What the Hillary Hearing Revealed About Her Competence

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens to a question as she testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, on Capitol Hill in Washington October 22. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

There have been many analyses of former Secretary of State Clinton's testimony this week about Benghazi, but most are political. Here's a bureaucratic analysis.

Mrs. Clinton's critics claim that she should have known about the late Amb. Chris Stevens's requests for improved security. The Washington Post said, "On the matter of why the Benghazi diplomatic outpost was so poorly defended, despite requests for additional security, she said Thursday what she has said all along—that those requests never reached her desk."

Let's assume that is true. The question then becomes whether it tells us anything about the way Secretary Clinton managed the Department. Does it matter that those requests did not reach her desk?

The "no" argument is simple. The Department is huge and has hundreds of overseas posts—embassies and consulates, mostly—and many of them are in dangerous or potentially dangerous places. Just about all of them face some risk from terrorists, not just in Tripoli and Benghazi but even in Ottawa and London. Judgments about the required level of security should be left to professionals.

Moreover, given the torrent of information coming in from posts, no secretary can read more than a small percentage of emails and cables—even important ones. One can also add that while Stevens did indeed request more security from the State Department (for example in this July cable) he did not apparently try to reach the secretary directly—even when his requests were denied.

I'm a bit surprised by this, and would have expected him to try to send a cable directly to her—not to the bureaucracy. Ambassadors can caption a cable "From the Ambassador to the Secretary" and use other bureaucratic maneuvers to get a request additional attention. Apparently, Stevens never did this.

But the opposite argument is simple, too, and in my view more compelling. Libya was not in 2012 a backwater of small interest to the seventh floor of the State Department (where the top officials are located) or the White House: the United States had undertaken a military intervention there in 2011.

Amb. Stevens had just gotten there himself in June, 2012. Secretary Clinton had sworn him in herself in May, an honor not all ambassadors get. The administration was interested in Libya and wanted it to be a success story.

But she then dropped the ball. She swore him in on May 14 but after that she never spoke to him again. Obviously, any secretary of state is too busy to talk to her ambassadors all day, but I do recall that during the 2006 Lebanon crisis (which lasted six weeks) Secretary of State Rice spoke many times with Amb. Feltman in Beirut.

What's more, there are I believe no records of any email or cable exchanges between Secretary Clinton and Amb. Stevens. Nor are there records, I believe, of any contact with Stevens by anyone in Secretary Clinton's entourage: from Jake Sullivan or Cheryl Mills or from the Executive Secretary of the Department, Stephen Mull.

It seems that Stevens was simply on his own out there, attached to the State Department just as an ambassador to Belgium would be but with no links to the secretary. Thus, for example, when he wanted more security and was turned down, he does not appear to have had the ties to the secretary's intimate staff that might have permitted a quiet appeal.

Every secretary of state must assemble a team that he or she trusts and that is used to meet the overwhelming responsibilities of the position. The secretary's time is the most valuable commodity in the building, and the close staff helps the secretary manage her time, the Foreign Service, the hundreds of foreign posts, relations with Congress, relations with the White House, and so on.

In my own experience with Secretaries Haig, Shultz and Rice, they did not bring such teams with them, but rather cobbled them together mostly from the available resources in the Department.

Secretary Clinton's case was different: she brought a team with her, consisting largely of people from her years in politics. Shultz's closest aide, for example, was Charles Hill, a career Foreign Service officer. Haig's was Jerry Bremer, also a career officer. This is possibly of significance because it may have explained why Stevens did not seek to get around the denial of his request for more security. He may simply not have had the relationships that would have been required to do this when the Secretary's closest aides were political allies rather than career officers.

Then there is the question of what cables are important and should reach the secretary, in any administration. State has an elaborate secretariat one of whose duties is to decide this, so that the Executive Secretary can move up to the secretary those cables that are viewed as really must reading.

Given the situation in Libya, it is extraordinary to me that no one thought to let the Secretary know that Amb. Stevens was saying he was in danger out there due to inadequate security–indeed saying that the Department's own standards were simply not being met. And this was at a time when there had been an assassination attempt on the British ambassador.

Stevens's request was denied by the Under Secretary of State for Management, Patrick Kennedy. It appears that Kennedy never raised this with Clinton, and that no one in Clinton's close team raised it with her. Perhaps none of them knew about it.

This was the summer of 2012. Had all of this transpired in the summer of 2009, this would have been a new team. But now they had had more than two years in post, working out how things were brought to the Secretary's attention. The failure of anyone—apparently, anyone at all—to understand that this cable was important, that the Secretary had to see it, that she had to be told Stevens's request was in, that she had to be told Stevens's request was being denied—is extraordinary. It suggests that Clinton's team, whatever its other merits, failed at this critical task: being able to bring really important things to her attention.

This doesn't require a meeting or take an hour. It just means that at some scheduled meeting, someone says, "Oh, don't know if you've seen this, but Chris Stevens in Tripoli says his security is bad, and doesn't meet Department standards, and the situation is crummy, but his request for more help was turned down." That's ten seconds.

Perhaps Clinton would have said nothing, and left it to the professionals. Perhaps she'd have asked why. Perhaps she'd have reversed the decision.

But she says no one ever told her. As we know, she was exchanging emails on Libya with Sidney Blumenthal—but not with Chris Stevens. Putting politics aside, that is a bureaucratic failure, an indictment of the management and information system she established in the Department.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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