Transcript of press briefing Q&A on the Accountability Review Board’s findings on the Benghazi consulate attack

Edited by Jenny Jiang

Transcript of press briefing Q&A on the Accountability Review Board’s (ARB) report on the Benghazi consulate attack on Dec. 19, 2012: 

QUESTION: Thank you very much for doing this briefing. The report, to a layman, seems to indicate either rank incompetence or a complete lack of understanding of the situation on the ground in Benghazi. And my question is: Why is such poor performance like that from senior leaders in these two bureaus that you mention, why is not a breach of or a dereliction of duty? Why is it not grounds for disciplinary action?

And then secondly, after the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the ARB report – the ARB that was formed then came out with a series of recommendations, and many of your recommendations today, the broader ones, are very similar. Those bombings in East Africa were supposed to have been a never-again moment. What happened between then and now that this could possibly have happened?

AMBASSADOR  TOM PICKERING: Without accepting your characterization of the problem, it is very clear that under the law and in connection with the State Department regulatory practice, one has to find willful misconduct or similar kinds of action in order to find breach of duty. And indeed, one of our recommendations is – there is such a large gap between willful misconduct, which leads, obviously, to conclusions about discipline, letters of reprimand, separation, the removal of an individual temporarily from duty, that we believe that gap ought to be filled. But we found, perhaps, close to – as we say in the report – breach, but there were performance inadequacies. And those are the ones that we believe ought to be taken up, and we made recommendations to the Secretary in that regard.

VICTORIA NULAND: Michael Gordon – I’m sorry –

QUESTION: I’m sorry, just the second one – what happened between – how did the lessons of Kenya and Tanzania get forgotten?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: Well, I think that – let me just mention that, and then Admiral Mullen may have some things to say. We, of course, have made a recommendation that the unimplemented or only partially implemented recommendations of all previous boards be reviewed rapidly by the State Department Inspector General with the idea in mind of assuring that they are carried out. And if you will read our report, you will see in part recollections from the past leading each chapter, as well as a citation to the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam recommendations that need to be carried out. So we very much agree with the impetus of your question.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: I think it begs the question of why did that happen. I mean, obviously, a lot of time. That’s always a factor. Clearly, no specific follow-up over time. One of the major recommendations was the building plan, which fell off from 10 buildings – 10 new embassies a year to three, tied to budget constraints, et cetera. So I think it was a combination of factors, and while 1999 is certainly close to this decade, I mean, the world has changed dramatically in this decade, and the risks that are associated with that world are – I think we are in a much more difficult and challenging position with respect to meeting the needs to be out there and engage, and doing so in a way that our people are very specifically secure.

AMBASSADOR  TOM PICKERING: Just picking up on that, there’s a specific recommendation for a 10 year program at a very significant level of funding specifically to meet the point that Admiral Mullen made that our building program has fallen off from 10 to three, and it needs to go back to that original target.

VICTORIA NULAND: Let’s go to New York Times. Michael Gordon, please.

QUESTION: Ambassador Pickering, your report was extremely critical of the performance of some individuals in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the NEA, the Middle East Bureau. And – but these bureaus don’t exist in a vacuum; they’re part of an hierarchical organization known as the Department of State, and each has a chain of command. The NEA reports up the policy chain, and Diplomatic Security, I presume, reports up the management chain, their Under Secretaries, and indeed deputy secretaries, and the Secretary herself, who oversees these bureaus. What is the highest level at the Department of State where you fix responsibility for what happened in Benghazi?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: We fixed it at the Assistant Secretary level, which is in our view the appropriate place to look, where the decision-making in fact takes place, where, if you like, the rubber hits the road. And one of the interesting things about the statutory basis for the Review Board was that it clearly was biased against the idea that one could automatically hold, as one often does, the leader of a particular department or agency responsible without pinpointing the place where the failures took place and where the lessons that we derived from that ought to be important to fixing the problem. And so fixing the problem and finding the locus of the difficulties was the major task we had to undertake.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: And I would add to that, Michael, that, I mean, certainly that was a concern that we had as we initiated the review and we just found. And as someone who’s run large organizations, and the Secretary of State has been very clear about taking responsibility here, it was, from my perspective, not reasonable in terms of her having a specific level of knowledge that was very specifically resident in her staff, and over time, certainly didn’t bring that to her attention.

VICTORIA NULAND: CNN, Elise Labott, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. I was going to ask about these personnel issues, but a couple of others. You offer – the Secretary said in her letter that there were 29 recommendations. And in the unclassified, there were only 24. I’m wondering, without getting into any classified material, if you could at least characterize what these recommendations – do they have to do with intelligence matters that you can’t discuss or at least the area of those recommendations.

And then also you said that there was – in the report that there was no protest, that there was no mob. How did you come to that conclusion?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: Two very brief answers. Your suspicion the missing recommendations involved classification is correct. It would not be untoward to assume that some of those involve intelligence. We arrived in October 4th, 2012 for our first meeting. At that point, we found the intelligence community had clearly concluded and provided us that conclusion, that there was no protest.

