When an American ambassador dies in a rocket-propelled grenade attack at a thinly-guarded diplomatic compound in a country whose revolution-induced government has not yet turned a year old, finger-pointing is inevitable. J. Christopher Stevens was only the sixth U.S. ambassador ever to be killed on duty.
This kind of thing doesn’t, and shouldn’t, happen. The questions about what could have prevented the envoy’s death on Sept. 11 have already begun to swirl.
Why weren’t there Marines at the gates? Why no highly-trained, Blackwater-style mercenaries? Why was the compound established at a vulnerable Libyan villa? Why did Stevens decide it safe to travel there? Why did it take the U.S. State Department “many, many hours”—as spokesman Victoria Nuland put it in a Wednesday briefing—to locate Stevens after the attack? What might the government have done to prevent the death of Stevens and three other diplomats?
“I was astonished at the absence of security,” said Martha Crenshaw, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. “I don’t think [the State Department] has a good explanation, and I would think Congress is going to be asking for one.”
The answer is complicated, and the reaction will likely be an overcorrection, several experts in embassy security told The Daily Beast on Thursday. There’s no one policy or person clearly “at fault.” Stevens died as an employee of a government that is still trying to figure out whether its overseas envoys should hide behind fortress-like U.S. embassies or get out and mingle. The question is particularly challenging in the Middle East where, in the wake of the Arab Spring, there are still segments of the population who are unsure whether Americans are a force of good or evil.
Nuland rejected a reporter’s description at the briefing that “there were very few security personnel” at the Benghazi compound that came under rocket-propelled grenade fire a day earlier, timed strangely both with the anniversary of 9/11 and with the release of an awful video depicting the prophet Muhammad as a womanizing asshole.
The security at Benghazi “did include a local Libyan guard force around the outer perimeter,” Nuland said at the briefing, which is “the way we work in all of our missions around the world, that the outer perimeter is the responsibility of the host government. There was obviously a physical perimeter barrier, a wall. And then there was a robust American security presence inside the compound.”
State evaluated the “threat stream,” she continued, and “determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate for what we knew.”
By all accounts, Tuesday’s attacks were a complete surprise. It remains unclear whether they were deftly planned in coordination with the 9/11 anniversary or just an explosion of rage in response to the video—though given the attackers’ firepower, there’s no doubt that the diplomats’ killers had given their siege some thought.
But it is the job of State’s diplomatic security forces to anticipate such surprises, to be ready for them. The challenge in Libya is how to do that, without mucking up the whole reason to have a U.S. presence in the first place.
Lt. Col. Brian Linvill served as the embassy’s defense attaché from 2008 until June of this year, and he visited the compound in Benghazi several times, he explained in a lengthy interview with The Daily Beast on Thursday. The thing to remember about that compound, he said, is that it was an outpost, a hastily arranged location moved to that spot after a car bomb attack last June at the Tibesti Hotel, then the region’s gathering place for rebel leaders, diplomats, and journalists. The attack made clear that security at that location wasn’t adequate, Linvill said, so State decided to pack up and move.
At the new locale, security forces waxed and waned, Linvill said, based on State’s ongoing evaluation of the local threat. In the months leading up to Tuesday’s attacks, he said, “personnel there had decreased.” Initially, the compound included a larger, adjacent piece of property, with buildings to house diplomats and security officers. “With the gradual drawdown, we gave up that portion, and consolidated onto a smaller parcel of land.”
What remained was a typical upper-class Libyan villa, Linvill said; walled compounds, small grassy areas between cement-block houses, bars on the windows. It was continually upgraded—cameras installed, reinforcements to the walls, a serpentine barrier at the gates—but the compound had nowhere near the fortress-like security of a U.S. embassy. Embassies are built with exterior walls tough enough to withstand rocket-propelled grenades, with an escape hatch-equipped interior panic room where diplomats can hide out and wait for reinforcements, while security forces bomb the outside grounds with tear gas.
The Benghazi compound “was somebody’s house that they rented,” said Scott Stewart, a former Army Intelligence officer, a special agent with the diplomatic security service who served at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala in the 1990s, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “It was constructed to Libyan residential standards.”
