State Dept. officials placed on leave after Benghazi attack are reinstated

Four State Department officials who were placed on paid administrative leave after last September’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, have been returned to active duty and will face no further disciplinary action, the State Department said Tuesday.

The four, including three diplomatic security officers and the former deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs, have been reassigned to different jobs with less responsibility, according to a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry made the determination after reviewing an Accountability Review Board report that was completed in December. The board found that the employees had shown a lack of “proactive leadership and management authority” but committed no “breach of duty” that mandated specific disciplinary action under department rules.

The reinstatements brought an immediate negative response from Republican lawmakers who have pushed for further investigation of the Benghazi incident, in which four U.S. officials, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the action proved that the State Department’s response to the Benghazi attacks “was more of a public relations strategy than a measured response to a failure in leadership.”

Issa, whose last hearing on the attacks took place in May, said in a statement that the panel would “expand its investigation of the Benghazi terrorist attack to include how a supposed ‘Accountability Review Board’ investigation resulted in a decision by Secretary Kerry not to pursue any accountability from anyone.”

In a separate statement, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “disappointed that no one at the State Department will be held accountable in any real way over the failures that led to the tragedy in Benghazi.” He added, “I don’t understand how this administration will ensure accountability at one of our most vital government departments without disciplining those who fail in their duties.”

State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said the review had reaffirmed the accountability board’s finding that the actions of the four did not constitute automatic grounds for further action, including firing.

In its report, the board found that “certain senior State Department officials within two bureaus in critical positions of authority and responsibility in Washington demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability” in failing to recognize, despite concerns raised before the attack, that security in Benghazi was “grossly inadequate.”

“However,” it said, “the Board did not find that any individual U.S. Government employee engaged in misconduct or willfully ignored his or her responsibilities, and, therefore did not find reasonable cause to believe that an individual breached his or her duty so as to be the subject of a recommendation for disciplinary action.”

In its recommendations, the board suggested revisions of State Department personnel guidelines so that “findings of unsatisfactory leadership performance by senior officials” in relation to security performance “should be a potential basis for discipline recommendations” in the future. The State Department has said it would examine the rules but has not announced specific changes.

Harf said the department had reviewed the board’s findings and gone back to “look at all the facts, and also take into account the totality of these four employees’ overall careers at the State Department.”

“And what we found in that review is that . . . they have served honorably, often in very tough places,” she said. Harf declined to specify the reinstated officials’ new jobs.

Eric J. Boswell, who was the assistant secretary for diplomatic security, was placed on administrative leave but later resigned from the security position. Three others, including Boswell deputy Charlene Lamb and Near East assistant secretary Raymond Maxwell, were also placed on paid leave pending a departmental determination of what to do about them.

“The right answer for these four was reassignment” in different jobs, Harf said.

Boswell was replaced in February by Gregory B. Starr, who is now serving as acting assistant secretary. Starr, a former senior diplomatic security official, retired in 2009 to take a U.N. post but was called back to take over leadership of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

According to the Daily Beast, which first reported the reinstatements, Maxwell received a memo from the State Department’s human resources office telling him without explanation to report to work Tuesday.

Separately, Gregory N. Hicks, the former deputy ambassador in Benghazi who criticized the State Department before Issa’s committee in May, remains in the department’s office of intergovernmental affairs.

Hicks testified that after he raised questions about the department’s actions in Benghazi, he was demoted to a desk job in Washington in retaliation. The State Department said he had voluntarily relinquished his post in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and was welcome to bid on other upcoming assignments.

Hicks’s attorney, Victoria Toensing, said Tuesday that Hicks still has not received his reassignment. “They say they can’t find anything appropriate,” she said. “We are hoping they will still find it in their power to do so.”

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