QUESTION: Can I just quickly follow up on the intelligence? Will you be doing – because it’s – this is – you’re reporting to the Secretary, and you said that perhaps she’s involved intelligence, will you also be reaching out to members of the intelligence community and briefing them and helping them implement some recommendations?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: This report is now the Secretary’s. I think, without stretching a point, we of course remain at the Secretary’s disposal for whatever use she would like to make of us.

VICTORIA NULAND: And she has made it available to all pertinent agencies.

Let’s go to Washington Post, Anne Gearan, please.

QUESTION: Two things: Can you confirm the resignations of Department personnel today in association with this report and give us any detail on that? And secondly, Admiral Mullen, you talked about poorly understood – understanding of – or poor understanding, rather, of the nature of the militia threat. Whose responsibility should that have been to have a better matrix for that?

And if that information had been provided as it should have been provided, do you think it would have been still advisable for Ambassador Stevens to make that trip?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: On the first question, that’s obviously a Department issue and you should address that to the Department of State.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: Secondly, the – I mean, it was very clear this is a country in transition. And one of the umbrella organizations that come out with respect to lack of support that night for a security response, which was the expected response, was Feb. 17. But as we dig into – or dug into Feb. 17, it is a very loose group of local militias that float in and out of that umbrella over time. And I think that’s representative of the gaps – the intelligence gaps that existed at that time in eastern Libya broadly – not just for us but for many countries that were out there.

So I think you have to take that into consideration in terms of understanding the environment in terms of what was out there and what the potential was.

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: I think you should also take into account the fact that the Libyan Government was almost absent from the scene, in terms of its responsibilities under the Geneva or Vienna Convention, to provide support. And that in many ways, February 17th, as difficult as it was, while it had responded positively to less threatening questions in the past, was the best that anybody could find.

VICTORIA NULAND: Let’s go to CBS, Margaret Brennan, please.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this briefing. In the report, you specifically refer to the idea that the Ambassador did not keep Washington fully informed about his movements. Why is that relevant here? I mean, what role did the Ambassador have being a lead person in Libya in terms of determining security? It’s my understanding that ambassadors don’t normally notify each and every movement. Why was that specifically referred to?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: Because, in fact, it is a question that occurred to many people that we felt we should answer it, but particularly because the Ambassador is the person who has the responsibility for security at his post.

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: And does not have the requirement and normally does not notify anybody outside the country of his or her movements.

QUESTION: So when you were talking about the understanding of the militias, February 17th, et cetera, is it correct to understand that Ambassador Stevens had a role in deciding their security position?

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: Sure. As the chief of mission, he certainly had a responsibility in that regard, and actually he was very security conscious and increasingly concerned about security. But part of his responsibility is certainly to make that case back here, and he had not gotten to that point where you would – you might get to a point where you would be considering it’s so dangerous, we might close the mission – I’m sorry, the compound, or something like that.

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: And as you know, on the anniversary day, 9/11, he, on the advice of his security officials, spent his entire day inside the mission with appointments coming to him.

VICTORIA NULAND: Our two principals are little bit time-constrained today, so we’ll just take one more from Fox News, Justin Fishel.

QUESTION: Thanks, Toria. Thank you both for doing this. Just a follow-up on that last question: Would you say then that Ambassador Stevens does share some of the blame here for the lack of security? Is that what you’re saying here?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: We very clearly in the report, if you read it, made our indications open and transparent about where we felt the problems were in terms of decision-making. Ambassador Stevens on several occasions was supportive of additional security in addition to watching it very carefully and to knowing what was going on. Ambassador Stevens had perhaps the best knowledge of Benghazi of any American official. And that was taken in Washington, certainly, as a very serious set of conclusions on his part about going.

QUESTION: Okay. And just two follow-ups for Admiral Mullen: Why such a passing reference to military involvement? Can you explain why they couldn’t have done more? And also —

ADMIRAL MIKE MULLEN: We looked at the force posture very specifically, and while we had a lot of forces in Europe both at sea and on land, it was not – it is not reasonable that they could have responded; they were – in any kind of timely way. This was over in a matter of about 20 or 30 minutes with respect to the Special Mission specifically. And we had no forces ready or tethered, if you will, focused on that mission so that they could respond, nor would I expect we would have.

QUESTION: And I noticed also that there was no mention of the CIA in the report despite the fact that their post was attacked and they had more personnel there than there were diplomats. Did they share some blame for the lack of security here?

AMBASSADOR TOM PICKERING: We don’t discuss intelligence questions, unfortunately, in this briefing.

QUESTION: It’s not a classified organization.

VICTORIA NULAND: Thank you all very much and thank you to our two, Chairman and Vice Chairman. I’ll see them out.

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