Failure to Protect Diplomatic Troops

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from the January 17, 2013 blog post by Ambassador John Price.

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“The Secretary of State is responsible for the overall coordination and supervision of all United States Government activities and operations abroad…The Secretary of State must protect all United States Government personnel on official duty abroad…”

 President George W. Bush, January 2002, (Excerpts-Letter of Instruction to U.S. ambassadors).

As former United States ambassador to three island nations in East Africa, I had a number of attack threats to deal with during my service from 2002-2005. I am appalled that Secretary Hillary Clinton would minimize the importance of the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens stating: “What difference at this point does it make.” Madam Secretary, a U.S. ambassador is dead—you were his boss, and should have had security measures in place to minimize the risk of a fatal attack. A chief of mission knows there are risks serving in conflicted areas, but with the on-going jihad against the United States, the State Department needed to be better prepared to protect the diplomatic troops.

Due to security concerns in the Indian Ocean region, I visited Ambassador Frank Lavin, a classmate at the Ambassadorial Seminar, to discuss embassy security in light of his experience living through a bomb plot at the embassy in Singapore in 2001. Islamist extremists were under surveillance for almost a year, with the plot being foiled only days before the planned attack by the al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

In late 2002 I went to Bahrain to meet with the commander of the U.S. 5th fleet to discuss security concerns in the region, I also met with Ambassador Ronald Neumann and discussed the anti-American demonstrators that climbed over a perimeter wall at the embassy in Manama in early 2002, and carried out a fire-bomb attack (another attack occurred in 2003 at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom).

My meeting with both ambassadors provided input on the growing presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the broader region, since several threats arose at the embassy in Port Louis. There was also concern of individuals passing through the host countries with fraudulent passports—many traveling with only one-way tickets.

One terrifying incident occurred when a visiting Washington advance team, in 2002, was set to depart on a C‑17 aircraft to Nairobi, Kenya. Our Regional Security Officer (RSO) had received credible information that terrorists were plotting to fly an aircraft into the U.S. embassy in Nairobi (terrorists had bombed the embassy there in 1998). The concern was whether terrorists were planning to highjack this aircraft, and use it as a missile—having changed their route they arrived safely. There were countless threat of attacks against U.S. interests, once the Iraqi War was under way.

I served under Secretary Colin Powell, and subsequently Secretary Condoleezza Rice, both being hands-on leaders. At the top of their list of instructions, was the security at the overseas missions. I doubt if either would have said, “What difference does it make”, if an overseas mission had been overrun, or an ambassador killed by Islamist terrorists. In fact with the security support we received, terrorists were not successful in killing any American diplomats, even in the numerous conflicted areas.

Secretary Powell and Secretary Rice may not go down in history as having traveled the most miles around the world, or even visited the most countries, however, they will be remembered as being hands-on leaders, communicating directly about threat situations with the ambassadors. Classified cables which discussed threat alerts, led to timely responses admonishing ambassadors to take immediate action to protect U.S. interests, the safety of American citizens, and securing our missions.

There were a number of security upgrades lacking when I arrived at the embassy in Port Louis, which were quickly remedied. Copies of the cables regarding security measures reached the “seventh floor” of the State Department (Secretary of State’s office). The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) also immediately assigned an RSO to the embassy, since none was stationed there. The Department of Defense personnel in the region were very responsive to all reported threats. I had contact with U.S. area military commanders on a regular basis to discuss security matters, and to keep fully informed as to terrorist threats in the region.

Increased threat of attacks by terrorist cells in the Horn of Africa and East Africa prompted a chief of missions conference in Djibouti. The briefings were with top military leaders, including General John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), who understood the Islamic culture and spoke Arabic fluently. Seven ambassadors, from the East Africa region, traveled by charter aircraft to Camp Lemonier—formerly a French Foreign Legion post, home to the Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). We were met by heavily armored SUV’s, one for each ambassador, and armed security guards as protection. Everywhere we went, on foot or otherwise, we had security.

The briefings included concerns about al-Qaeda operatives in the region, with the military officers being responsive to our concerns of safety. President Bush’s letter of instruction to ambassadors–still fresh on my mind—discussed at length the protection and security of our missions, noting, “You and the area military commander should develop appropriate security procedures, arrangements, and documentation for all Department of Defense elements and personnel, assigning them to either your authority and security responsibility, or to that of the area military commander. You and the area military commander should consult and coordinate responses to common threats….”

I believe the State Department failed to take proper precautions to protect the U.S. consulate in Benghazi,  have a tested Emergency Action Plan (EAP) in place, and make sure that military support was readily available in the event of terrorist attacks. Ambassador Stevens needed to operate in a secure environment, with extra security measures in such a conflicted area.

The Arab Spring, which led to regime change, and killing of Muammar Gaddafi by Islamist militants, also led to numerous radical extremists infiltrating the region. Ambassador Stevens, a seasoned diplomat, knew the risks he faced, and reportedly sent classified cables to all the  agencies, regarding his concerns of terrorist attacks. Such information would have reached the seventh floor within seconds, including the adjacent Operations Center. The State Department leadership had a myopic view of the critical situation that was unfolding in Benghazi, and failed to protect the diplomatic troops.

One of Secretary Clinton’s primary responsibilities was to manage, and oversee that security measures were in place at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, especially since al-Qaeda affiliates had infiltrated Libya. Although extensive travel around the world for bilateral meetings with dignitaries and country leaders is important, a hands-on management approach at the State Department was necessary. I believe in the adage: “Organizations can succeed in spite of themselves, but if they fail, it is always because of management”. I trust the new Secretary of State John Kerry, will manage and protect the diplomatic troops.

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