It has been more than two weeks since the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, yet the attack remains front-page news. One reason is that it has become unusual for a U.S. ambassador to be killed. After the 1968 assassination of John Mein in Guatemala — the first ever U.S. ambassador to be assassinated — several others were killed in the 1970s: Cleo Noel Jr. in Sudan in 1973, Rodger Davies in Cyprus in 1974, Francis Meloy Jr. in Lebanon in 1976 and Adolph Dubs in Afghanistan in 1979. However, following improvements in diplomatic security during the 1980s, no U.S. ambassador has died as a result of a hostile action since Ambassador Arnold Raphel, who was killed in the plane crash used to assassinate Pakistani President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in August 1988.
Another reason for the continued publicity is that it is an election year. Since foreign policy is an area where Republicans believe President Barack Obama is vulnerable, Stevens’ death has become highly politicized. In any event, the Benghazi attack remains in the headlines. Unfortunately, as one goes beyond those headlines, there are many misunderstandings that have persisted in both the media coverage and the public discussions of the incident. There simply are not many people who understand how diplomatic facilities work and how they are protected.
With that in mind, and because other U.S. diplomatic facilities remain in harm’s way due to the protests occurring throughout the Muslim world, it is an opportune time to again discuss diplomatic security.
First, whenever discussing the security of diplomatic facilities, it must be understood that, by treaty, the responsibility for the security of diplomatic facilities lies with the host government. This clear responsibility was codified in the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which took effect in 1964.
This is generally not a problem in a developed, friendly country. There is little doubt that the Australian government will take the appropriate steps to ensure that the U.S. Embassy and the British High Commission in Canberra remain safe. The problems with the responsibilities outlined in the Vienna Convention occur when a diplomatic facility is located in a country that is either unable or unwilling to provide adequate security.
The U.S. government has learned this lesson the hard way. For example, in 1979, the U.S. embassies in Tehran and Islamabad were overrun. In both cases, the host governments could have taken action to stop the mobs attacking the embassies but chose not to. A few years later in Lebanon, the U.S. Embassy and Embassy Annex were targeted in massive bombing attacks in 1983 and 1984, respectively. In these attacks, it was weakness that prevented the Lebanese government, which had been exhausted by civil war, from providing adequate protection for the facilities.
The situation in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, very much resembled the one in Lebanon at the time of the embassy bombings. The Libyan central government has very little authority outside of Tripoli, the capital, and heavily armed tribal and regional militias control many parts of the country. Some of this has changed since locals angry at Ansar al-Sharia, a group believed to have participated in the Benghazi attack, stormed the compounds of some Islamist militias in the Benghazi area, evicting them and turning the compounds over to the government. Nevertheless, the militias left with most of their weapons and will continue to be a threat in the future.
The U.S. government learned from the incidents of the 1970s and 1980s that host governments cannot always be expected to provide security adequate to counter all threats in a country. In response to this reality and the increased attacks against U.S. diplomatic missions, U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz set up a commission in 1984 to study the problem and find ways to increase security at U.S. facilities abroad. The panel, headed by Adm. Bobby Inman, was formally called the Advisory Panel on Overseas Security but is widely referred to as the Inman Commission. In addition to recommending a more robust cadre of agents to protect facilities, the Inman Commission made recommendations on physical and procedural security standards for diplomatic facilities. Embassies and consulates constructed in accordance with these physical security standards are often referred to as Inman facilities.
Based on the findings of the Inman Commission, the Department of State’s Office of Security was expanded to become the Diplomatic Security Service in 1985. The U.S. Congress codified and funded these changes in the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986.
However, as we’ve previously noted, funding for diplomatic security follows a notable boom and bust cycle. The influx of funding for diplomatic security provided by the 1986 Omnibus Act quickly evaporated. By the early 1990s, security budgets were being severely squeezed again. This budget crunch affected physical security upgrades at embassies as well as the hiring of new Diplomatic Security Service agents and forced cuts in things such as local guard program budgets. The Crowe Commission, which was appointed to investigate the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998, concluded that these funding cuts had severely hampered efforts to increase security at U.S. facilities abroad.
While there was a spike in funding for diplomatic security (along with security more generally) after the 9/11 attacks, security funding has declined over the past decade. This issue has been complicated by the incredible strain placed on the system by the huge diplomatic facilities in Iraq as well as the large diplomatic presence and severe threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Providing security to these posts has also stretched Diplomatic Security Service personnel thin. The two Diplomatic Security Service special agents injured in the Benghazi attack were on their first tours and had been borrowed from domestic field offices in the United States for a temporary duty assignment protecting Stevens in Libya. The personnel situation is not looking much better for the future. With the agents hired after the Inman Commission in the mid-to-late 1980s retiring at a rapid rate, and with others leaving due to strain placed on their families by multiple tours in places in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 100 new special agents the Diplomatic Security Service is slated to hire this year will not be enough to replace those leaving the service.
