(JASON REED/REUTERS)

“Why does Benghazi go on? No one was ever fired? So, people made tragic errors. No one’s accepting responsibility and no one was fired.”

— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), on CNN’s “State of the Union,” May 19, 2013

Paul’s comment this week jumped out at us because we remember the headlines back in December:

“4 Are Out at State Dept. After Scathing Report on Benghazi Attack” The New York Times

“Four State Department officials disciplined following Benghazi probe findings” The Washington Post

“Four State Department officials were removed from their posts,” The Times said, while The Post said they “were disciplined.” Eric J. Boswell, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, “resigned,” both reports said.

We will leave aside the question of responsibility — we recall then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taking responsibility but perhaps that is in the eye of the beholder — and focus on whether anyone has been “fired.”

Depending on the dictionary, you get a variety of definitions: To discharge from a position; to dismiss from employment; having lost your job. Moira Bagley, spokesman for Paul, says that, for the senator, “fired” means “actual job termination,” meaning no longer working at the State Department.

The Facts

The dismissals were announced after the completion of the Accountability Review Board report, which fixed the blame for the poor security that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, including the U.S. ambassador, at the Assistant Secretary level and below. Besides Boswell, two other officials in Diplomatic Security lost their positions, as well as a deputy assistant secretary in the Near East bureau.

But it’s not that easy to “fire” someone who is part of the foreign service or civil service unless they have committed a readily identifiable crime. Such decisions certainly can be appealed. The ARB, while critical of the officials’ performance, noted that there was no provision under its charter to recommend disciplinary action because someone failed to demonstrate leadership qualities. Among its recommendations:

The Board recognizes that poor performance does not ordinarily constitute a breach of duty that would serve as a basis for disciplinary action but is instead addressed through the performance management system. However, the Board is of the view that findings of unsatisfactory leadership performance by senior officials in relation to the security incident under review should be a potential basis for discipline recommendations by future ARBs, and would recommend a revision of Department regulations or amendment to the relevant statute to this end.

Boswell does not appear in the State Department phone directory, but when we called the State Department operator and asked for Boswell, we were connected to the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Foreign Missions. This job had once been part of Boswell’s portfolio and indeed he had held an equivalent job years ago. The person who answered the phone said he “was not in the office at the moment” but declined to take a message.

In essence, the four individuals are in an administrative limbo as their performance remains under review, State Department officials say. They don’t have any real jobs, don’t have a desk, but still have a State Department badge which allows them to enter the building — presumably for lunch conversation.

“None of the individuals identified by the Accountability Review Board are in the positions held prior to the report’s release and at the time of the attack,” said State Department spokesman Patrick H. Ventrell.

“This internal administrative process can take some time,” he said. “For an ARB to recommend disciplinary action, it must find a breach of duty. The ARB found that no one engaged in misconduct or willfully ignored his or her responsibilities, and thus did not recommend disciplinary action against any Department employees.”

He added: “It is also important to remember that the four people discussed are all long-serving government officials who over the years have provided dedicated service to the U.S. Government in challenging assignments.” He also noted that “career foreign service employees are entitled to due process and legal protections under the Foreign Service Act with respect to any potential disciplinary action.”

Bagley, Paul’s aide, said that “our staff has confirmed with Legislative Affairs at State that all four individuals called out by the ARB are still on administrative leave, getting paid, and expected to return to work.”

In response, Ventrell said: “The four remain on administrative leave until a decision is made on their status. They are not currently performing any job for the Department.” (Translation: Nothing is expected.)

Interestingly, Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast this week interviewed one of the four — Raymond Maxwell of the Near East Bureau.

The article describes the bizarre situation that he faces: “Five months after he was told to clean out his desk and leave the building, Maxwell remains in professional and legal limbo.” It noted that he has “filed grievances regarding his treatment with the State Department’s human resources bureau and the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the interests of foreign-service officers.” He claims that “to this day…nobody from the State Department has ever told him why he was singled out for discipline.”

The article suggests that these four officials are in a netherworld of not quite being fired but not quite being able to clear themselves in order to obtain a new position. Being actually “fired” from employment might have been easier because that at least would set in motion a formal appeals process. “If they could have been fired they would have been,”one anonymous official told Rogin, explaining that “administrative leave was the best option available within the very narrow authority that anyone had.”

“Because it is difficult to ‘fire’ a government employee does not render Senator Paul’s statement false,” Bagley said. “The person or persons who made the decisions across the board should be identified and relieved of duty with full explanation. This situation demands a transparency it is not getting.”

The Pinocchio Test

None of these officials have the jobs they had when the attacks in Benghazi took place. All of them appear to be in some Kafkaesque bureaucratic limbo that allows no closure in the matter. Presumably, their government careers are largely over.

Yet they have not been separated from government service, which some (such as Paul) might define as “fired.” As we have shown, achieving this is not as easy as it might appear if the sin is leadership failure as opposed to malfeasance. But under some definitions, they are as good as fired. In Maxwell’s case, it appears he would actually prefer to be “fired” since that would give him more options to challenge his situation.

Given this limbo, we can’t rule Paul’s statement as correct or not. We will monitor what happens to these officials in the future before making a final ruling.

UPDATE, Sept. 11, 2013: While we were on August break, the State Department suddenly announced that the four State Department officials had been returned to active duty and would face no further disciplinary action. This development only recently came to our attention, or else we would have updated this column earlier. Paul turns out to have been entirely correct, and so he earns a coveted Geppetto Checkmark

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