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Many at fault for tragedy at U.S. Consulate

By Dale R. Herspring

As a retired Foreign Service Officer (FSO), I took special interest in the events in Ben-ghazi. I did not know Ambas-sador Christopher Stevens or any of the other individuals killed. FSOs in the State Department tend to become area specialists because it takes time to master the culture and language of one area, let alone a number of them. Stevens fo-cused on the Arab world, I focused on Russia and Eastern Europe.

Having been an FSO for more than 20 years, I know something about the process that led to this disaster. The White House is trying to blame the intelligence community or the State Department. However, the problem is more complex.  While the White House deserves the ultimate blame, there is much blame to go around.

First, consider the State Department. There is a mental and perhaps bureaucratic split between those who concern themselves with security and FSOs. FSOs take one of the most demanding exams in the United States; 225 are accepted out of 14,000 applicants. Security officers are hired by the Security bureau. FSOs worry about relations with the host country and want as open an embassy as possible. Security officers worry about keeping dangerous people out of the embassy and making sure the FSOs protect classified information. The two sometimes rub each other the wrong way.

I don’t know what the situation was in the U.S. Embassy at Tripoli. It was clear, however, that Stevens had requested greater security, but Washing-ton said no. 

What about State? Ultimately, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for turning down the embassy’s request for more money, but in reality the under secretary for management is the key official involved. That individual, along with the assistant for diplomatic security, will almost certainly be testifying on the Hill about it.

To make matters worse,  the State Department contracts out for security. This means one does not make permanent hires with civil service status. The problem with such individuals is that control over the quality of those it employs is lost, especially if they are locals in a contested area such as Benghazi.  Some, like the former SEALs killed in Benghazi, are very good. The local hires, however, could turn on the embassy or just run away when the going gets tough.

There is also a problem with consulates such as the one in Benghazi. They are traditionally not heavily guarded and contain little classified material.  Their primary function is to issue visas, take care of U.S. citizens in trouble and foster contacts with local citizens. For physical security, consulates generally rely on the host country for protection or hire locals.

I have nothing but good words to say about the Marines who guard U.S. em-bassies. The problem is that in most cases there are only 10 to 12 of them — and none, as far as I am aware, at consulates.

It has been reported that Congress cut $296 million from the State Department’s request for enhanced security. This would not be the first time Congress did such a thing and blamed the State Department for not ensuring sufficient security. 

Then, there is the Obama administration.  I won’t directly accuse the administration of being responsible for what happened. But, there is no doubt that the administration played an important role by creating an atmosphere in which security was not a primary concern. Having good relations with the host nation, however unsavory it may be, is of primary concern. It may sound strange, but like other departments and agencies in Washing-ton, State takes its cue from the White House.  If security abroad is not number one, they will act accordingly.   

As is often the case, there is more going than may appear at first glance.  FSOs are to blame, just as Regional Security Of-ficers must accept some of the responsibility. Furthermore, it is time to rationalize the hiring process and it is time for both parties in Congress and the administration to realize that life is dangerous in certain parts of the world and is likely to get more so in the future.  Progress has been made in improving security abroad, but much more, needs to be done.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor at KSU and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.

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