Secretary of State John Kerry met Monday with the family of a 25-year-old Foreign Service officer who’d died in a suicide bombing in southern Afghanistan nine days earlier.
Kerry’s meeting with the family of Anne Smedinghoff was closed to news reporters, and the State Department declined to offer details of the private talks.
But the meeting provided Kerry an opportunity to express a personal sense of loss to Smedinghoff’s parents, with whom Kerry already had spoken by phone when he first learned of the death shortly after it occurred April 6.
Meanwhile, a State Department spokesman said that while the incident was being investigated by the FBI, the Department of Defense and State Department Diplomatic Security, there would be no administrative review board convened to probe the circumstances of what took place. Such a review into the events leading up to the death in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens concluded that department middle managers and poor communications were responsible for the security lapses that led to Stevens’ death.
Spokesman Patrick Ventrell said U.S. law specifically exempts events in Iraq and Afghanistan from such an investigation.
Kerry had met Smedinghoff, an assistant press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, a week before her death when she was assigned to accompany him on a brief visit to Afghanistan, and he eulogized her several times during a 10-day trip that took him to Jerusalem, London, Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo. It was on his return from Tokyo to Washington that Kerry made a previously unscheduled stop in Chicago for the meeting with Smedinghoff’s family.
The secretary, who in earlier public comments described Smedinghoff as “everything a Foreign Service officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country,” carried a bouquet of yellow flowers as he arrived to see the family.
Smedinghoff died when a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives outside a U.S. base in Qalat, Afghanistan, as she and perhaps a dozen other people were assembling for a ceremony to mark the donation of children’s books to a local school.
The intended target of the bomber, the governor of Zabul province, who was in a convoy driving to the ceremony, was unhurt by the blast. But Smedinghoff and four other Americans who died – three American soldiers and a Defense Department contractor – were on foot, making them especially vulnerable to the effects of the blast.
It was the worst single act of violence against Americans so far this year in Afghanistan and the first time in 11 years of warfare there that an American diplomat was killed in the line of duty.
An Afghan television reporter who Smedinghoff had accompanied from Kabul and who was wounded in the bombing told McClatchy that the group would not have been near the explosion had it not gotten lost while walking to the ceremony from the headquarters of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, or PRT. After the group was told that the first building they’d reached was an agriculture institute and not the school, the television reporter said, they retraced their steps to the PRT to determine what to do next. The group was re-entering the PRT’s base when the bomb detonated, the reporter said.
Ventrell on Monday disputed that version of events.
“Media reports suggesting that the group was lost are simply incorrect. They were going to a compound across the street from the PRT,” he said in written responses to emailed questions.
Ventrell also denied that the State Department initially had told the family that Smedinghoff was in an armored vehicle that was rammed by the bomber.
“We have always known that the convoy was walking on foot at the time of the attack and we communicated that information to the families including on the day of the attack,” he said.
Ventrell said the purpose of what he called the "mission" that led to Smedinghoff’s death was a news conference featuring the senior U.S. official in southern Afghanistan and the Zabul governor to promote a book donation project and the “growth of literacy.”
Ventrell called “highlighting Afghanistan’s ongoing progress for both national and international media” an “integral part of our work.”
“This is what we do, and we believe in it,” he said. “Our diplomats believe in getting out beyond the wire to reach people. In this case we were engaging with the people of Afghanistan AND the local government.”