Into this dynamic we introduce the Arab Spring and the revolution in Libya. The United States had re-established diplomatic ties with Libya after Moammar Gadhafi’s regime renounced terrorism and its nuclear ambitions. In 2004, a U.S. interests section was opened in Tripoli, and in 2006, the United States opened a full embassy. In 2009, the United States opened a new embassy building in Tripoli that was built to meet the department’s security standards and provide a safe working environment for American diplomats in the Libyan capital. This building, however, was abandoned in February 2011 when the U.S. government severed diplomatic ties with the Gadhafi government and withdrew U.S. diplomats from Tripoli.
At this time it is worth noting that embassy buildings are intended to protect their occupants from terrorist attacks, but they are not immune to prolonged attacks by angry mobs. Even good physical security measures can be breached by a mob with tools and time. This is what happened in Tripoli in May 2011. The new U.S. Embassy building was ransacked, looted and badly damaged by Gadhafi security forces and a gang of Gadhafi supporters, rendering it uninhabitable. As a result, after the fall of the Gadhafi regime, the U.S. Embassy staff had to move into a temporary facility until the former embassy building could be repaired or a new facility could be constructed. They are still in this temporary facility.
One reality of Libya after the revolution is that, as noted above, the country is very divided and the central government has little authority outside of Tripoli. There has also been a long history of an east-west divide in Libya, with Tripoli and Benghazi as the opposing centers of power. Because of this, it makes a great deal of sense for the United States to want to open an office in Benghazi to take the pulse of eastern Libya. The United States also intervened on behalf of the rebels, who were originally based in Benghazi, and U.S. diplomats, led by Stevens, established an office there in early April 2011 to coordinate U.S. aid for the rebels, eventually moving into the villa that was attacked.
Benghazi and Darnah also have long been hotbeds of jihadism in Libya, so having an office in eastern Libya is a logical step in support of efforts to monitor these groups. Additionally, with the vast quantities of weapons that were looted from arms depots in the Benghazi area, including large numbers of shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, Benghazi is a good place to base efforts to monitor the flow of such weapons or even to stage programs to recover and destroy them.
So while it is understandable that the U.S. government would want to base diplomats and intelligence personnel in Benghazi, it encountered a problem: It simply did not have a facility in the city that met security standards. Instead, the personnel had to occupy a temporary facility until a suitable building could be funded and then constructed. While the U.S. State Department has adopted a modular design program that has made this process a little easier, the construction of a new office building is nonetheless an expensive undertaking and something that the department cannot do under its current operating budget without the U.S. Congress allocating funds to pay for the construction project. Anyone who has dealt with the U.S. government should not be surprised, then, that the 11 months since the fall of the Gadhafi regime were not enough for Congress to fund, and the State Department to build, a new secure facility to house the consulate in Benghazi.
Risk and Reward
It is difficult for a large bureaucracy like the U.S. government to adapt to rapidly changing events — even events it is largely responsible for, such as forcing the Gadhafi regime from power.
During such times of transition, there will always be some tension between the need to get the job done and the need to do it safely. Working and living in an environment such as Benghazi where there are heavily armed Islamist militias is dangerous, but there are simply some things that cannot be done without personnel on the ground. Someone somewhere made the decision that the benefits of having U.S. personnel in Benghazi outweighed the risk of housing them in a building that did not meet security standards, and a waiver was granted for the Benghazi facility.
The presence of a U.S. ambassador at a post with a security waiver located in such a volatile environment on the 9/11 anniversary is another issue, especially given the previous attacks against the U.S. Consulate and the British ambassador’s motorcade in the city. The situation is even worse if the rumor that Stevens was on a jihadist hit list proves to be true. Former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering will chair the accountability review board that has been established to investigate the attack in Benghazi. In addition to reviewing the physical security of the facility, the board will certainly be reviewing the rationale behind the decision to allow the ambassador to travel to Benghazi and whether that decision was made at the local level or in Washington.
But the issue of temporary facilities is not just confined to Tripoli and Benghazi. It comes up frequently when there is a rapid change in a nation, or even in the case of a natural disaster. For example, the U.S. recognition of the new nation of South Sudan in July 2011 necessitated the rapid establishment of an embassy in the country’s capital, Juba. If the environment continues to improve in Somalia, it is possible that the United States will increase its presence in Mogadishu, and establishing an embassy in Mogadishu will also pose a problem until a secure facility can be constructed.
The issue of temporary facilities is also not a new problem. The December 1972 earthquake that shattered Managua, Nicaragua, destroyed the U.S. Embassy there. Following the earthquake, the embassy was housed in a temporary prefabricated facility — essentially a large mobile home — until a new embassy building was completed in 2007. (Much of this delay was due to tensions with the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and its desire to keep the U.S. Embassy insecure.)
The diplomatic missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan will continue to consume substantial portions of the U.S. overseas security budget and the shrinking cadre of Diplomatic Security Service special agents for the foreseeable future. This means that smaller posts seen as less important, like Benghazi, will remain vulnerable — especially against a prolonged attack by a large and heavily armed force. U.S. authorities will have to continue to make uncomfortable decisions regarding the risks and benefits of having such outposts.