A Bureaucratic Failure, Not a Scandal

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A Bureaucratic Failure, Not a Scandal

A Bureaucratic Failure, Not a Scandal


John Bradshaw, NSN Executive Director
January 19, 2016 | USA News

As a former foreign service officer who served in several small U.S. posts overseas, the 2012 attack at the Benghazi facility had a particular resonance for me. But from the beginning, it was clear to me that this was not a political scandal, but the tragic outcome of two interacting forces: bureaucratic inertia at the State Department that led to chronic inadequate security for U.S. posts, and the propensity of foreign service officers to continually push against the boundaries of the security envelope.

The various investigations of the attack, including the Accountability Review Board chaired by former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering, all concluded that the security provisions for the State Department facility in Benghazi were inadequate given its location in what was essentially a war zone. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, who tragically lost his life in the attack, had noted his concerns about security and had on several occasions asked for increased presence of security personnel. The State Department security bureaucracy, unfortunately, did not respond to those requests effectively.

Stevens, who was passionate about his mission and committed to moving Libya forward, believed that his work in Benghazi was vital and went forward with his trip on Sept. 10, 2012. At that time, according to senior Obama administration counterterrorism officials, there was no specific intelligence that indicated any imminent attack on the U.S. facility there. The subsequent chaotic events, leading to Stevens’ death along with three U.S. colleagues, set off a frenzy of second-guessing and recriminations. The search for scapegoats and scandals was on. But there was no scandal to be found. Instead, there is a sad trail of bureaucratic failures and plenty of blame to be shared.

Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became a primary target of the scandalmongers. She has been linked to various conspiracy theories, debunked by congressional investigations, including her alleged complicity in the issuance of a mythical “stand down” order that prevented a rescue of U.S. personnel. But the most ridiculous allegations against the secretary were that she intentionally and callously denied extra security requested for the Benghazi facility. As the secretary has repeatedly testified, including in her marathon appearance before the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October, she was not an expert in operational security issues and left those issues to security experts.

The U.S. has nearly 200 posts of various sizes around the world. It is not possible or desirable for the secretary of state to become immersed in the details of security deployments at each individual post. At the posts where I served, all in the developing world and with their own security challenges, we relied on in-country experts, regional security officers and the appropriate bureaus back in Washington to ensure our security. We certainly did not expect the secretary of state to be reviewing our security profile and responding to our requests.

That is not to say that the State Department as a whole should not be more focused on security issues. Attention to the security of posts has in fact improved considerably in recent decades, with some glaring exceptions like Benghazi. Funding for constructing more secure facilities has increased, even if it does not yet match the full need.

The challenge of keeping our diplomats secure while not leaving them holed up in fortress-like embassies is still being addressed. Clearly, foreign service officers need to travel and interact with the local populations to effectively do their jobs. Stevens embodied this hands-on approach to diplomacy, and in my experience, there are many foreign service officers who share this desire for active engagement and who are willing to take on the risks associated with it.

The State Department needs to devote the resources and focus to ensuring that our diplomats are as safe as they can be. But we also need to recognize that brave diplomats like Stevens will push past the limits of their safety when they think it is necessary. We are lucky to have such people promoting America’s interests around the world.

To read more, click here.

Photo credit: Hillary Clinton Testimony to House Select Committee on Benghazi, [C-SPAN, accessed 1/19/2016.]

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