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Former envoy Pickering on problems at Benghazi mission

Former U.S ambassador Thomas Pickering speaks at the International Economic Alliance Global Investment Symposium in New York September 24, 2
Former U.S ambassador Thomas Pickering speaks at the International Economic Alliance Global Investment Symposium in New York September 24, 2

By Tabassum Zakaria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former American diplomat Thomas Pickering said what struck him most during a review of last year's attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, were the frequent personnel changes, second-guessing on security upgrades, and dismissive attitude toward dozens of security incidents.

The temporary status of the mission also led to uncertainty about providing additional funding, including for security, he said in an interview.

The United States established a diplomatic presence in the eastern Libyan city after the 2011 revolt against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Pickering, who served as a U.S. ambassador in the Middle East, Russia and India, headed an Accountability Review Board (ARB) on the September 11 attacks by militants in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans at the mission and a nearby CIA annex.

The mission compound where Stevens was killed was protected against homemade bomb devices but not the horde of attackers - numbering about 60 - who swarmed in, Pickering said in the interview on Friday in his Washington office.

Nor did it offer adequate protection against the use of fire as a weapon and more attention needs to be paid to that threat at diplomatic posts in the future, Pickering said. Stevens and another American diplomat died of smoke inhalation.

The State Department formed a task force to implement 29 recommendations in the ARB report and sent security assessment teams to 19 U.S. missions in 13 countries for an on-the-ground review of posts in high-threat environments.

The department has a three-part plan for fixing security issues at those posts by boosting the number of Marines, adding Diplomatic Security officers and increasing money to deal with construction problems, Pickering said.

"They had found things that needed to be fixed and that the three major programs they were putting in place were designed to immediately find answers to those problems," he said.

The Benghazi attacks have been the subject of congressional hearings and now some Republicans are threatening to hold up President Barack Obama's nominations for top posts unless he releases more information about the administration's response.

The ARB report was released in December, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accepted all of its recommendations. Her successor, Secretary of State John Kerry, is expected to follow through on them.

One concrete result of the ARB recommendations was that four State Department employees stepped down from their jobs.

"The most difficult area was obviously the personnel area," Pickering said. "We believe that our recommendations were fully carried out."

CHURN SURPRISE

As a seasoned diplomat, Pickering said he was surprised by the frequent rotations of officers - diplomats and security alike - in Libya.

"All the officers in Benghazi were subject to churn," he said. They served on average less than 40 days, many for 30 days or less, with similar rotations at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli.

Into a "very dicey environment" came security officers who had high-threat training but no State Department overseas experience, and there was no continuity, Pickering said.

"Getting on top of your job in a difficult situation obviously takes more than 30 days," he said. "And so these really good officers were disadvantaged by the fact that they had no memory beyond 30 days of what was going on and what had happened except what their predecessors left them."

Pickering said he was also surprised by the reaction to about 40 security incidents aimed at foreigners between April and September in Benghazi. They were largely seen as unrelated rather than pieces of a growing security threat, he said.

"Each individual incident was examined and dismissed on the basis of, one, it didn't involve the U.S. or if it involved the U.S. it was one-off, or that because it involved the U.S. and it was one-off it was only because a disgruntled employee may have been involved," Pickering said.

Proper evaluation was lacking about what appeared to be a slow and steady growth in anti-foreign, Islamic fundamentalist-inspired violence in Benghazi, he said.

"And I think that it was a problem of churn and people getting used to the background, and it fading in background noise rather than being highlighted."

SECOND-GUESSING

Pickering also said he was troubled by the difficulties faced in getting approval for security upgrades.

"I was concerned by the difficulties that they had in getting through the system approvals for security upgrades and it took probably too much time under the circumstances and an amount of second-guessing which was not appropriate to the increasing danger," he said.

Threat assessments by intelligence agencies were fairly general and more focused on Libya as a whole rather than eastern Libya where Benghazi is located, he said.

"We made a recommendation that the intelligence community should have more specific requirements about collecting intelligence for the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities," Pickering said.

"We thought that it was not clear enough in the reporting that we saw and the assessments we saw that they had given that high enough priority."

It was a small threat assessment unit in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security that came closest to getting it right in a report months before the attacks that noted a trend of growing security problems in Benghazi, Pickering said.

"The problem was that was a highly specialized report for a very limited purpose and didn't get wide distribution," he said. "So the people who were sharp and understood this were in fact sort of hidden under their own bushel."

He would not comment on who was behind the attacks because that will be determined by the FBI, but other officials say some of the attackers appeared to be linked to an al Qaeda affiliate.

The attack on the nearby CIA annex showed sophistication.

"After midnight they were harassed by enemy fire, obviously in the end that was to determine where the defenders were. And then they used mortars because there was no top defense and with five mortar shots in 90 seconds killed two people," he said.

"Highly technical, highly experienced, highly sophisticated tactics - so we are not against rank amateurs there."

(Editing by Paul Simao)

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