The unclassified report from the independent investigation into the attacks on Sept. 11 at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, provides a bracing anatomy of a tragedy. It would be a mistake, however, to accept it as a blueprint for reform of security at U.S. facilities overseas.
Consider the black-ops elephant in the room: The site where U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and communications officer Sean Smith lost their lives was a special mission, not a consulate, and was yoked to a facility identified in the report as “the Annex,” known to be a Central Intelligence Agency compound with far more personnel.
Some of the egregious confusion about who was in charge of security can be attributed to this hybrid structure, which left the special mission a bureaucratic stepchild with inadequate resources -- witness the report’s veiled recommendation that “all State Department and other government agencies’ facilities should be collocated when they are in the same metropolitan area.”
The secrecy surrounding the CIA site will, for now, prevent a fuller public accounting: Unlike a previous Accountability Review Board report on the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, this one doesn’t provide a list of those interviewed. One also wonders if the classified version, delivered only to Congress, has details that better explain the sudden resignations of three high-ranking State Department officials and, if so, why the information is being kept from the public.
Nonetheless, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of the most seasoned American diplomats, and Admiral Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have shed much-needed light on the events of that night, and knocked down at least one outlandish conspiracy theory -- the idea that a rapid response team was prevented from quickly going to the aid of those under attack. And you don’t have to read between the lines of this report to get a good shock.
For starters, the report makes clear that the deaths of Stevens, Smith and two other Americans, and the torching of two U.S. compounds, were as much an intelligence as a security failure. The report’s last page contains this matter-of-fact stunner: “Board members found that there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests.” Just what exactly was this CIA facility doing that it couldn’t find out what was happening in its own backyard?
Even allowing for the CIA-State Department bureaucratic divide, the catalog of missteps makes for disturbing reading. It includes repeated refusals by the State Department to improve full-time security, despite a timeline of threats and incidents -- including two attacks on the compound with homemade bombs -- that looks ominous in hindsight.
On the night of Sept. 11, security in Benghazi consisted of three armed members of a Libyan militia involved in a pay dispute with the Americans, five poorly trained and unarmed security contractors, and five U.S. security officers on temporary duty. Most of the Americans didn’t speak Arabic, and they had no local staff interpreter. Although some security upgrades had been made, the post wasn’t up to standards; in one representative detail, additional surveillance cameras that might have given more notice of the attack were still in boxes, awaiting the arrival of a technical team.
The report addresses these shortcomings with a mix of nostrums that would seem familiar to readers of the postmortems on the 1998 embassy bombings (which were also characterized by poor intelligence, ignored pleas for upgraded security and lackluster local defense). We don’t think that another redrawing of the organization chart will necessarily help. Why, for example, does a new list of high-threat posts, to be supervised by a new senior position in diplomatic security, include six where foreign service officers currently receive no danger pay?
The continued use of local guard forces only makes sense if the State Department is able to train and supervise them -- one more reason for it to rectify its continuing failure to fill its foreign-language positions. One 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office found that 43 percent of those in Arabic language slots don’t meet proficiency requirements.
We support devoting more money to improving facilities security: the $45 billion that the Pentagon is spending on mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles makes the report’s recommendation to spend $2.2 billion on building or upgrading high-threat, high risk posts seem like a bargain.
But within reason: Diplomacy is a dangerous business, and no amount of construction can eliminate its risks. Given the choice between more bunkers or more intrepid, Arabic-speaking ambassadors like Chris Stevens, we would err on the side of the latter.
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