including from open sources, as well as private sources, did not seem to take into account what was a situation bestirring itself in the militia. And there were many militias in Benghazi.

CONAN: Now, are you speaking of the militias that we expected to protect us, or the militias we feared might attack us?

PICKERING: Both, but more of the latter than the former. The difficulty - the shortcoming with respect to the latter was, I think, a necessity or perhaps a burden or trying to excuse information of continued efforts on the part of those militias to attack installations and people. And with respect to the former, perhaps a reliance - despite the fact that the report makes very clear that they had performed well in past crises - that they might not really be willing to deal with an assault by a large number of people against three defenders, even if they were armed, in part because they may have been fellow militiamen.

CONAN: And that, of course, turned out to be the case. They reacted, but very, very slowly and, well, much too late. The ambassador and three other Americans were dead.

PICKERING: That's very much the case. And the report - and I commend it to you - has what I think - because I didn't write it, but read it by staff support. The State Department wrote it - a gripping account of the events leading up to and over the night of September 11th, '12.

CONAN: One of the questions that has come up is that there had been requests for additional security that were denied further up the chain. At the same time, there is in the report the suggestion that the ambassador there - because he knew so much about Benghazi, because he'd been there before - there was deference given to his judgment, that in the context of his decision to visit Benghazi.

PICKERING: Neal, both of those are discussed, I think, fairly thoroughly by the report. I don't know that I would quibble with your characterization, but some requests were responded positively to, and some were not. I think that a more important factor is perhaps what we would call the personnel churn. The report makes clear that the average time - including for security people in Benghazi - was 40 days. But it meant a lot of people were there on 30-day assignments.

And a lot of those security people, if not all of them, were coming from their first assignment in the United States. They didn't have overseas experience. But I have to tell you that I was deeply impressed by them. Many of them had military experience. They were not naive. But they had not actually worked before in that kind of an environment.

And what that meant was less that they were not defensively oriented, but that, in fact, the request for change initiated by their predecessors had a propensity to fall between stools in part because they were all working hard to get acclimated and to get caught up and to understand what was happening. And so I think the personnel churn was something that the report makes clear, and I certainly agree with this. I chaired(ph) the report. That had to be taken into account, as well.

CONAN: And as you say, there are any number of recommendations. What do you think are - other than the emphasis that we can't go into fortress embassies that prevent American diplomats from going out and doing their jobs, which is partly to go out and meet the people and see what they're doing and talk with them. But other than that, in terms of improving security at missions, we live in a world where, sadly, Kenya may happen again, Benghazi may happen again.

PICKERING: Well, we took that into account, and, in fact, throughout the report, we went back. And each chapter heading is looked at with a short, retrospective paragraph. One was taken, fascinating report from Benghazi in 1967, which was attacked in that year. And the individual who wrote the report captured, in a gripping way - in about eight pages, which we added to the report - the attack and the fact that they narrowly escaped with their lives, having been rescued by a small British unit that was then stationed in Benghazi.

So we did recommend, for example, that the Nairobi Dar Es Salaam findings - particularly with respect to secure embassy construction - be fulfilled, that over the years, that proposal was for a 10-year construction program to cover most, if not all of the embassies that did not meet the standards in consulates.

That dwindled away, partly because of congressional cuts. And the secretary, I think, was quite right in raising with the Congress that they shared - maybe more than shared - in responsibility with respect to State Department security, with consistent cuts in the last decade in those particular programs. But we recommended that those programs, which were affected by cuts, by inflation, by rising costs of construction, so that we went from 10 embassies a year down to very small numbers, should be revived and should be committed to...

CONAN: Just to clarify...

PICKERING: ...and carried out over the next 10 years.

CONAN: ...improvements of 10 embassies per year.

PICKERING: Not improvements, building new buildings and domain. And it is striking, because the day of Benghazi, Cairo was attacked, which had a new building. And while they got in over the wall, they did not get into the buildings. And two days later, Tunis was attacked. And Tunis was attacked not just by a mob, but attacked by fire, built next to the building where you would expect that the people inside would be affected by smoke inhalation.

