State Department ‘must protect’ diplomats — and didn’t

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Always unarmed, ambassadors often are protected only by the goodwill of the countries in which they serve. But when hostilities arise, when governments fall, when their very lives are threatened, ambassadors and their staffs can rely only on the will and the strength of their homeland to ensure their security.

Before taking their assignments, U.S. ambassadors are given a presidential Letter of Instruction stating that the secretary of state “has responsibility for the coordination and supervision of all U.S. government activities and operations abroad” and “must protect all United States Government personnel on official duty.”

Congressional investigations into the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, have shown that the State Department failed to do just that, breaking its covenant with its diplomatic corps.

As a former U.S. ambassador who had received the Letter of Instruction, I was appalled when then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, testifying before Congress in January, tried to minimize the deaths of U.S. personnel in Benghazi by saying, “What difference at this point does it make?”

It makes a big difference. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed when heavily armed extremists overran the U.S. diplomatic compound and, several hours later, assaulted a nearby CIA annex.

Ambassadors know the risks of serving in hot spots, but with the ongoing jihad against the United States, the State Department should have been better prepared to protect our overseas missions.

In the wake of the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut, a State Department advisory panel led by retired Navy Adm. Bobby Ray Inman issued a report recommending security measures such as upgrading diplomatic facilities and building more-secure missions in high risk areas.

The Inman Report also called for the formation of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to oversee security at our overseas operations. The bureau assigns a regional security officer as the principal security adviser at each embassy. This person oversees the mission’s security staffs, including hiring local guards, setting up surveillance detection teams, and working with police and military authorities.

The regional security officer reports directly to the deputy chief of mission, the second-in-command at the embassy.

In January 2012, the State Department created the Bureau of Counterterrorism to further strengthen the department’s “effort on counterterrorism abroad and to secure the United States against foreign terrorist threats [and] disrupt and defeat the networks that support terrorism.”

In October, Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb, who oversaw Bureau of Diplomatic Security operations at the time of the Benghazi attacks, testified that she opposed keeping an embassy security team in Tripoli after they were ordered to leave in August, saying “it would not have made any difference in Benghazi.” Additionally, Ms. Lamb told the embassy’s regional security officer “not to bother asking for additional help when the military team was sent home.”

Last Wednesday, Gregory H. Hicks, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks; Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer, and Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, testified at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the State Department’s failure to protect its staff.

Many of the members of Congressional did not want to listen to the facts about the attacks, calling the hearing a political stunt. They had never served in a hot spot or had their lives under siege. They had a myopic view of Libya and the consequences of the international military incursion in March 2011 that has led to the instability across North Africa and the Sahel.

My experience of working with deputy chief of missions is that they are very competent and highly trained career diplomats — as are regional security officers and counterterrorism officers. I placed my full trust in these dedicated people, who would do everything in their power to protect the ambassador.

A debriefing of these Foreign Service officers immediately after the Benghazi attacks would have pointed to Islamist insurgents.

Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice were both hands-on leaders. At the top of their list of instructions was security at overseas missions. I doubt whether either would have said “What difference does it make?” if a mission were overrun by jihadists and an ambassador killed.

With the security support we received under their leadership, terrorists did not kill any U.S. diplomats. Mr. Powell and Miss Rice communicated directly with ambassadors about threat situations. Classified cables received timely responses asking ambassadors to take action to protect U.S. interests, embassy personnel and American citizens.

I believe 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 terrorist attacks.

The Arab Spring uprising saw numerous Islamist militant groups infiltrating the region. Ambassador Stevens knew the risks he faced and had sent classified cables regarding his concern of terrorist attacks. Such information would have instantaneously reached the secretary of state’s office.

Elements of the Feb. 17 Martyrs Brigade militia, which had ties to al Qaeda, were hired to protect the U.S. mission. Reportedly, brigade members had been warned of possible attacks against the mission in early August. Security measures should have been heightened in Benghazi, knowing the weak Libyan government could not control the well-armed militias.

U.S. leaders watched in real time as the events of the U.S. Consulate attacks unfolded. Disguising the disastrous ending — by not referring to the attacks as undertaken by Islamist extremists — was a political decision. It can only be seen as gross negligence and incompetence by those involved in making that unfortunate conclusion.

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls,” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

 

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