The debate following the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya unfolded for three months without entangling Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
That is likely to change.
An independent panel concluded that Clinton’s State Department showed “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability” leading up to the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Republicans on Capitol Hill demanded yesterday that Clinton, who has been mostly silent publicly about Benghazi, testify and answer what Representative Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, called “the hard questions” about security failures preceding the attack.
Clinton intends to testify to Congress next month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who may be nominated as the departing Clinton’s successor, said today at a hearing on the report.
In letters transmitting the panel’s report to Congress on Dec. 18, Clinton said she took responsibility for the safety of every State Department employee without acknowledging personal blame for any lapses and without assigning it to any other official.
“You can’t say that everyone is responsible, therefore no one is responsible,” Rogers of Michigan said in a telephone interview.
Last night, the State Department said that an assistant secretary in charge of diplomatic security resigned and three other officials were placed on administrative leave “pending further action” after the review panel cited them as partly responsible for lax security at the Benghazi mission.
The department accepted the resignation of Eric Boswell, the assistant secretary for diplomatic security, effective immediately, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. The other three officials, whom she didn’t name, have been relieved of their current duties, she said.
The leaders of the panel that reviewed the attack, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and retired Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a briefing yesterday that in their view, the responsibility inside the department rested at the assistant secretary of state level. Mullen said it is “not reasonable” to conclude that Clinton had “a specific level of knowledge” about the lapses before the attack.
The pressure comes as Clinton prepares to leave the nation’s top diplomatic post at the start of President Barack Obama’s second term. It raises the prospect that the attack will become a blemish on the resume of a popular secretary of state who may be Democrats’ strongest presidential contender for 2016 should she decide to run.
A State Department spokesman didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Obama, who didn’t comment on the report, praised Clinton at a State Department holiday reception last night as “tireless and extraordinary.” He added, “We can’t wait to have her back.”
Clinton has been recovering at home this week after developing a stomach virus that left her severely dehydrated, causing her to faint and suffer a concussion, according to the State Department.
Asked for one word to describe Clinton’s public dealings with the Benghazi issue before yesterday, Stephen J. Wayne, a Georgetown University professor and scholar of the American presidency, concluded, “I would say, ’Distance.’”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, rather than Clinton. gave the administration’s initial public account of the attack -- and paid the price politically after a revision of the intelligence community’s assessment that led her to say the attack grew out of a “spontaneous” protest. Rice spoke on Sunday television news programs after the secretary had just returned from exhausting foreign travel.
Rice withdrew from consideration as a possible successor to Clinton amid Republican criticism of the account she gave.
In October, Clinton said “I take responsibility” for her department’s performance in Benghazi without offering specifics, pending completion of the review. Today, Deputy Secretaries William Burns and Thomas Nides are testifying before congressional committees today in her place because of her illness, the State Department announced.
“It’s imperative that she testify in an open setting prior to a change in regime,” Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who is in line to become the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, said yesterday after a classified, closed-door briefing on the review board’s findings.
Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said Congress should look at “what involvement Secretary Clinton had in the decisions, what kind of review process did they go through.”
Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the third-ranking Republican leader in the chamber, said Clinton has “been viewed as a very effective secretary of state, by and large, but certainly wouldn’t want to go out without bringing closure to this chapter of her tenure.”
One question is whether Americans would expect Clinton to be engaged in department issues such as security and staffing that would have affected the Benghazi mission’s vulnerability to attack.
“My sense of Mrs. Clinton’s position as secretary of state is, she’s been a very effective out-front person and diplomat as opposed to a hands-on manager of the State Department,” said Wayne, the scholar at Georgetown in Washington.
“I don’t view this is as a skillful attempt to evade her responsibility because it’s going to come out in 2016 -- I just don’t see that,” he said.
Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York, said Clinton has “definitely been hands-off on a public sense.”
“She was not out in front in the initial phase,” he said. “Look at Susan Rice’s role. It really should have been Hillary Clinton out there speaking.”
Chandler said it’s not clear to him whether Clinton held back to protect her own image or at the administration’s request.
“The ultimate responsibility for how the State Department manages itself rests with the secretary of state,” he said. At the same time, “I don’t think four years from now the public is really going to be remembering this so much. The immediate-term impact is on the president being able to push his agenda next year.”
The report of the panel led by Pickering and Mullen faults the State Department for producing a “security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
In her letters to the chairmen of the House and Senate foreign relations committees accompanying a classified version of the report, Clinton used the words “responsible” or “responsibility” 11 times without directly taking any share of responsibility for what happened or for failings at that led up to the tragedy.
Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group, said now that the panel has released its findings, Clinton may seek to publicly clarify her view of her role and responsibility.
“I don’t think anyone really has a good sense of how this is going to play” until the panel’s report is absorbed and hearings are held, he said.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for her to do anything right now other than to let this play out,” Miller said. “I don’t see this as any willful effort to evade anything. I think it’s a careful deliberative effort to watch how things play out.”