And that building was resistant to both of those forms of attack, and people were saved. I think large numbers of people were saved, given the slow response - as the secretary made clear in her testimony - to the emergency in Tunisia.

CONAN: With us is Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the chairman of the investigating committee that looked into the affair at Benghazi after...

PICKERING: Neal, I would rather say, we had the responsibility for looking at the security aspects. The investigation, particularly with respect to criminal responsibilities in the hands of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And I'll have to tell you that they were remarkably helpful to us. They did the on-site crime scene investigation and we worked together on our interviews, so that, in fact, we could do everything we could on our side to preserve the integrity of the evidence that they were gathering.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

A couple of questions. Are you satisfied that appropriate discipline has been meted out to those who committed mistakes?

PICKERING: Let me first respond to that question by explaining that we were asked as part of the statutory basis for our work, to make a decision as to whether any individual had breached duty. And the definition of the breach of duty is willful neglect of office. And we found no one, absolutely no one, willfully neglected the duties of the office.

But we did find shortcomings in decision-making and shortcomings in consideration. We pointed those out in our findings. Discipline is available to the State Department only in terms of willful neglect. But we did recommended that, in the future, these reports, perhaps, have a new statutory basis, something between willful neglect and failure to perform the duties up to the standard expected with appropriate disciplinary action. But we made those recommendations to the secretary and I know that she has talked about what it is that she is doing with respect to those issues.

CONAN: There is also the question of the personnel assigned to security. Americans come to expect that United States Marines protect embassies. That's not the case so much these days. Should we go back to that?

PICKERING: It's - it is the case. One hundred fifty plus American overseas embassies and consulates are protected by Marines. The traditional duty of Marines in the embassy is to protect classified material. But where, of course, personnel have been in danger and the Marines have been present, they have also taken that on with that assignment. I think there needs to be some future clarity with respect to that.

And at the time we finished our report, the secretary had already recommended that another 50 American consulates and embassies not now yet protected by Marines be - have Marines assigned. And I understand that the commandant and the State Department have both gone to the appropriate committees to assure the funding. The State Department side would be funding - would be taken out of funding currently available for Iraq but not yet expended there, in order to meet the higher priority need that the secretary assigned, to assigning Marines to these new 50 embassies. And that's an important and valuable forward step in our Accountability Review Board fully endorsed that.

CONAN: And let me go back to Senator Graham and the current situation. Again, the nominee for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, is before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator Graham says he will hold up that information until he hears from Secretary Panetta on Benghazi. This is what he told Fox News. He'd like Secretary Panetta to answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

GRAHAM: What did the president do? When did the president first get notified at the attacking of our consulates? What did he do for those seven hours? If he did order assets to go and to help these people, when did he give he order? And what did he say when told him, there's nothing we can do?

CONAN: Are those valid questions?

PICKERING: They're important questions, and I believe they've been fully answered. And I'm not sure the basis on which Senator Graham wishes to continue to carry forward this particular approach. Having been confirmed nine times, my sense is the confirmation process is to find the best appointee the president can and put that person into office. And my sense is that holding up nominees for any purpose at all, however it may seem to be worthy, is a process of legislative blackmail of the executive branch and contrary to American interests. And I would hope that it would stop. It seems to me to be both inappropriate and unseemly, and certainly not fully considering of a national interest.

I've known Senator Hagel for years. I've come out in favor of him. I believe that he represents a significant and indeed vital choice to take Secretary Panetta's position. And I believe he will do a superb job. And my sense is that some other angle being used to hold up the appointment of a secretary defense is not in our national interests, and certainly I would hope it's reconsidered.

CONAN: Ambassador, thanks very much for your time.

PICKERING: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Thomas Pickering, trustee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, former ambassador, too, among other places: the U.N., Russia, India and Israel. He joined us here in Studio 3A. You can find a link to the report Ambassador Pickering write on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. It is good reading.

Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with how the world is working on climate change. We'll be back with you on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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