Army report on death of young State Department officer in Afghanistan confirms group was lost

Mark SeibelMcClatchy Washington Bureau

The Chicago Tribune on Thursday published a lengthy story on the U.S. Army's investigation into the death last year of State Department press officer Anne Smedinghoff that contradicts much of what the State Department said at the time. In particular, it confirms this account by McClatchy's Jay Price that the group Smedinghoff was part of was lost when a bomb exploded in the Afghan city of Qalat on April 6, 2013.

You can read the Tribune report here.

At the time, the explosion was the deadliest incident to hit U.S. personnel in Afghanistan in 2013 and was the first time an American diplomat had been killed there since the U.S. invaded in 2001. In addition to Smeddinghoff, who was in her second overseas posting, three U.S. soldiers and a civilian contractor died in the blast, which was thought to have been aimed at a convoy carrying the local Afghan provincial governor, who was on his way to meet a senior State Department official to highlight a book donation.

The Army investigation, the Tribune reported, found that a more likely target was Jonathan Addleton, a top State Department official for southern Afghanistan, whose presence at the book donation event had probably been leaked to the Taliban by Afghan officials who'd been told the event's schedule.

The Army report was scathing, the Tribune said. “The platoon did not know the exact number of people they were escorting, they did not conduct a formal risk assessment, they did not have a specific threat analysis, and they had the wrong location for the school,” the Tribune said, quoting the report.

The report raises a key question about the value of the event itself, which the State Department said then was an important "mission." But Qalat was in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous regions, and the 25-year-old Smedinghoff was among a group of volunteers requisitioned from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to fly to Qalat and wrangle Afghan reporters who'd also been flown in from the capital. The Army report called it a "media extravaganza." One soldier described the event, the Tribune said, as a chance for some "happy snaps." Said the Tribune: "The Army unit at the base didn’t want to provide security because it didn’t understand why it should be carrying out such a mission and the security platoon already had other missions planned for that day. What’s more, civilians were not wearing the proper protective gear."

In light of the Army's report -- which took the Tribune eight months to get after it filed a Freedom of Information Act request last August -- it's worthwhile recalling what the State Department said at the time. The spokesman cited in this story was Patrick Ventrell, who has since left the State Department to become National Security Adviser Susan Rice's communications director.

This is some of what he said then: “Media reports suggesting that the group was lost are simply incorrect. They were going to a compound across the street from the PRT,” referring to the local American outpost. Here's how the Tribune characterized what took place, based on the Army investigation: "When Smedinghoff and the others walked through the base’s south gate that morning of April 6, 2013, they turned left and headed to where they thought the school was. But a guard at the compound door where they knocked said they needed to go to another door, so the group turned around and headed back the way they came." That's when the first bomb, hidden in a pallet, exploded.

At the time, Ventrell said the purpose of the "mission" that led to Smedinghoff’s death was a news conference featuring the senior U.S. official in southern Afghanistan and the governor of Zabul province to promote a book donation project and the “growth of literacy.” He called “highlighting Afghanistan’s ongoing progress for both national and international media” an “integral part of our work.” The Tribune says the Army report found that "The company supplying the books also desired 'more media reporting.' "

It's unclear whether there's been much soul searching at the State Department. In the Tribune story, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki sounds unrepentant. “The only people responsible for this tragedy were the extremists opposed to the mission,” the Tribune quotes her as saying, then adds that "a classified internal review of the day was conducted, . . . and the department determined no State rules were broken."

In the wake of the death, the State Department "has established a 'checklist of security measures' that are now coordinated at the operational level." the Tribune wrote, quoting Psaki as saying, "If for some reason the US military unit is unable to meet the provisions of the checklist, State Department personnel will not participate.”

As if the military had set the whole thing up in the first place.

By Mark Seibel
McClatchy Washington Bureau