Not to keep out rocket-propelled grenades. There were no U.S. Marines guarding the place, because Marines aren’t bodyguards, Linvill said. They’re assigned to State Department facilities that house classified information.
The guards were Libyan, as opposed to a private security force, like Blackwater. “If I was in one of the most dangerous areas of the world, I would probably want someone like Blackwater,” said Jim Carafano, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, in an interview with The Daily Beast. But it’s not as simple as to say Blackwater should have been there, Carafano cautioned. Diplomatic security takes all kinds of information into account when figuring out how heavy or light to secure a compound.
“It’s too simple to say Custer should have had more guys.”
Private security, for example, would not have been a good option for Benghazi, Linvill said, especially when you consider the history of Libya. This is a country whose people just fought a war against a man who used mercenaries to oppress them. Libyans have not forgotten the Italian colonial period of the 1920s and ’30s, when they were put into concentration camps and executed. One of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s most effective pieces of propaganda was convincing people that all foreign colonial presence is bad. Bringing in Blackwater-style security forces was never on the table in Benghazi, because State believed it essential that the Libyan government see Americans as a welcome presence there—as liberators, if you will.
“Libyans are perhaps surprisingly very pro-U.S.,” Linvill said. “I lived there for four years, and not once did I have a bad experience because I identified myself as an American.”
The last time a foreign government—Great Britain—tried to stomp in with Special Forces operators without coordinating the effort with local Libyans, just at the beginning of last year’s revolution, a local militia group captured those soldiers, and they had to leave.
So yes, the perimeter guards were Libyans, the security personnel inside the compound was diminished. Which raised this question, for Stewart: should the ambassador have gone there in the first place?
“If there’s anything to question, it’s why was the U.S. ambassador going to a facility with substandard security where there’s a known jihadist threat on the 9/11 anniversary,” Stewart said.
In hindsight, the answer is of course that Stevens should not have been in Benghazi that day. But the envoy was fully aware of the risk he exposed himself and his colleagues to by traveling to places like Benghazi, outposts where the Libyan government maintains only a shaky grip. Should he have been surrounded by more guards? Perhaps, but it’s entirely possible he decided against that knowing he was going to a compound with sparse defenses.
“If it’s a covert trip, and nobody knew he was there, keeping a low profile is a way to mitigate risk,” Carafano said. “On the other hand, if the danger is very predictable, it’s Indian country, and he goes out there and has four guys with him, that’s not very smart.”
Stevens was known for placing an importance on getting out into Libya, and getting to know its people, Linvill said. He accepted the risks involved because he thought the mission was that important, that he and his embassy remain plugged into these critical parts of a critical region.
“You could argue we may have missed the Arab Spring beginning in Libya back in 2011 because we didn’t have a permanent presence in Benghazi,” Linvill said.
Stevens was certainly careful enough not to travel to Benghazi at any regular interval, or let it be known he was coming, Linvill said, which makes the success of those who stormed the compound all the more interesting. Did they get lucky, or did they have some inside information about the envoy’s travel plans?
Had there been any wind of an impending attack, of course, things would be different. The military would have sent in a “fast team,” secured the compound, maybe even evacuated its members, Stewart said. But there was no such warning, no time to send in the Marines.
What about once the attack began, though? At that point, security forces had two choices, Linvill said: hunker down, and hope help arrives quickly from the outside; or try to flee. Both options carry risks.
“If you hunker down, you’re in a known location, and the friendly forces can maneuver to you,” Linvill said. “If you pick up and move, you could get into a running gunfight, and that’s not good.”
If it’s tough to say how the deaths of four diplomats might have been prevented on Tuesday, that won’t stop pundits and politicians from finding a way to overcorrect, figures Mac Destler, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in international security issues.
“It’s kind of unavoidable, at least in the short run,” Destler said. “The response will be to get more security, to constrain how freely ambassadors move around.”
People who knew Christopher Stevens say that probably wouldn’t be his approach. Sadly, the envoy can no longer make that call.