January 25, 2013
US Boosts Diplomatic Security After Benghazi Attack
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi has prompted her to take urgent steps to improve security at diplomatic posts worldwide.
But some American diplomats worry that new security rules ordered by Washington also could make it harder for their counterparts to do their jobs.
In the Benghazi attack, suspected al-Qaida militants raided several U.S. compounds on September 11, 2012, killing four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
Earlier that day, anti-American protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo, angered by a U.S.-made film about the Prophet Muhammad. Yemenis offended by that film also broke into the U.S. embassy compound in Sana'a.
Deploying more Marines
At a Senate hearing Wednesday, Secretary Clinton said she has responded to those incidents by asking for hundreds of additional Marine security guards to be sent to vulnerable diplomatic posts.
She said she also appointed an official to the new position of deputy assistant secretary of state for high threat posts, with responsibility for giving missions in dangerous places “the attention they need."
Clinton said she has designated more than 20 U.S. missions around the world as high-risk sites requiring tighter security. But she said their locations are classified.
A labor union that represents American diplomats told VOA that sending more Marines to guard high-risk missions is a positive step.
American Foreign Service Association President Susan Johnson said many U.S. consulates and some embassies have had to operate without any Marines.
"Marines are there principally to guard and secure premises rather than offer personal protection,” she said. “Nonetheless, having them there in an emergency can also buy you time and can certainly help you to prevail or escape or minimize the damage, so we welcome that. But the Marines are not out there yet."
Seeking congressional help
Secretary Clinton also said she needs congressional support to implement security recommendations made by an independent panel that investigated the Benghazi attack. She urged lawmakers to give her the authority to use some existing State Department funds for deploying more security personnel and upgrading construction at U.S. missions.
Clinton also appealed to Congress to provide additional money for diplomatic security, saying the funds approved last year were inadequate and 10 percent below what she had requested.
Some diplomats have expressed concern that the State Department could tighten security too much as it tries to satisfy congressional Republicans who accuse it of not doing enough to prevent the Benghazi killings.
Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, told VOA that political pressure on the Obama administration to avoid risky diplomacy is more “severe” than it was before Benghazi.
“One of the biggest problems we are dealing with is an environment in which Washington officials become so nervous about security that they reduce the flexibility of diplomats in the field to make critical security decisions.”
Neumann, president of the Washington-based non-profit group American Academy for Diplomacy, said ambassadors should be the ones to decide whether they or their personnel make risky trips outside of their offices.
Nicholas Kralev, author of America's Other Army: The U.S. Foreign Service and 21st Century Diplomacy, said existing restrictions on diplomatic travel already have made life difficult for the diplomats.
“In many countries where it is deemed not safe to travel outside the capital, diplomats are banned from going. In some countries, they may get a waiver of that, but they have to request written permission.”
Kralev said Secretary Clinton tried to strike a balance between diplomatic security and flexibility before the September 2012 attacks.
“Unfortunately after the attacks, I do not see how this can happen, now that the focus is much more on the security part of this,” he said.
Union leader Johnson said many diplomats have been speaking up in favor of flexibility.
“Benghazi is bringing the issue to the forefront. I am seeing a bit more pushback from the Foreign Service against calls to eliminate all risk, not travel anywhere and get 64 permissions to do so."
She said another way to improve security is to boost federal funding for training diplomats in foreign languages and country knowledge.
“[That training] makes you far more attuned to what is going on. You are more able to avoid a dangerous situation, and if it happens, you are better able to respond to it,” she said.
Neumann said no measures can provide perfect security.
“The steps [announced by Clinton] are good, but they do not mean that you can avoid another Benghazi or another diplomat being killed. That is not within the realm of the possible,” he said.