Last fall, Congress was spitting fire about the security failures that led to the death of a U.S. ambassador -- the first killed since 1988 -- and three other government personnel at the special mission in Benghazi, Libya.
You wouldn’t know that, though, from last week’s hearings on the State Department’s budget. Few representatives and senators pressed Secretary of State John Kerry on the department’s response to the 20-plus recommendations of the blistering Accountability Review Board report issued on the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks.
That doesn’t mean they ignored the tragic events in Benghazi. Republicans on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, for instance, were seized with the “lies” told by administration officials during the presidential race about the nature of the attack and its perpetrators’ possible links to al-Qaeda. Only one committee member (a Democrat) focused on an actual step to improve security, asking if Kerry supported a bill to allow the department to hire local security guards on the basis of the best-value, rather than lowest, bid.
This is a shame, because history suggests that the State Department isn’t going to fix the security challenges it faces without strong support and scrutiny. More fundamentally, as threats grow and budgets decline, Congress needs to vigorously debate the best way for the U.S. to conduct diplomacy in dangerous places.
As last year’s accountability report showed, security at the two U.S. facilities in Benghazi was “grossly inadequate,” with shortcomings that the State Department repeatedly failed to recognize and address. The report’s sensible recommendations focus on everything from restructuring management and building new embassies to promoting better threat analysis.
The department’s track record in complying with reports like these, however, is spotty. After four staff members died and nine were injured in an attack in December 2004 on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, a report recommended that the department build safe areas in diplomatic compounds worldwide. But a 2012 inspection of 17 missions found 11 with no safe areas, including four situated in countries the department deemed dangerous.
Certainly, funding is part of the solution. In February, recently hardened facilities at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, limited casualties from a suicide bomber attack to one guard. Kerry has asked this year for an increase of about $1 billion for improving embassy security -- easily the biggest increase in a generally shrinking budget.
Yet in an era of heightened threats and diminished resources, the key to security isn’t more money and stronger buildings. Embassies, after all, aren’t supposed to be fortresses. Few diplomatic facilities could have withstood the sustained assault that hit Benghazi, and it’s silly to think they should.
The key is incorporating security more deeply into strategic thinking and operational decisions. That’s one of the chief lessons of Benghazi, and what the accountability review sought to promote with its prescriptions.
Within the State Department, the bureau of diplomatic security, located in a satellite building, occupies one of the lower rungs in the bureaucratic caste system. The elite heads of the department’s regional bureaus tend to consult it grudgingly or treat security as “DS’s problem.” Instead, they need to weigh more carefully the costs and benefits of diplomatic representation in places like Benghazi, where security is shaky.
Host countries are responsible for ensuring that deadly assaults don’t take place, and that protesters don’t climb the walls and torch cars, as they did last fall in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. Hosts that don’t hold up their end of the bargain should face consequences; maybe the U.S. should force them to reduce their presence in the U.S., or maybe the State Department will begin conducting diplomacy from safer sites and possibly even via third-party countries.
The Benghazi report encourages a cultural shift in the department’s thinking on security -- a matter given yet more urgency by the death of another foreign service officer this month in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, no member of Congress was interested in having that conversation, or even in questioning Kerry’s assertion that the commission’s recommendations were all completed or in progress. Ferreting out a supposed White House election-year coverup might have immediate partisan appeal, but it won’t advance the safety of U.S. diplomats in the future.
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