There seem to be two enduring issues surrounding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. The one that has received the most attention is the election-year hysteria over a supposed administration effort to cover up the fact of an attack. I shall return to that one at a later time. The issue that has garnered less attention, but one that might warrant an investigation, has to do with the nature of the security arrangements at the post. This essay will review what is known at this time about the security provisions.
As an aside, let me first say that I am using the term “diplomatic post” because I am not entirely certain what the official status was. Some of the popular press uses the term embassy, which is clearly wrong. The embassy is in Tripoli. More often the term consulate is used. This makes more sense, but it is not the term that the State Department officials have been using; they tend to say “temporary U.S. consulate,” “post,” “special mission,” or the “U.S. embassy’s office in Benghazi.” Nor has there been any reference to a consul. Nothing in this is necessarily nefarious. It may well be there is not yet any need for consular activities in Benghazi (the consular office in Tripoli had just opened in August). Most likely, the embassy simply had use for an office in eastern Libya to maintain contact with the country’s innumerable regional factions. It is not clear, however, that the department intended to keep it open beyond 2012. The post’s ill-defined status may have hindered the assignment of permanent personnel. The situation is further confused a bit by the presence of an apparent CIA operation at an “annex” located two kilometers from the post. This presence was inadvertently revealed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in its apparent zeal to politicize the events in Benghazi. In any case, we can call the main Benghazi facility a post.
Security at overseas diplomatic posts, in general, is a divided responsibility. The periphery of a diplomatic compound is protected by the host state. The interior is the responsibility of the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), led by an assistant secretary. DS, which was elevated to the status of a bureau in 1987, has the authority of a federal law enforcement agency. Its leaders on the scene are called regional security officers (RSOs). In the era of terrorism, it has grown to become one of the largest bureaus in the department. Still, its roughly 1,700 officers amount to fewer than six apiece for all the department’s domestic and foreign offices and facilities, and it has numerous responsibilities (ranging from investigating passport fraud to conducting background checks) in addition to physical and personnel security.
Despite the expanding size of DS, therefore, the State Department has found itself hiring private security contractors to supplement the bureau’s efforts. This began with the hiring of private guards for diplomatic posts after the Beirut embassy bombing of 1983. In 1994 the State Department hired a private firm to protect President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti. Private security firms were then hired to protect U.S. civilian operations in Bosnia. The process escalated, however, after 9/11. A firm was contracted in 2002 to provide bodyguards for Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. In 2004 the State Department took over an existing Defense Department contract with Blackwater to protect U.S. civilian personnel in Iraq. The following year State put out a uniform $1.2 billion five-year “Indefinite Delivery–Indefinite Quantity” contract bid for private security services in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other locations. The award went to a consortium of Blackwater, DynCorp, and Triple Canopy.
While State’s reliance on private security rose, Congress began cutting the department’s security budget (which comes under two accounts, either Worldwide Security Protection or Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance). Relative to the department’s requests, Congress cut $129 million for fiscal year 2011 and $341 million for fiscal year 2012. House Republicans were the driving force behind the cuts and had proposed deeper cuts ($131 million for FY 2011 and $520 million for FY 2012) than those that eventually came out of the conference committees. (For fiscal year 2013, the House has proposed cutting the request by $316 million and the Senate by $70 million.) For a suggestion of the base-line funding behind these appropriations, recall that Robert Gates, when he was secretary of defense, repeatedly lamented the inadequate funding of the State Department. Remember as well that a 1985 recommendation by the Advisory Panel on Overseas Security to replace or renovate 126 high-risk posts within seven years has yet to be fully implemented.
At the same time, many countries were becoming warier of the role of private security firms and reluctant to permit them to operate on their territory. A turning point in this regard was the incident on Sept. 16, 2007, when Blackwater personnel guarding a convoy of State Department vehicles in Baghdad killed 17 Iraqi bystanders and injured 20 others in the mistaken belief that they had come under fire.
When the State Department began setting up facilities in Libya at the end of the country’s civil war, the scene was chaotic. Libya did not have the wherewithal to provide perimeter security for the Benghazi facility. Therefore, a local militia, the February 17 Brigade, was designated as the official stand-in for of the Libyan state for that purpose. (Ansar al-Shari’ah, the group accused of attacking the Benghazi post, performed a similar security function at the local hospital.) With regard to interior security, none of the private security firms with which State had existing contracts were permitted to operate in the country. Therefore, for its Benghazi office, the department signed an ad hoc contract with Blue Mountain Group, a little-known firm based in Wales, that had acquired permission to operate in Libya by collaborating (temporarily as it turned out) with a local Libyan security firm. Blue Mountain hired Libyans to work as security guards at the Benghazi post, but most of them had little or no experience and the firm provided little training. The person put in charge of the detachment was a Libyan English teacher who was selected, he was told, because “you have great English and get along with everyone and are punctual.” None of that is to be sneered at, to be sure, but he had no background in security. None of the guards carried firearms. Armed private security companies are not allowed to operate in Libya; Eric Nordstrom, the RSO in Tripoli, saw this, at least in part, as a reaction to Qadhafi’s use of foreign mercenaries. Their job, therefore, was to observe, report, and alert others in case of an incident.
