- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 16, 2013

State Department officials said Tuesday they could use extra help to strengthen embassy security, but they said it’s unclear whether measures being proposed by senators would have prevented last year’s attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

In the wake of the assault, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Robert Menendez has written a bill to free up funding for embassy security and construction and to let the State Department award local security contracts based on quality, not “simply because they are the cheapest available force.”

Analysts have said the State Department was using unreliable local security contracts to protect the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, which came under attack Sept. 11.

Gregory B. Starr, the State Department’s director for diplomatic security, said the new resources and flexibility in Mr. Menendez’s bill would improve things, but he stopped shy of saying it could have prevented the Libya attack.

“It will strengthen our capability to stay in places where the threats are greater. But I’m not going to blame Benghazi on the lack of this legislation,” he told the committee.

Mr. Starr said there are 15 diplomatic posts that need to be revamped or rebuilt to meet security needs, and he said that will cost $2.2 billion — money President Obama asked for in his 2014 budget.

The department is also hiring 151 security professionals over the course of this fiscal year and the next to serve or support high-risk posts.

Some of the security challenges are architectural. Many embassy buildings are not set back far enough from the road and cannot withstand a blast or direct attack unless they move to a new location, Mr. Starr said.

Mr. Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, named his legislation after Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans who lost their lives in the assault.

“We have studied what went wrong, we have looked back and now it’s time to look forward and do what needs to be done to prevent another tragedy in the future,” Mr. Menendez said.

Questions about the attack have raged for months, prompting congressional hearings and political recriminations against the Obama administration for initially saying the attack appeared to be a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim video.

A State Department review board made recommendations for improving embassy security and in the wake of the report four officials were placed on paid leave.

The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Bob Corker, said the department must assign accountability for the response to the attacks to ensure that employees take responsibility for their decisions.

Mr. Starr said Secretary of State John F. Kerry will make a final determination on the four employees placed on leave, but he said he knew three of them well and their careers should not be “blotted by one single action, because they are in many ways as dedicated as we are.”

Mr. Corker also worried that lawmakers were trying to inoculate the challenge with a dose of new funding. He said he wanted to make sure dangerous postings got the money, rather than spreading it around.

“So I do hope as we move along, we’ll figure out a way to balance between some of the longer-term projects that candidly are taking place that are not under very serious threat with some of the short-term needs that we have,” the Tennessee Republican said.

Mr. Starr agreed that immediate risks should come first, but said long-term threats can quickly become short-term ones.

U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, were considered low-threat posts in 1997, but deadly bombings rocked the East African capitals the following year, he testified.

“We do not know where we’re going to be a decade from now,” Mr. Starr said. “We did not foresee the Arab Spring rise. We did not really foresee, in many cases, the challenges that we would be facing through the Middle East.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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