The Benghazi Report and Working to Improve Both Security and Diplomacy

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The Benghazi Report and Working to Improve Both Security and Diplomacy

Last night the State Department Accountability Review Board led by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen released its much-anticipated  report on the September 11th assault on the American consulate in Benghazi that resulted in the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The investigation cites “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” at the State Department as well as failure by the Libyan government to meet its obligations.  This morning, three State Department officials resigned in response, and the department outlined how it is beginning to implement the report’s 29 recommendations. The Review Board also challenged Congress to provide the necessary funding to make the reforms, and highlighted a central issue going forward:  how to conduct diplomacy in dangerous environments without resorting to “unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.”

Pickering-Mullen Accountability Review Board (ARB) cites “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.” Three State Department officials resign.  According to the Hill, “The report by the Accountability Review Board says the local mission’s reliance on Libyan guards and militia members was ‘misplaced’ and that the Libyan government’s response was ‘profoundly lacking.’” The New York Times adds that it “sharply criticized the State Department for a lack of seasoned security personnel.” The Times further writes that the report, “also faulted State Department officials in Washington for ignoring requests from the American Embassy in Tripoli for more guards for the mission and for failing to make sufficient safety upgrades… [and] said American intelligence officials had relied too much on specific warnings of imminent attacks, which they did not have in the case of Benghazi, rather than basing assessments more broadly on a deteriorating security environment.” Eli Lake of the Daily Beast adds, “Specifically, the report blames two un-named ‘senior State Department officials’ for lacking ‘proactive leadership’ in rejecting requests for more security personnel in Libya.” Following the release of the ARB report, the New York Daily News reported, “An administration official told the Associated Press on Wednesday that three State Department officials resigned after the report was released.” [NY Times, 12/18/12. The Hill, 12/18/12. Eli Lake, 12/18/12. NY Daily News, 12/19/12]

State Department responds, making concrete changes to allow secure diplomacy in high-threat environments. These include:

Adopting all of the ARB’s recommendations: The Hill reports, “In a letter to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she accepted the report’s 29 recommendations, all but five of which are unclassified…. Recommendations include more self-reliance for security in high-risk posts, reorganizing the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and working with experts to evaluate security at U.S. missions.” [The Hill, 12/18/12]

Assessing high-threat posts: The New York Times reports: “In recent weeks, teams of State Department and Pentagon security specialists have been sent to 19 ‘high threat’ diplomatic posts around the world to conduct assessments.” This process will include “instituting periodic reviews of the 15 to 20 high-threat posts,” reports the Hill. [NY Times, 12/18/12. The Hill, 12/18/12]

Adjusting personnel to prioritize security: The New York Times reports, “The State Department last month for the first time also appointed a senior official — a deputy assistant secretary of state — to ensure that embassies and consulates in dangerous places get sufficient attention. To that end, the department is revamping deployment procedures to increase the number of experienced and well- trained personnel serving in those posts, and to reduce the high turnover rate that the panel identified as a problem.” [NY Times, 12/18/12]

Transferring $1.3 billion from Iraq contingency funds for diplomatic security: Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports, “The State Department is looking to tap into unspent money meant for reconstruction in Iraq to beef up the security of diplomatic posts in dangerous parts of the world, according to a new proposal from the State Department… The request Monday to move $1.3 billion from the Iraq budget to new diplomatic security spending was connected to the Accountability Review Board’s findings, two Senate staffers who read the request told the Daily Beast.” Lake adds, “it recommends more U.S. Marines be stationed at dangerous diplomatic posts. It also says the State Department should be given more flexibility in the budget to spend money for physical security improvements like blast walls and electronic gates, and for hiring and improving the capabilities of the diplomatic security service.” [Eli Lake, 12/18/12]

Congress too must be part of solution by providing necessary resources. The ARB writes: “The recommendations in this report attempt to grapple with these issues and err on the side of increased attention to prioritization and to fuller support for people and facilities engaged in working in high risk, high threat areas.  The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs, which, in total, constitute a small percentage both of the full national budget and that spent for national security.  One overall conclusion in this report is that Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives.” [Accountability Review Board report, 12/12]

Broader challenge is effectively conducting diplomacy in high-threat regions. The ARB report contextualizes the attack against the larger threat environment and demands on diplomatic personnel: “The Benghazi attacks took place against a backdrop of significantly increased demands on U.S. diplomats to be present in the world’s most dangerous places to advance American interests and connect with populations beyond capitals, and beyond host governments’ reach.” Adding that, the “growing, diffuse range of terrorist and hostile actors poses an additional challenge to American security officers, diplomats, development professionals and decision-makers seeking to mitigate risk and remain active in high threat environments without resorting to an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.”

This presents a challenge to the conduct of foreign policy. As Robert Worth wrote last month in the New York Times Magazine,  “American diplomacy has already undergone vast changes in the past few decades and is now so heavily encumbered by fortresslike embassies, body armor and motorcades that it is almost unrecognizable.” Wendy Chamberlin, former ambassador to Pakistan and a career foreign service officer writes, “The pointed question seems to be whether or how it is possible for the U.S. to conduct traditional diplomacy in countries in which we are both at nominal peace with host government and at war with elements of their citizenry… Chris Stevens was doing what good diplomats, indeed what good intelligence officers and Peace Corps and development workers, have done through the years: mingling, listening, supporting, admonishing gently, and putting themselves at risk in the process.” [Accountability Review Board report, 12/12. Robert Worth, 11/14/12. Wendy Chamberlin, 10/2/12]

What We’re Reading

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Iraqi President Jalal Talabani will be flown to Germany for further treatment after suffering a stroke earlier this week.

The United Nations appealed for $1.5 billion to provide life-saving aid to Syrians suffering from a “dramatically deteriorating” humanitarian situation.

The Israeli authorities have approved plans to build 1,500 more homes at a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem.

Egyptian Islamist groups are planning a mass protest in Alexandria, a move that will raise tensions a day before the final stage of a referendum on a new constitution that has split the nation.

Park Geun-hye took a commanding lead in South Korea’s presidential election, putting her on track to become the country’s first woman head of state.

Two polio vaccination workers have been killed in north-western Pakistan in the latest of a spate of deadly attacks.

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