The department acquired the Benghazi site in the summer of 2011, when the Transitional National Council was located in that city. The compound is 100 yards by 300 yards and contains four buildings: the main building with a public area, a residential area, and a safe haven; a building that housed DS agents; the Tactical Operations Center (TOC); and a barracks for the February 17 Brigade detachment. Security improvements made to the site included raising the height of the outer wall with concrete to nine feet and then topping that with three feet of barbed wire and concertina razor wire. External lighting and security cameras were added, as were Jersey barriers to obstruct car bombs. Steel drop bars were installed behind the steel gates in the perimeter wall. Security grills were installed on windows accessible from the ground. Explosive-detection equipment and an Imminent Danger Notification System were installed. Doors and locks were reinforced.
The Libya posts experienced a high degree of staff turnover, including a number of DS agents who passed through on temporary duty (TDY), often for only eight weeks, which, according to Nordstrom, made it difficult to establish procedures, policies, and relationships. For much of this period, Tripoli had only one permanent DS officer—Nordstrom—and Benghazi had none. A Quick Reaction Force (QRF) was located at the Benghazi Annex, two kilometers away.
Eight DS agents had been assigned to Benghazi in September 2011, but they were focused on crisis and stabilization work and were not expected to remain for the long term. The number was reduced within a few months as the security situation improved.
Incidents directed against targets with foreign affiliations, in both Tripoli and Benghazi, rose again in the spring of 2012. For this reason State delayed the arrival of a principal officer in Benghazi, curtailed staff movements, engaged local officials on the investigation of such incidents, maintained contact with security officials at other countries’ diplomatic posts, and continued to train members of the February 17 Brigade. Nordstrom hoped to maintain U.S. security personnel until “direct-hire” Libyan bodyguards could be trained and issued Libyan firearms permits. Evidently, the Libyans deemed direct hires by the U.S. government to be less sensitive than armed private security. The Libyan authorities, however, insisted on vetting applicants for ties to the Qadhafi regime. Libya began issuing permits to U.S. personnel in June 2012 and to Libyan bodyguards about a month later.
As of late July 2012, the embassy in Tripoli had three permanent RSOs (including two assistant RSOs), four TDY DS agents, four Mobile Security Deployment (MSD) DS agents training local bodyguards, and 16 local bodyguards. Two other MSD teams had already been withdrawn in the spring, and the third was scheduled to leave in August. In addition, a 16-member Site Security Team (SST) led by a member of the Utah National Guard was stationed in Tripoli and scheduled to be removed by mid-August. Benghazi had three TDY DS agents. At the time of the September 11 attack, the number of TDY DS agents in Benghazi was five because two from Tripoli had accompanied the ambassador. Four members of the February 17 Brigade were supposed to be at the site; one of those positions had been vacant for several days, and on September 11 only two were on duty.
Complaints that the department did not fulfill the embassy’s requests for security are a valid cause for investigation, although in my view that investigation should focus on improving capabilities and procedures rather than scoring points or finding scapegoats. For Benghazi, Nordstrom had requested three to five DS agents, and by coincidence five were there at the time of the attack. The complaints refer primarily to the removal of the MSD teams and the 16-member SST; the embassy hoped to have them replaced or have their terms extended. These men were stationed in Tripoli, not Benghazi, although a few might have accompanied the ambassador during his stay there. A previous extension request for the SST had been granted, but the last one was not. In turning the request down, Deputy Assistant Secretary Charlene Lamb cited the ongoing training of local bodyguards.
The wisdom of denying the requests can certainly be disputed, especially given the sensitive and unsettled condition of Libya, but as a general rule we cannot expect such requests to simply be granted whenever they are made. All missions see the urgency of their own needs most clearly, but people at the center have the unenviable task of making decisions about resources and priorities. Under Secretary Patrick F. Kennedy has argued that these decisions involve dialog, negotiation, between the overseas post and headquarters. The errors are always obvious when the decision goes badly, but they are only obvious after the fact. In this case, it is not at all clear that a different decision would have changed the outcome. According to Nordstrom’s written testimony, no force level under consideration would have been adequate to the attack, which was unprecedented in its nature. By definition it is no longer unprecedented, but given funding limits, it is still unlikely that this attack will set the security standard for other posts in the future. Future needs will be addressed by future negotiations between overseas posts and headquarters against a background of competing needs and available resources, and sometimes the solution won’t work out.