If terrorists attack the U.S. embassy in Iraq and injure or kill American diplomats serving there, the State Department does not have to investigate the incident as it would if it occurred anywhere else in the world, thanks to a tweak to federal law.
Two years ago, the State Department quietly requested -- and received -- a legal provision exempting the secretary of state from a requirement she order rigorous after-action investigations into incidents against embassies or personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the congressman who sponsored the bill. The reason, the lawmaker told ABC News at the time, was that Rice was reluctant to send investigators into harm's way.
The change in the law has gone largely unnoticed until now, when Rice is preparing to require diplomatic personnel to deploy to Iraq to make up a shortfall in State Department officials voluntarily serving there.
THE BLOTTER RECOMMENDS
A State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security spokesman told ABC News in an e-mailed statement that the new law gave Rice "greater flexibility" in how incidents in Iraq or Afghanistan would be investigated, because "the original review procedures...may not be appropriate in such circumstances." All incidents would still be investigated, he said.
"The Department takes the security of the people under its responsibility very seriously and will continue to look into each and every incident involving death, serious injury or significant destruction of property," wrote spokesman Darby Holladay.
The Accountability Review Boards, once required to be assembled in the wake of any attack against State Department personnel or facilities, have been respected for their rigorous investigations and sober conclusions, several former senior State Department officials told ABC News.
In 1998, one such panel criticized then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for failing to "take a personal and active role" in protecting the lives of her diplomatic corps following the terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. In a public statement, Albright said she accepted that responsibility.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., introduced the bill, which exempted the secretary of state from convening the investigative panels, or Accountability Review Boards, in the aftermath of a bombing, murder or other attack on State Department personnel or facilities in Iraq or Afghanistan until September 2009.
At the time of his bill's passage, Smith told ABC News the State Department wanted the law changed "for the safety of the members of the Accountability Review Board." He did not respond to a request for comment.
"I worry about any slackening of the accountability," said retired Adm. Bobby R. Inman, who led a panel in the 1980s which recommended the creation of the Accountability Review Boards. Inman's panel was convened after an embassy bombing in Beirut killed hundreds of U.S. personnel.
The board members, typically a mix of government officials and private-sector executives, are given the power to issue subpoenas to compel testimony and unearth documentation. Roughly a dozen incidents in the last two decades have triggered the State Department to convene special investigative panels to ask difficult questions and determine who should be held responsible.
Inman noted that when his panel recommended the Accountability Review Board process, "it was not done with a thought about having them in an ongoing combat zone."