- Washington Guardian - Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The State Department is failing to adequately protect U.S. diplomats in Beirut, leaving them without necessary counterterrorism training and serving in a decrepit, aged embassy compound that fails to meet security protocols, according to an internal investigation that raises new questions about the Obama administration’s commitment to protecting Americans overseas in the aftermath of the Benghazi tragedy.

In fact, the department did not place Beirut on its latest list of high-threat diplomatic missions even though Lebanon is listed at the “critical” threat level for potential violence with its frequent rocket attacks, spillovers from the Syrian civil war and heavy presence of the terror group Hezbollah, the agency’s inspector general said in a report reviewed by the Washington Guardian.

Beirut was also the site of one of America’s deadliest terror attacks, the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks that killed more than 240 servicemembers.

“Physical security vulnerabilities at mission facilities, which include office buildings and residences, place employees at risk,” the inspector general concluded after inspecting the Beirut embassy compound. It recommended the best solution was to build a new facility.

In the meantime, diplomats face serious threats while working at the 18-acre “cramped, aged and difficult to maintain office” located on a “steep and hilly compound” located 20 minutes from downtown Beirut, the report said. And their superiors back home in Washington seem unaware of the threat level, failing to harden weak physical security or provide needed counterterrorism training, the inspector general observed.

The risks remain high as the civil war in Syria continues to threaten the stability of Lebanon due to the influx of more than 325,000 refugees, and tensions with Hezbollah remain high with frequent rocket attacks and other skirmishes.

“The Department’s threat rating for Beirut is critical for terrorism and political violence, but the embassy is not included in the Department’s recent list of high-threat missions,” the report noted.

The embassy has recently “acquired property, but Beirut is listed only as an alternate mission for 2016 in the Department of State (Department) Capital Security Construction Program,” the investigators said, questioning the department’s lack of urgency.

State Department officials declined to discuss the report despite repeated requests for comment. But a U.S. official with knowledge of overseas diplomatic security requirements, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, told the Washington Guardian that “these assessments are continuous and can change based on the threat environment, but it is unbelievable that the State Department did not have Beirut on the high threat list.”

Officials declined to say whether Beirut was added to the high-threat list after the inspector general’s warnings.

The inspector general cited numerous security failures, noting the Beirut embassy’s mail screening facility does not comply with department regulations. The inspection also found that “the embassy has not adequately addressed the physical, environmental, and procedural security issues with the telephone switch and unclassified server room,” the report said.

Concern among lawmakers about diplomatic security soared after the terrorists attacks at the Benghazi compound last Sept. 11 killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. The attack in Libya has been linked to members of Answar Al-Sharia, North Africa’s al-Qaida affiliate.

U.S. officials have since repeatedly promised to tighten security at State Department facilities worldwide. However, several investigations from the department’s own internal watchdog suggest that the administration is far from its goal.

In February, the Washington Guardian reported that many U.S. embassies and diplomatic outposts exempted themselves from security requirements without the knowledge of the State officials in Washington. Further, investigators said the State Department’s record keeping was so lax that it still had active waivers on file for facilities it no longer operated.

In the case of Beirut, embassy employees felt they lacked the appropriate training for responding to an attack or an emergency crisis, the investigation found. 

“Unlike staff at other critical threat posts, Embassy Beirut employees do not take the foreign affairs counterterrorism course, which provides training on emergency medical procedures, chemical biological remediation, and driving in dangerous situations,” it said. “Such training imparts important skills and awareness among employees at high-threat posts such as Beirut, but the course is expensive.”

Even thought the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has mobile training teams to “provide on-site training for all embassy employees, including local guards and bodyguards,” it was not offered in Beirut

The report stated that security requirements under the Compliance with Overseas Security Policy Board standards, “is not possible at the current location” because of its outdated facilities and uusual physical attributes.

The embassy compound’s health facility “is located on a steep hill in a prefabricated modular unit that is accessible only by climbing outside stairs, making the unit inaccessible to disabled personnel or personnel being transported by stretcher or gurney,” investigators noted.

Moreover, during heavy rain the roads become “rivers” and even failure to maintain buildings have “caused the support structure of some residential units to collapse,” the report said.

Arturo Munoz, a senior political scientist at the Rand think-tank and an expert on security issues, said foreign diplomats working in Beirut are facing two-fold security risks with the ongoing war in Syria combined with embassy compound concerns.

“Do I think the security situation in Lebanon is worse?” said Munoz, who worked 29 years in the CIA.  “Sure, it is because you see ordinary people from Lebanon facing difficult security situations as the civil war in Syria continues. It is only logical to be concerned about U.S. diplomats under these circumstances because they will remain targets by subversive groups. These groups look for soft targets.”

Munoz said as violence spreads in Lebanon it just “multiplies the opportunity and motives for violence against diplomats in these situations. That is certainly something to be concerned with and something that should be taken into account.”

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