Where Does the Buck Stop in the Benghazi Situation?

An important political, if not constitutional, question has arisen over the meaning of the statement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on October 15, 2012 that "I take responsibility" for the actions or non-action of the State Department over the events in Benghazi, leading to the death of four Americans. What action by the State Department or by the White House should follow from such a confession? Clinton herself declared, "I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000 people all over the world," and took the matter very personally.

British political experience might be helpful in providing an answer to the appropriate course of action. Democratic political systems embody a fundamental proposition that ministers or heads of a unit are answerable for actions of subordinates who are technically under their supervision. Ministers should take or be accorded the consequent credit or blame for the successes or failures of those actions.

Clearly, the outcome of responsibility for failure of policy is not always obvious or unambiguous. Neville Chamberlain in May 1940 avoided a vote of no confidence against him but resigned as Prime Minister because of strong criticism in the House of Commons resulting from the catastrophic defeat of British forces in Norway by the Germans. 

However, two cases can be regarded as more pertinent. These were the resignations in July 1954 of Sir Thomas Dugdale, as Secretary of Agriculture, and of Lord Carrington as Foreign Minister in 1982.

Dugdale resigned his post as a result of political criticisms of his civil servants who had displayed unfair treatment because they had forced a farmer to sell his land to the government at Crichel Down in Dorset. Though Dugdale was not personally involved in the events in any way he resigned because "I, as minister, must accept full responsibility for any mistakes and inefficiency of officials in my department." Presumably he might have avoided resignation, on the argument that an individual minister has an obligation to inform the legislature of mistakes made but is not bound to defend actions of which he or she might be unaware.     

The second example is a more serious one regarding policy. Lord Carrington and two senior officials in the Foreign Office, resigned three days after the Argentinians on April 2, 1982 had invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands, a British territory. The 1800 inhabitants there wanted to retain their existing connection with Britain. Carrington had unsuccessfully sought a diplomatic solution with the military regime of Argentina, along with a limited military commitment to the islanders. The invasion was felt to be a humiliating affront to Britain.  Carrington, though not facing any vote of censure, thought it was right for him to resign because he had been responsible for the conduct of foreign policy.

There are few definite and accepted political rules relevant to responsibility of ministers for actions or non-actions by members of their departments. The convention of political responsibility is not subject to legal enforcement.

However, in democratic systems ministers should be held to account for mismanagement or failure of oversight or improper supervision, or for mistakes made while in charge of their department. This is true in the Benghazi situation. The reality that governmental issues, both external and internal, have become so complex, staffs so large, and political relationships between the Secretary of State and the President may be ambiguous or contentious are not valid reasons to evade accountability.

At the very least, those involved in Benghazi should be required to explain policy, admit mistakes, and devise plans to correct errors. Resignation by those responsible in the State Department or the White House may be befitting, although this may depend on the individual involved, the extent of the involvement in the particular issue, and relations with the head of government and political leaders. The complication in the case of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State is twofold. One factor is that she has already, before the Benghazi issue, announced her resignation from office. The other factor is that her continuing illness makes it unlikely she can comply with the other options of full explanations and corrective measures appropriate for ministers in abiding by the norms of the democratic process.

Because of the indisposition of the Secretary of State the logical conclusion is that it is now incumbent that the White House to accept responsibility for the Benghazi disaster and act accordingly.

Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist?  A Sovereign Nation under Attack by the International Community.

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