Earlier this month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty Embassy Security, Threat Mitigation, and Personnel Protection Act of 2013, named after the four Americans killed by Islamists at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The attacks reinforced the fact that the State Department failed to implement established security measures and procedures at our overseas posts.
We could have learned a lesson from the 36 suicide attacks against Americans in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed by Hezbollah insurgents in April 1983, killing 63 people. In October, truck bombs struck two barracks housing a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in which 299 American and French soldiers were killed by the Islamic Jihad. In December, a truck filled with explosives rammed into a three-story wing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City, killing five people, an operation undertaken by Shiite Islamists with ties to Iran.
As a result of these attacks, an Advisory Panel on Overseas Security was formed. The resulting report recommended a number of security measures, including proper setbacks, structural upgrades and new construction of at-risk missions. The study called for the formation of the Diplomatic Security Service to oversee security measures at all our overseas operations.
We could have also learned a lesson from Ambassador Prudence Bushnell's experience in 1996, when she sent cables to the State Department regarding a number of terrorist threats, and the lack of proper security at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. A department official said the ambassador was overreacting on the stated security concerns. A security team sent to inspect the embassy reported that it met "their standards" for a medium-threat facility.
In early 1998, Gen. Anthony Zinni visited the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and reported that there were significant risks, making it an easy target for terrorists. The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, was no better protected from potential terrorist attacks. The State Department continued to say that security upgrades were not necessary.
On Aug. 7, 1998, both embassies were attacked by trucks laden with explosives, resulting in the tragic loss of 224 lives. The State Department did not heed the warnings. U.S. intelligence sources did not think that sub-Saharan Africa had a well-organized al Qaeda network.
Just last week, on Aug. 4, the State Department ordered the closure of 19 overseas missions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia owing to credible al Qaeda terrorist threats. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri had recently told Muslims "to rise up and attack the Americans," remarks similar to those given before the attacks on the Benghazi compound.
The timing of the global terrorist threat almost coincided with the end of Ramadan on Aug. 7, the 15th anniversary of the East African U.S. embassy attacks. Reports indicated there was credible intelligence information of a plot by al Qaeda to attack American diplomatic posts in highly populated Muslim countries, with Yemen at the top of the list.
Sen. Robert Menendez stated the Protection Act of 2013 was "a very meaningful step in assuring the security of missions abroad, and the safety of our Foreign Service personnel." further noting, "If we fail to act, if we fail to address these issues, there will be another incident. The responsibility is ours, and the failure to act would be ours as well." Some people think this new bill is politically motivated to deflect the criticism of the scandal surrounding the Benghazi attacks.
It was obvious that the State Department did not have emergency measures in place to protect the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and to ensure that military support was readily available in the event of a terrorist attack — standards that were established as far back as 1985. We also did not protect the two East African embassies in 1998. Since all our overseas missions have not been brought up to the highest security standards, we can expect more terrorist attacks.
As a former U.S. ambassador to three island nations in East Africa, I had to deal with a number of terrorist threats. Mission chiefs know the risks of serving in conflicted areas, with the ongoing global war on terrorism. However, the diplomatic corps needs to be better protected. We need to make sure that military support is readily available in the event of a terrorist attack.
The Benghazi attack occurred on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks against the United States. The closing of 19 missions for a period of time owing to credible threats was likely prudent. These embassies, all but one of which having since reopened, also serve as our first line of defense, for intelligence and other gathering of threat-related information in the region, in addition to protecting American citizens. Missions that meet the highest security standards however, should remain open as our "eyes and ears."
We have been lax in securing our overseas missions, even after the warnings in the early 1980s. I would hope that the Obama administration will not need to again say, providing military support would not have made any difference in the loss of American life.
John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles.