Issa — Kerry Paper Shuffling Saga: What’s With the 7-Month Administrative Leave?

— By Domani Spero

On July 31, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa fired another letter to Secretary of State John Kerry inquiring about the status of the four State Department personnel officially assigned blame over the disaster in Benghazi.  Diplomatic Security officials, Eric Boswell, Charlene Lamb, Steve Bultrowicz and NEA official, Raymond Maxwell were placed on paid administrative leave following the release of the ARB Benghazi Report in December 2012.  To-date, these officials have been on bureaucratic limbo with an end promised; though the “when” does not appear to be in sight.

We’ve lost count how many Issa letters are fluttering around the hallways of Foggy Bottom. And we’ve lost count how many pages of paper reportedly have been provided by the State Department to Congress. We heard pages and pages and pages of papers.  We trust that the papers provided actually contained or will contain relevant information, and not the telephone directories or photocopies of the Foreign Affairs Manual or the Foreign Affairs Handbook.

Seriously, we are pissed at this paper shuffling saga playing out between the State Department and Congress.  In a perfect world, the Oversight Committee should focus on what went wrong, what can be done to prevent another Benghazi from happening and forget about 2016.  In a perfect world, the State Department and the CIA should acknowledge their faults and shortcomings in what happened and help the American public understand the human cost of doing work in the dark corners of the world.   That is a naive view, of course.  In the real world, these folks are playing a game of mud, assuring the public that one mud is clearer and cleaner than the other. Frankly, that’s all horseshit, with apology to the horse. And while this game is playing on, there are real life consequences.

The DS bureau has been described as in a “hell of hurt” these days.  Not only because it lost three of its top officials in one messy swoop, but also because one of those officials was an important cog in the assignment wheel of about 1,900 security officers.  If the assignments of DS agents overseas have been a great big mess for the last several months, you may account that to the fact that Ms. Lamb, the person responsible for managing and directing all Bureau of Diplomatic Security programs and policies including personnel, had been put inside a deep freezer.  While planning has never been a State Department strength, succession planning is altogether a foreign object.  No nominee has been announced to succeed Ms. Lamb as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs.  Robert Hartung, the Assistant Director for Threat Investigation and Analysis Directorate has been appointed the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs according to the DS website.  The State Department telephone directory, however, has not even bothered  to list Mr. Hartung as acting DAS for International Programs.

Note and question of the day:  “Diplomatic Security is under intense pressure following Benghazi so now all resources are put towards “high threat” areas.  Nevertheless, experienced and well regarded DS officers at overseas posts are finding it impossible to stay out – even when they are the first choice for the receiving post.  When it gets to the panel – DS management declines to allow the agents to be paneled for the job.  I’ve known experienced agents being turned down for Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq because they’ve “been out too long.”  This is not an issue for other Foreign Service officers so why is it for Diplomatic Security?”

Got that in our inbox today.  Don’t know the answer except perhaps to point out that there is no/no email inside the freezer.

In any case, Mr. Issa’s July 31 letter to Secretary Kerry provides some interesting items.

1.  Apparently, the Committee has heard testimony from all four individuals faulted by the ARB, as well as their supervisors and colleagues. Witnesses reportedly testified that the Department offered “assurances” to Boswell, Bultrowicz, Lamb and Maxwell that their administrative leave status would be temporary and that they would return to new assignments within the Department.  Those assurances  seem to indicate that  the firing is part of a PR strategy more than accountability. Did State expect all four officials to just stay quiet as rocks until the political storm blows over?   A side note — Gregory Starr, recently nominated to succeed Boswell as top boss of Diplomatic Security praised these officers before Congress for giving “their careers to diplomatic security as well and the security of the Department of State.”  They are all praiseworthy enough that seven months on and the Secretary of State still has no idea what to do with them.

2.  And because Mr. Issa is still enamored with the Benghazi Talking Points, his letter brings up former spokeswoman Victoria Nuland’s “promotion” to be Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.  He also brought up former NEA PDAS Elizabeth Dibble who was recently appointed as Deputy Chief of Mission to London.  And Greg Hicks, former DCM at US Embassy Tripoli who was apparently unable to find a “comparable overseas assignment” ten months after curtailing from Libya.

