By Tabassum Zakaria and Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After a car bomb struck the U.S. 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 of a policy, known as "expeditionary diplomacy," under which envoys deploy 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 September 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.
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. In addition to Kenya and Tanzania, there was one each for violence in Peru, Honduras, Greece, the Philippines, Bolivia, Jordan, Gaza, and Sudan.
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 all those 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 - meaning me - or was it an attack on one of the official symbols of U.S. power flying the U.S. flag, the ambassador's residence in my case, and the consulate in Benghazi. And that is partly a question of intelligence," 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, became separated from his security men, and died of apparent smoke inhalation.
FIXING PROBLEMS OR ASSIGNING BLAME?
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, 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."
(Editing by Warren Strobel and Mohammad Zargham)