US panel seeks accountability after Benghazi attacks

Updated 06 December 2012

US panel seeks accountability after Benghazi attacks

WASHINGTON: After a car bomb struck the US ambassador's residence in Lima in 1992, the State Department convened a special panel to answer the same questions now hovering over a review of the September attacks in Benghazi, Libya: How much security is enough? What is the right role for U.S. diplomats?
The Lima panel, known as an Accountability Review Board, issued a final report "that didn't find anybody had been delinquent," former U.S. Ambassador to Peru Anthony Quainton said. That report was never made public.
Whether the report by the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, expected to be completed in mid-December, comes to the same conclusion, could affect the arc of a controversy that has seen the Obama White House subjected to withering criticism over security arrangements in Libya and the administration's shifting explanations of the violence.
The attacks on the diplomatic mission and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, in eastern Libya, killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and raised questions about the adequacy of security in far-flung posts.
The panel, led by veteran diplomatic heavyweight Thomas Pickering, is expected to consider whether enough attention was given to potential threats and how Washington responded to security requests from U.S. diplomats in Libya.
A determination that top State Department officials turned down those requests, as Republican congressional investigators allege, could refuel criticism - and possibly even end some officials' careers.
Also in the balance, is the future of funding for embassy security and a policy known as "expeditionary diplomacy," under which envoys are deployed to conflict zones more often than in the past.
Central questions raised after the Benghazi attack include why the ambassador was in such an unstable part of Libya on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The board, which meets at the State Department, could determine whether security was at fault or whether Stevens and the State Department emphasized building ties with the local community at the expense of security concerns in a hostile zone.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pledged to make some of the report's findings public.
NO. 19
Benghazi is the 19th accountability review board convened by the State Department since 1988 to investigate attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities. Until now, only the report on the deadly 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania has been made public.
Attacks in Pakistan and Iraq triggered the most review boards - three each - followed by Saudi Arabia with two.
The five-person independent board usually includes retired ambassadors, a former CIA officer and a member of the private sector. It has the power to issue subpoenas, and members are required to have appropriate security clearances to review classified information.
"The board is meeting and is hard at work. We have decided to keep the deliberations confidential to preserve the integrity and objectivity of the board's work, in accordance with the statute providing for its activity," Pickering said in a statement.
ARBs, as they are known, are not expected to take cookie-cutter approaches but to review issues specific to each diplomatic post.
"In the case of Lima, the issue that arose above other issues was what was the purpose of the attack? I guess this is also a Benghazi question," Quainton said.
"Was it an attempt to assassinate the ambassador or was it an attack on one of the official symbols of U.S. power? These are partly intelligence questions," he said.
Quainton added that he "happily was some distance away" at the time of the Lima attack, which killed three Peruvian policemen. Stevens, by contrast, was in the lightly defended Benghazi post, separated from his security men, and died of apparent smoke inhalation.
The Africa accountability boards did not single out any U.S. government employee as culpable, but found "an institutional failure of the Department of State and embassies under its direction to recognize threats posed by transnational terrorism and vehicle bombs worldwide."
The report recommended improving security and crisis management systems and procedures.
Philip Wilcox, a member of the Nairobi board, said the State Department took its recommendations to heart.
"Security is never something that can be absolutely achieved. And to provide absolute security for American embassies and American diplomats abroad would be to shut down our overseas operations," said Wilcox, now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
"There is no way to enable diplomats to do their work, to meet with foreign officials, foreign citizens, to move around the country, with total security," he said.
Lawmakers and administration officials have praised Stevens for being the type of diplomat who ventured out to meet with Libyans of all walks of life.

The job, diplomats say, is always a balancing act between trying to forge local ties and heeding security concerns.
One former U.S. diplomat, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said the underlying concept of accountability review boards from the beginning was a belief that it had to be somebody's fault and to assign blame.
But Wilcox sees value in the process.
"As a result of the accountability review board that I served on, more money was appropriated, and a great many steps were taken to fulfill the recommendations in the report," he said. "So it's not true these are vain, useless exercises."


