Lessons Not Learned
Five Years After Benghazi, U.S. Diplomats Still Think ‘It’s Not Going to Happen to Me’
‘It’s not so much they think it can’t happen. They’re overstretched in terms of what they can do in the course of the day.’
Nearly five years after four Americans lost their lives in attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department still isn’t doing enough to protect diplomats overseas, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
“With the weaknesses we found, it increases the risk that the staff overseas aren’t prepared to handle a crisis or emergency situations,” said Michael Court, director of international affairs and trade at the GAO. “That could be a natural disaster like an earthquake or something like what happened in Benghazi.”
The stinging report comes out as the State Department faces possible drastic funding cuts under the Trump administration, though Congress is fighting that. Diplomats have long complained the State Department is underfunded, which makes for smaller, overworked staffs with less time to devote to security. But the main culprit in this case could be cultural.
“I don’t recall them bringing money up,” Court said of his team’s interviews with diplomats overseas. “It was more along the lines of ‘it’s not going to happen to me,’” Court said.
But it did, on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya. Militants attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound there, starting a fire that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and State Department information management officer Sean Smith. CIA security officers rescued survivors, bringing them back to their compound in the city, only to be attacked hours later by mortar fire that killed CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both former Navy SEALs. Subsequent investigations revealed diplomats had asked the State Department for more security because of rising militant activity in the city—requests that were ignored, according to a Senate report.
Yet the GAO found few of the grim lessons learned being applied in the years following the attacks. From 2013 to 2016, roughly 270 American diplomatic facilities completed only 52 percent of required evacuation and emergency drills on average, with only 4 percent of embassies doing all the required drills. In embassies with a high risk of terrorism and political unrest, the average was even lower, with only 44 percent completing the exercises.
Drills on how to shred sensitive documents or how to deal with bomb threats or weapons of mass destruction were done more often, but exercises on how to get out of an embassy safely—or how to reach all the Americans in the country to let them know to get out—were practiced the least.
“It is remarkable; and… raises the stunningly inconvenient question for Democrats what lessons were learned from the Benghazi tragedy,” said Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center, a former advisor to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. “Question now is what the Republicans, and [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson will do about it. It’s clearly a case for not cutting State’s resources on the critically important issue of security,” he said in an email.
Republicans in Congress are studying the report. An aide to Senate Foreign Affairs Chairman Bob Corker said they are reviewing the findings “to ensure U.S. personnel are prepared to respond effectively in an emergency.” The aide spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter.
A State Department official said the agency agrees with the GAO’s recommendations which include tracking which embassies are non compliant, and will roll out new software to help standardize the process of creating an emergency action plan for each facility, in addition to other measures, which include more coordination with the Defense Department.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the new measures.
Senate foreign relations committee ranking member Ben Cardin said he was relieved State is taking the GAO’s recommendations seriously, but said the Trump Administration’s “continuing failure to send to the Senate a nominee for the senior State official for Diplomatic Security will delay these improvements.”
“Additionally, the lack of resources in its budget request for security upgrades to vulnerable posts indicates to me that that the Trump White House has not prioritized the safety of our diplomatic personnel overseas,” the Maryland Democrat said in a statement emailed to The Daily Beast.
He added that the State Department had improved and was getting better year by year, but possibly not fast enough to head off another catastrophe in the age of ISIS.
“There’s not really a culture of compliance when it comes to security matters,” he said. “We found it varies widely from post to post. Some ambassadors and DCMs [deputy chiefs of mission] take it more seriously than others.”
Former Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Dan Kurtzer said culture is an issue, but money is the real problem.
“Funding is important. The State Department doesn’t get enough money and it has to do triage,” Kurtzer told The Daily Beast. “It’s not so much they think it can’t happen. They’re overstretched in terms of what they can do in the course of the day,” because embassies are understaffed and underfunded. “The kind of drills you have to do when you shut the embassy down and people have to go to their stations. where you muster, those tend to fall by the wayside,” said Kurtzer, now a professor at Princeton University.
That’s set to get worse, with the Trump administration proposing to cut the State Department and USAID budget from roughly $55 billion in fiscal 2017 to just under $38 billion in fiscal 2018, which amounts to a reduction of $17.3 billion, or 31 percent.
A former Diplomatic Security Service officer, who has run embassy security operations from Israel to Europe, said the problem isn’t just money; it’s a State Department culture that prizes diplomatic missions above security.
“An RSO (regional security officer) spends his or her time trying to herd cats in the emergency action committee…where no one cares except the RSO,” he said in an interview, describing the group responsible for scheduling emergency drills in overseas facilities.
For instance, an embassy’s economic counselor is also responsible for the aviation portfolio—i.e., how would Americans would be evacuated by air and sea ports. “It’s so far down their list of things to do, that they don’t do it, unless a strong ambassador says it’s not just the RSO’s job,” said the former officer, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly.
“No one wants to lose anyone, of course, but there were days in the field when I wondered whether we had the time and scope to pursue our policy goals and do our jobs,” countered retired Amb. Tom Krajeski, former ambassador to Yemen and political advisor during the war in Iraq. “It was all about security, drills, plans, evacuation readiness.”
“Diplomacy is a risky and sometimes dangerous business. We cannot and should not claim 100 percent security,” he added. “It’s unrealistic. Might as well go home.”