3. The only person from the NEA Bureau officially assigned blamed by the ARB was Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell.  He was apparently singled out because he stopped attending morning meetings held to read certain intelligence material, which, according to witnesses interviewed by the Committee, contained no information that would have caused Maxwell or anyone else to adjust the security posture at Special Mission Benghazi.  The Acting NEA boss, Ambassador Elizabeth Jones, who supervised Maxwell, reportedly agreed with the ARB’s conclusion that it was inappropriate for Mr. Maxwell to stop attending the daily intelligence read-book meetings. She testified, however, that Maxwell’s failure to read the daily intelligence had no connection to the inadequate security posture of the U.S. mission in Benghazi.  So, of all the people working in the NEA bureau, how did Mr. Maxwell become “it”?

4.  Apparently, neither Ambassador Jones nor Eric Boswell viewed “administrative leave” as a common practice, and according to Mr. Issa’s letter, neither was aware of any prior use of such an extended period of administrative leave.  Neither of them ever heard of Peter Van Buren who was locked out of Foggy Bottom and placed on paid administrative leave for about a year? Well, that is interesting.

5.  Eric Boswell reportedly testified that a State Department senior official told him the period of paid administrative leave would be brief. So, not only temporary but also brief.  Damn, what’s the world coming to … if you can’t even trust a senior State Department official’s words of reassurance.  Mr. Boswell should have had in writing the meaning of the word “brief.”  Just saying.

Mr. Issa’s letter requires answers to the following 10 questions for Secretary Kerry; well he’s the Secretary of State, his staff or those same senior officials will obviously task worker bees to work on an acceptable response to Congress.

  • Who made the decision to place the four individuals named in the ARB report on paid administrative leave?
  • For each of the four individuals on paid administrative leave, when was the decision made and what were the specific reasons for the decision?
  • What is the State Department’s internal definition of paid administrative leave?
  • Please describe any steps the Department has taken to evaluate the respective performances of the individuals who were placed on paid administrative leave.
  • Besides the findings of the ARB, what information is being considered as part of the performance evaluation process?
  • Who is conducting the performance evaluation(s)? Who will make a recommendation regarding how the administrative leave status should be resolved?
  • Is the Department delaying a final determination due to the ongoing congressional investigation or any other ongoing review, including, but not limited to a review being conducted by the Office of the Inspector General? If yes, please identify the investigation or review that is delaying the final determination.
  • Does the Department intend to offer individuals placed on paid leave a formal opportunity to respond to the ARB’s criticisms of their conduct before making final decisions? Will their responses be made public?
  • How many times have you been briefed on the status of each of the four individuals placed on paid administrative leave?
  • Explain why you have been unwilling or unable to reach decisions on these important personnel matters.

Unfortunately, Mr. Issa did not ask the more important questions. What actions did these four individuals take that made them blamable for Benghazi?   What evidence did the ARB have against these individuals and why are those kept classified?  Was any one of them directly responsible for opening up the Special Mission in Benghazi? Was anyone of them directly responsible for whatever agreement the State Department-CIA had on the security and operation of the temporary mission?  Was anyone of them directly responsible for turning down the request for more security? Why were they given assurances that their administrative leave status would be temporary and that they would return to new assignments within the Department if an investigation was ongoing?  These assurances — do these assurances  show the predetermined  nature of whatever investigation? Because if there is an investigation, and no one as yet know how it will turn out, how can anyone make stupid promises like these?

Were these promises to the four individuals routinely made to FSOs in trouble like Peter Van Buren?  Peter — yohoo! Did anyone ever tell you  your admin leave status would be temporary and that you would return to a new assignment within the Department at the conclusion of your investigation? What? They padlocked the door after you?

Oh hey, is it true that folks in the upper echelons of the State Department — those who are looked up as leaders and as models of behavior by the rank and file — no longer even look in the mirror afraid of what they’ll see there? Ay madre de dios!

Below is Mr. Issa’s letter in full.  Click on the lower right hand corner of the Scribd screen to display the letter in full screen.   WARNING: Reading may put you on full jaded and sour mood.