State Dept’s Inspector General to Conduct a “Special Review” of the ARB Process, Not/Not the ARB Panel

According to thehill.com, the State Department’s Office of Inspector General notified the State Department on March 28 that it will be conducting a “special review” of the process that the department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB) used to probe security lapses prior to and during the terrorist attack:

Doug Welty, a spokesman for the IG’s office, said the office is responsive to lawmakers’ concerns; he said this is the first time the office will review an ARB process, although it has in the past reviewed how well the State Department has followed through on the recommendations of other review boards formed after security breaches.

The review will examine “the effectiveness and accountability of the process and the resulting implementation of the recommendations,” Welty said. He couldn’t specify a time frame, but said the results would be made public: “It will take the time it needs to take to do a reliable job.”

At a State Department briefing last year, Pickering defended the ARB’s approach. He said the panel fixed responsibility “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.”

Fox News originally reported this and found an unnamed senior State Department official to comment on this development:

[A] senior State Department official told Fox News the IG probe is not a “formal investigation” but rather a review process, and one, moreover, that will examine previous ARBs in addition to the one established after Benghazi.

The official noted that the department had published a notice early on instructing employees on how they could furnish information to the ARB for Benghazi, and that the panel ultimately interviewed more than 100 witnesses.

The original law that established accountability review boards mandates that they act completely independently, the official said, adding that the department in this case neither sought nor enjoyed any influence over the panel’s work.

In any case, Fox News headline screams “State Department’s Benghazi review panel under investigation, Fox News confirms.

So we checked with State/OIG and was told by Douglas Welty that this is a  “special review of the Accountability Review Board process.” He pointed out that when he spoke with the reporter at Fox, he specifically said this was not an “investigation.” “When OIG uses the term “investigation,” it means we are looking into the possibility of criminal activity,” according to Mr. Welty. 

We asked Mr. Welty if this special review was specifically requested by a congressional representative or some other entity and we’re told the following:

We already had plans to conduct a review of the ARB process when we responded to Senators Lieberman’s and Collins’ post-Benghazi inquiry last year. Our current review is not a response to or the result of the recent congressional investigation or upcoming congressional hearing on the Benghazi attacks.

Reviews, inspections and audits of security issues is an important part of our oversight work. Whenever appropriate, we will check on the status of recommendations made by ARBs, as we did in our Jeddah and “mantraps” reports. The report will note if an ARB recommendation has been implemented. If so, how, and if in process, what is being done. If it has not been implemented and no progress has been made, then that will be noted, as well.

In late December, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Maine released Flashing Red: A Special Report On The Terrorist Attack At Benghazi.

We did, in fact, blog recently about the March 2013 OIG’s review of ARB Jeddah (see 2005 Jeddah ARB Recommended “Remote Safe Areas” for Embassies – Upgrades Coming … Or Maybe Not). That’s the only OIG review of a previous ARB that we are aware of.

We would be interested, of course, to see what the OIG finds in its review of the ARB process. However, there are a couple of things that we are sort of curious about.   One is the fact that the State Department has not had a permanent IG since 2008.  If you look at this org chart, the IG (that is the Deputy IG) reports directly to the Secretary of State. We are curious how often does the IG sits with the Secretary of State – monthly, quarterly, and so on and so forth?  Two, we’re wondering if in practice the IG actually deals more directly with “M” (the Under Secretary of Management) rather than the Secretary of State?  We anticipate that whether justified or not, these two issues may bite in the post-IG review.

Also, given how politicized Benghazi has become, we’re also wondering if it might have been more wise for State/OIG to work with Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity & Efficiency (CIGIE) on this ARB process review.

Of course, even with that, there’s no way to tell if this would end the Benghazi controversy. In fact, our guess is we would be hearing about Benghazi for months to come. Whether or not all the hearings and reports would actually amount to improved security and better risk planning/mitigation for our people overseas remains a big question.

–DS

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