Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday she has formed an “accountability review board” to investigate the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
Clinton told reporters that the panel would be chaired by Thomas Pickering, a highly regarded retired U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, Jordan and at the U.S. Mission at the United Nations, according to Reuters.
Such panels, made up of four people chosen by the secretary of state and one by the U.S. intelligence community, are charged with writing a report on whether security systems and procedures were adequate, and they might recommend improvements.
Lawmakers have demanded answers on how Stevens, a State Department information management officer and two security agents could have died in the incident, and whether sufficient security was in place.
The panel’s inquiry is separate from an FBI probe of the Benghazi attack.
Clinton reiterated that the U.S. will continue to support Libya and other Middle Eastern governments fighting extremism. “We continue to support those who are fighting for universal values,” Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department.
Speaking at a news conference before she briefed U.S. lawmakers, Clinton also stressed the importance of U.S. relations with such countries despite questions about whether the United States should continue aid following the protests.
“We are concerned, first and foremost, with our own people and facilities, but we are concerned about the internal security in these countries because ultimately that puts at risk the men, women and children of these societies on a daily, ongoing basis if actions are not taken to try to restore security,” she added.
Meanwhile, appearing at a forum sponsored by Univision and Facebook, and hosted by the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, President Barack Obama said the United States would not retreat from the region.
“My message to the presidents of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and these other countries: we want to be a partner with you, we will work with you and we stand on the side of democracy,” he said.
“But democracy is not just an election, it’s also are you looking out for minority rights, are you respecting freedom of speech, are you treating women fairly?” he added.
“The one thing we can't do is withdraw from the region. The United States continues to be the one indispensable nation.”
Earlier Thursday, the White House said that last week’s deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Libyan city of Benghazi was a “terrorist attack” by militants who may have had al-Qaeda ties.
“It is self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said, in a statement read to reporters on Air Force One.
“We are looking at indications that an individual involved in the attack may have had a connection to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda affiliates,” he added, citing Matthew Olsen, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center.
“This is the best information what we have right now. There is an ongoing investigation,” Carney said, according to AFP.
Meanwhile, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns flew to Libya on Thursday for a ceremony to honor ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans who were killed in Benghazi last week.
“We have lost a wonderful colleague, we have lost a wonderful ambassador,” Burns said at the ceremony which was attended by diplomats and representatives of international organizations as well as Libyan officials.
“He believed in Libya. He believed in you,” Burns added, noting the formidable tasks ahead including safeguarding human rights, building security institutions and an economy that realizes “full potential for all Libyans.”
Mohammad al-Megaryef, chairman of the national assembly, again extended Libya’s condolences to the families of the victims.
“These events only strengthen the determination of the pertinent authorities to arrest and judge those responsible and reinforce the security of diplomatic missions,” Megaryef said.
The attack was carried out on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and amid protests in the Muslim world against an anti-Islamic film.
Benghazi was the cradle of last year’s Libyan revolt that ousted strongman Muammar Qaddafi, and the region is still prey to several loosely-organized militia groups with varying degrees of ties to the interim government.
Initial reports suggested the U.S. consulate had been attacked by Islamist protesters angered by an amateur movie produced by private U.S. Christian groups deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
But the gang that stormed the compound and torched the consulate was heavily-armed, and Libyan officials have said that a militant group took advantage of the protest to launch a pre-planned attack.
“The best information we have now, the facts that we have now indicate that this was an opportunistic attack on our embassy,” Olsen told the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday.
“The attack began and evolved and escalated over several hours at our embassy -- our diplomatic post in Benghazi,” he said, in Wednesday’s briefing.
“At this point, what I would say is that a number of different elements appear to have been involved in the attack, including individuals connected to militant groups that are prevalent in eastern Libya,” he said.
“We are looking at indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” the global network’s North Africa franchise.
The nature of the assault has become a political issue in Washington, with Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign pushing the idea that U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration was ill-prepared for it.