South Korean ‘cult’ blamed for spike in coronavirus cases

Updated 29 February 2020

South Korean ‘cult’ blamed for spike in coronavirus cases

  • Critics say the group’s secretive nature and the manner in which it worships could have lead to the fast spread of the virus
  • Most of the confirmed cases are in the city of Daegu, about 300 km southeast of Seoul, where large services for Shincheonji members were held on Feb. 16

SEOUL: With the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketing in South Korea in the past week, a local fringe Christian sect has been blamed for the growing outbreak.
As of Wednesday, a total of 1,261 people had tested positive with 12 deaths reported. Just a week ago, the number of infected persons stood at 50. However, South Korea has seen by far the highest number of the Covid-19 cases outside China.
Health authorities believe the Shincheonji Church of Jesus is at the heart of the alarming spread of the pandemic, as more than half of the confirmed cases have been found to be linked to the religious sect, which is widely regarded as a cult.
“The mass infections came after Shincheonji followers took part in the Feb. 16 service and had frequent contacts around that time,” Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korean Center for Disease Control (KCDC), told reporters on Wednesday.
Most of the confirmed cases are in the city of Daegu, about 300 km southeast of Seoul, where large services for Shincheonji members were held on Feb. 16. Thousands of worshippers are believed to have attended, authorities said.
The other cluster of infections is a hospital in Cheongdo, a neighboring county of Daegu. Shincheonji members are also known to have visited the hospital, according to the KCDC officials.
Officially called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony, the group was founded in 1984 and claims to have around 240,000 followers worldwide.
Shincheonji followers are taught to believe that Lee Man-hee, the founder of the organization, is the second coming or the returned Christ. The church claims the Bible is written in metaphors which only its founder can correctly interpret.
Critics say the group’s secretive nature and the manner in which it worships could have lead to the fast spread of the virus.
“They hold services sitting packed together on the floor and kneel very close to one another,” Shin Hyun-uk, director of the Guri Cult Counseling Center, said.
Shin was a member of the cult for 20 years until 2006 and has been leading a campaign to extract members from the church ever since he realized that “the group was not a normal religion.”
Shin said the Shincheonji churchgoers shout out “amen” at the top of their lungs “after every sentence the pastor utters.”
“While holding services, worshippers send respiratory droplets flying everywhere, causing the virus to be transmitted easily,” he said.
Most members of the church hide their membership, which means the virus goes undetected, Sin warned.
“Few families of the Shincheonji members know their sons, daughters, wives, husbands and parents were taken in the cult religion. I guess only 20 to 30 percent of the family members of the Shincheonji worshippers would recognize it,” he said. “That’s the key reason health officials have difficulty in tracking and curbing the virus being transmitted from worshippers to others.”
A 61-year-old female member of the sect tested positive for the virus last week, but initially refused to be transferred to a hospital so as not to reveal the fact that she had attended Shincheonji gatherings.
A Daegu health official responsible for quarantine also revealed he is a Shincheonji member after being tested positive.
Critics say uncovering the identities of Shincheonji members will be difficult since the group conceals the names of politicians, public officials and other celebrities.
Amid growing public anger at the sect, the group said at the weekend that it will fully cooperate with government investigations.
On Tuesday, officials broke into the group’s headquarters in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province, to discover a full list of members for quarantine measures.
The government said it has secured a list of 212,000 Shincheonji worshippers and will begin conducting coronavirus tests on those who have respiratory symptoms.
Over 800,000 people have signed an online petition since Saturday after it was filed on the website of the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae.
Authorities are looking into how the disease was first transmitted to the group. More than 9,000 Shincheonji worshippers have been put under quarantine.
The Seoul government has been scrambling to contain growing expressions of public anger.
As of Wednesday morning, over 400,000 South Koreans had signed an online petition calling for President Moon Jae-in to be impeached.
Petitioners say Moon failed to halt entry to visitors from all parts of China, only prohibiting the entry of foreigners from China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan, the center of the outbreak, is located.
Meanwhile, the US Forces Korea (USFK) reported on Tuesday that it had detected the first infection in one of its troops. The 23-year-old soldier is stationed at Camp Carroll, near Daegu, but has been quarantined at his home off base, according to the command. The development came a day after a widow of a retired US soldier living in Daegu contracted the virus.
“KCDC and USFK health professionals are actively conducting contact tracing to determine whether any others may have been exposed,” the USFK said in a news release Feb. 25.
“USFK is implementing all appropriate control measures to help control the spread of Covid-19 and remains at risk level ‘high’ for USFK peninsula-wide as a prudent measure to protect the force,” it said.
More countries, including Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore, have started to impose bans on South Korean travelers because of the virus outbreak.