By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis
On Dec. 18, the U.S. State Department's Accountability Review Board released an unclassified version of its investigation into the Sept. 12 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack, so the report was widely anticipated by the public and by government officials alike.
Four senior State Department officials have been reassigned to other duties since the report's release. Among them were the assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security; two of his deputy assistant secretaries, including the director of the Diplomatic Security Service, the department's most senior special agent; and the deputy assistant secretary responsible for Libya in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
The highly critical report and the subsequent personnel reassignments are not simply a low watermark for the State Department; rather, the events following the attack signify another phase in the diplomatic security funding cycle. The new phase will bring about a financial windfall for the State Department security budgets, but increased funding alone will not prevent future attacks from occurring. After all, plenty of attacks have occurred following similar State Department budgetary allocations in the past. Other important factors therefore must be addressed.
The cycle by which diplomatic security is funded begins as officials gradually cut spending on diplomatic security programs. Then, when major security failures inevitably beset those programs, resultant public outrage compels officials to create a panel to investigate those failures.
The first of these panels dates back to the mid-1980s, following attacks against U.S. facilities in Beirut and Kuwait and the systematic bugging of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. These security lapses led to the formation of the Secretary of State's Advisory Panel on Overseas Security, chaired by former Deputy CIA Director Adm. Bobby Inman. The law that passed in the wake of the Inman Commission came to be known as the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, which requires that an accountability review board be convened following major security incidents.
There are a few subsequent examples of these panels. Former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe chaired an Accountability Review Board following the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. And after the Benghazi attacks, an Accountability Review Board was chaired by former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering. The Dec. 18 report was the findings of the Pickering board.
Predictably, the review boards, including Pickering's, always conclude that inadequate funding and insufficient security personnel are partly to blame for the security breaches. In response to the reports, Congress appropriates more money to diplomatic security programs to remedy the problem. Over time, funds are cut, and the cycle begins anew.
Funding can be cut for several reasons. In times of financial austerity, Congress can more easily cut the relatively small foreign affairs budget than it can entitlement benefits budgets. Cuts to the overall State Department budget generally result in cuts for security programs.
Moreover, rivalries among the various State Department entities can affect spending cuts. The Diplomatic Security Service's budget falls under the main State Department budget, so senior diplomats, rather than Diplomatic Security Service agents, represent the agency's interests on Capitol Hill. Some within the security service do not believe that senior diplomats have their best interests at heart when making the case for their budgets — at least until a tragedy occurs and Congressional hearings are held to air these problems. For their part, others in the department resent the Diplomatic Security Service for the large budgetary allocations it receives after a security failure.
More than a Matter of Funding
With Congress and the presumed next Secretary of State John Kerry now calling for increased spending on diplomatic security, the financial floodgates are about to reopen. But merely throwing money at the problems uncovered by the accountability review boards will not be enough to solve those problems. Were that the case, the billions of dollars allocated to diplomatic security in the wake of the Inman and Crowe commission reports would have sufficed.
Of course, money can be useful, but injecting large sums of it into the system can create problems if the money provided is too much for the bureaucracy to efficiently metabolize. Government managers tend to spend all the money allocated to them — sometimes at the expense of efficiency — under a "use it or lose it" mentality. Since there is no real incentive for them to perform under budget, managers in a variety of U.S. government departments spend massive amounts of money at the end of each fiscal year. The same is true of diplomatic security programs when they are flush with cash. But the inevitable reports of financial waste and mismanagement lead to calls for spending cuts in these programs.
If the U.S. government is ever going to break the cycle of funding cuts and security disasters, the Diplomatic Security Service will need to demonstrate wisdom and prudence in how it spends the funds allocated to them. It will also be necessary for Congress to provide funding in a consistent manner and with an initial appropriation that is not too big to be spent efficiently.
Beyond money management and a consistent level of funding, the State Department will also need to take a hard look at how it currently conducts diplomacy and how it can reduce the demands placed on the Diplomatic Security Service. This will require asking many difficult questions: Is it necessary to maintain large embassies to conduct diplomacy in the information age? Does the United States need to maintain thousands of employees in high-threat places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the expense of smaller missions, or can the critical work be done by hundreds or even dozens? Is a permanent U.S. presence even required in a place like Benghazi, or can the missions in such locations be accomplished by a combination of visiting diplomats, covert operatives and local employees?
At the very least, the State Department will need to review its policy of designating a facility as a "special mission" — Benghazi was designated as such — to exempt it from meeting established physical security standards. If the questions above are answered affirmatively, and if it is deemed necessary to keep a permanent presence in a place like Benghazi, then security standards need to be followed, especially when a facility is in place for several months. Temporary facilities with substandard security cannot be allowed to persist for months and years.
As they consider these issues, officials need to bear in mind that the real key to the security of diplomatic facilities is the protection provided by the host country's security forces as dictated by the Vienna Convention. If the host country will not or cannot protect foreign diplomats, then the physical security measures mandated by security standards can do little more than provide slight delay — which is what they are designed to do. No physical security measures can stand up to a prolonged assault. If a militant group armed with heavy weaponry is permitted to attack a diplomatic facility for hours with no host government response — as was the case in Benghazi — the attack will cause considerable damage and likely cause fatalities despite the security measures in place.
The same is true of a large mob, which given enough time can damage and breach U.S. embassies that meet current department security standards. The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, a state-of-the-art facility completed in 2009, was heavily damaged by a mob of pro-Gadhafi supporters in May 2011 and rendered unserviceable.
In another example, a large crowd caused extensive damage to the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the adjacent American School just three days after the Benghazi attack. In that incident, Tunisian authorities responded and did not provide the attacking mob the opportunity to conduct a prolonged assault on the embassy. Though the mob caused millions of dollars worth of damage to the compound, it was unable to breach the main embassy office building. Without host country security support, there is little that can be done to assure the safety of U.S. diplomats, no matter what happens to security budgets.