Knowing Its Dangers, Chris Stevens Still Chose to Travel to Benghazi

U.S. Representative Elijah Cummings, ranking member on the House Select Committee on Benghazi, speaks to reporters after Bryan Pagliano (not pictured), aide to former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, appeared at a private session at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on September 10. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

An open letter to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Chair, House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi, Libya

From David B. Dlouhy and Douglas McElhaney, retired career Foreign Service officers

Our friend and colleague Ambassador Chris Stevens and his three co-workers Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed in Benghazi three years ago.

As career professionals with a combined 68 years in the Foreign Service, we are asking that you show honesty and integrity. Disband your Benghazi committee now. The committee has morphed from its original legislative charter and is acting in violation of that legislation. You do not want or need to become the successor to Joe McCarthy.

Immediately after the terrorist attack, and pursuant to the Omnibus Diplomatic and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened an Accountability Review Board. Three months after the attack, on December 19, 2012, the board, headed by Ambassador Tom Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen, delivered a detailed report and 29 policy recommendations.

Twenty months after the Benghazi attack, on May 8, 2014, the House passed H. 567, establishing the Select Committee. It is now 17 months after the committee was established and millions of taxpayer dollars later, and the committee has failed in its assigned nine tasks. The memory of our fallen colleagues is being done a great disservice by your committee. They are being used for your own political ends.

The facts of what happened and why were clearly established by the Accountability Review Board:

  • Ambassador Chris Stevens was responsible for the decision to travel to Benghazi. In-country travel is solely at the discretion of the ambassador, and he did not need to seek Department of State approval.
  • He traveled to Benghazi knowing full well that his physical and personnel security concerns had not been adequately addressed by the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Despite the security concerns, he traveled nonetheless due to personnel rotation in Benghazi and to re-establish contacts in Benghazi.
  • He left Benghazi on November 17, 2011, and returned as ambassador to Libya on September 10, 2012. In that intervening time, and in the six months prior to September 11, there had been 20 security incidents. Despite a CIA presence in Benghazi, Stevens was unaware of the evolution of the militias that subsequently killed him and his colleagues.

We have served as ambassadors or chargés d'affaires in war zones: in the civil war in El Salvador, in the drug war in Bolivia and both in Bosnia. In-country travel is an issue of risk management versus strategic purpose. The regional security officer, the CIA station chief, the defense attaché and other embassy staff all have input and make recommendations.

In the end, it is the ambassador or chargé's judgment and call. As the Accountability Review Board documented, Ambassador Stevens made the decision to travel.

It took the Accountability Review Board three months to complete its work. You have turned the death of Ambassador Stevens and our colleagues into a sideshow and a political witch hunt over servers and emails.

Ambassador Stevens is dead, and we continue to grieve. He would be the first to take responsibility for his own decision. In trying to protect him and themselves during the terrorist attack in Benghazi, our colleagues showed unmatched courage.

We ask you to summon political courage. Dissolve the committee now.

Douglas McElhaney served for 34 years in the Foreign Service, including as U.S. ambassador to Bosnia. David B. Dlouhy served for 36 years in the Department of State, including as U.S. representative to the Bosnia Peace Implementation Council and chargé in El Salvador, Luxembourg and Bolivia.