POLITICS
11/29/2012 05:30 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2012

Susan Rice Role In Lead-Up To Africa Embassy Bombings Recalled As Minimal

WASHINGTON -- Members of an outside review board that investigated the 1998 terrorist bombings at two U.S. embassies in Africa told The Huffington Post on Thursday that they didn't recall any direct role that Susan Rice, then a State Department official focused on Africa, had played in the failure to prevent the attacks.

"I don't remember any inference or allegation that Susan Rice had been negligent," said Philip Wilcox, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and a member of the review board created by the State Department.

Rice's responsibility, if any, for protecting those embassies became a subject of debate this week after Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) raised it as a new line of attack against the possible nomination of Rice as secretary of state. The attacks in August 1998 left more than 200 people dead, including 12 Americans working at the embassies.

Rice, now the United Nations ambassador, has already been accused by Republican senators of spreading an intentionally misleading account of the September attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. On Wednesday, Collins suggested she might hold up Rice's possible nomination over lingering concerns about the African embassy attacks, which took place when Rice was assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

"What troubles me so much is the Benghazi attack in many ways echoes the attacks on those embassies in 1998, when Susan Rice was head of the African region for our State Department. In both cases, the ambassadors begged for additional security," Collins told reporters on Wednesday.

Collins added that when she had asked Rice about the attacks and the security at the embassies, Rice responded that she was not directly involved but "would have to refresh her memory” about the events.

In the late 1990s, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Prudence Bushnell, repeatedly requested that the State Department take more seriously her concerns about the Nairobi embassy's exposure to possible attack, even sending an emotional plea to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the security situation was "endangering the lives of embassy personnel."

Seven months later, twin bombings, later attributed to the nascent al Qaeda, destroyed U.S. facilities in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Bushnell did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Huffington Post.

The Accountability Review Board, formed by the State Department in late 1998 to investigate the bombings, concluded that although the Nairobi embassy was positioned too close to a busy intersection and there were heightened security concerns at the time, there were "no intelligence reports immediately before the bombing" that might have warned an attack was imminent.

The State Department had previously responded to Bushnell's requests by reassessing the security posture at the embassy and offering to send a specialized team to the region. It has also concluded that greater steps, including moving part of the embassy's facility away from the intersection, would prove prohibitively expensive.

Rice was interviewed for the review board investigation, although her name never appears in its final report. Instead, the report focuses on officials in diplomatic security and State Department management, who were responsible for responding to Bushnell's requests.

Bonnie Cohen, the undersecretary of state for management at the time, told HuffPost on Thursday that she didn't recall any specific role played by Rice, whose job was focused more on politics and policy.

"I think if you look at the organizational chart, it makes it pretty clear where that responsibility lies," Cohen said.

Ultimately, the review board faulted what it called "systemic and institutional failures in Washington" and concluded that "no employee of the U.S. government" had "breached his or her responsibility."

"I don't recall anything about [Rice having a role]," said Michael Armacost, an international studies fellow at Stanford University and another member of the board. "What was striking I think to everybody was how the [Nairobi] embassy was located right on the street -- that was the overall impression that I had."

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Sen. Collins, said Thursday that the senator had no specific reason for believing Rice had failed in her duties in the late 1990s, but simply wanted to hear more from Rice about the role she had played.

"Given Ambassador Rice's position in the State Department at the time, she had to be aware of the requests for increased security at the embassies and that those requests had been turned down," Kelley said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Kevin Kelley, spokesman for Sen. Susan Collins.

ALSO ON HUFFPOST:

Secretaries Of State

1,868 Comments