Staffers at State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. held their own private ceremony Wednesday to commemorate the first anniversary of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya after finding out the agency would not be organizing a formal, official memorial service.
The Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attack left four people dead, including the American Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and Sean Smith, an information management officer in the department’s foreign service.
A State Department staffer who worked with Stevens in Libya and asked not to be named told TPM there were about 20 to 25 staffers at the memorial. The informal gathering was put together after staffers inquired and learned the department would not be holding an official event to mark the anniversary.The event was held in the lobby of State Department headquarters at a memorial plaque bearing the names of Stevens, Smith, and other foreign service officers who have lost their lives while on duty.
“It was very meaningful — we hugged, told stories, laughed, cried. Someone put flowers by the wall, we stood awkwardly, then we went back to work,” the staffer said of the event.
Neither Secretary of State John Kerry nor former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who led the department when the attack took place, were invited to the small gathering. The staffer said only those who had worked in Libya received invites: “It was solely people who had been in Libya with Chris.”
According to the employee, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli held its own event commemorating the anniversary of the attack, and Kerry acknowledged the attack in an “annual all-department email to commemorate the day.”
However, the staffer said the group that held the memorial was never given an explanation for why there was not a larger memorial event at headquarters in Washington. The staffer theorized it could have been because the department distracted by the ongoing situation in Syria or, potentially, because a May ceremony where Stevens and Smith’s names were added to the memorial plaque in the lobby was considered sufficient.
State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach confirmed to TPM on Sunday that there was no official commemoration held at the headquarters in Washington beyond the email sent by Kerry on the anniversary Wednesday. That email was entitled “Remembering September 11” and acknowledged both the 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi and the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The spokesman provided a copy of that email to TPM.
“For all of us, September 11 is much more than another day on a calendar or another anniversary. It’s a day like none other. Seeing American flags flying at half-staff brings back powerful and haunting memories of loved ones, friends and colleagues lost on two awful days — last year and twelve years ago — that remind us in searing ways just how complicated and dangerous a world we live in,” Kerry wrote.
In the email, which was read at the State Department’s daily press briefing Wednesday, Kerry encouraged staffers to take a “quiet moment of remembrance and reflection.” Gerlach said Kerry also led a moment of silence at a meeting with senior staff that day.
“I hope that as you read this, wherever you are in the world, you’ll join me for a quiet moment of remembrance and reflection. It may be a thought, a hope, a prayer or a wish,” Kerry wrote in the email. “My hope is that as we remember our fallen colleagues from both September 11s and all the other sad days, we never forget the reason we do what we do.”
When asked why the State Department did not have a formal ceremony marking the anniversary of the Benghazi attack, Gerlach pointed to congressional investigations that he said have politicized the discussion. Investigations led by Republican House members have criticized the Obama administration and Clinton for their initial explanations for the attack.
Gerlach said the State Department has also worked on implementing security procedures recommended by the Accountability Review Board convened by Clinton in the attack’s aftermath. He also urged the Republican-chaired House Oversight Committee to adopt the same priorities in its investigations into the attack.
“We were focused on two things as the anniversary approached: honoring those we lost, and making sure we take steps to implement the ARB’s recommendations to make our people safe so this doesn’t happen again,” said Gerlach. “We wish that the House Oversight Committee were focused on the same things.”
The staffer who told TPM about the informal ceremony also echoed the frustration with how the attack had been politicized.
“I admit I didn’t watch much broadcast media on the day of, because it had been so painful to watch the talking heads use my colleagues bodies’ as political cudgels in the last year,” the staffer said, “but nothing I saw in online media seemed to mention it as anything more than an also-ran.”