U.S. Embassies are our first line of defense

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

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s August 6, 2013 blog post.

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Last Thursday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed the “Chris Stevens, Sean SmithTyrone Woods and Glen Doherty Embassy Security, Threat Mitigation, and Personnel Protection Act of 2013”,  named after the four Americans killed by Islamists at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The attacks reinforced the fact that the State Department failed to implement established security measures and procedures at our overseas posts.

We could have learned a lesson from the 36 suicide attacks against Americans in Lebanon in the early 1980’s. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut was bombed by Hezbollah in April 1983, killing 63 people. In October truck bombs struck two barracks housing a U.S.-led peacekeeping force in which 299 American and French soldiers were killed by the Islamic Jihad. In December a truck filled with explosives rammed into the three-story wing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City killing five people, an attack by Shiite Islamists with ties to Iran.

As a result of these attacks an Advisory Panel on Overseas Security was formed. The resulting Inman Report recommended a number of security measures including proper setbacks, structural upgrades, and new construction of at-risk missions. The study also called for the formation of the Diplomatic Security Service (DS) to oversee security measures at all our overseas operations.

A Regional Security Officer (RSO) would be assigned as the principal security advisor to all the embassies and consulates. As the senior officer this person would oversee the mission’s security staff, hiring of local guards, setting up surveillance detection teams, and interfacing with police and military authorities.

We could have again learned from Ambassador Prudence Bushnell’s experience in 1996, when she sent cables to the State Department regarding a number of terrorist threats, and the lack of proper security at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya. A department official said the ambassador was overreacting on the stated security concerns. A security team sent to inspect the embassy reported that it met “their standards” for a medium-threat facility.

In early 1998 General Anthony Zinni visited the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, and reported that there were significant risks, making it an easy target for terrorists. The U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania was no better protected from potential terrorist attacks. The State Department continued to say that security upgrades were not necessary.

On August 7, 1998 both U.S. embassies were attacks by trucks laden with explosives, resulting in the tragic loss of 224 lives. The State Department did not heed the warnings. U.S. intelligence sources did not believe that sub-Saharan Africa had a well-organized al-Qaeda network.

On Friday August 2 the State Department issued a directive, stating that on Sunday twenty-two overseas missions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and South Asia would be closed due to credible al-Qaeda terrorist threats. Ayman al-Zawahiri the al-Qaeda leader apparently told Muslims to rise up and attack American interests, a similar edict given before the attacks on the Benghazi compound.

This global terrorist threat coincides with the end of Ramadan, and also the fifteenth anniversary of the East African U.S. embassy bombings. Reportedly the intelligence information says al-Qaeda will attack American diplomatic posts in highly populated Muslim countries, with Yemen being on the top of the list. The original alert affected closure of embassies and consulates normally open on Sunday, which has now been expanded beyond this week many some cases.

Senator Bob Menendez stated the Protection Act of 2013 is “a very meaningful step in assuring the security of missions abroad, and the safety of our Foreign  Service personal”, further noting “If we fail to act, if we fail to address these issues, there will be another incident. The responsibility is ours and the failure to act would be ours as well”. The proposed bill comes on the heels of criticism surrounding the Benghazi attacks.

The Senator’s call for more security of our missions abroad is the same rhetoric we heard back in 1985. The State Department created the Bureau of Counterterrorism in January 2012 to “secure the U.S. against foreign terrorist threats [and] disrupt and defeat the networks that support terrorism”.

The State Department did not have emergency measures in place to protect the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi; to ensure that military support was readily available in the event of a terrorist attack—standards that were established back in 1985. We also did not protect the two East African embassies attacked in 1998. Since a number of our overseas missions have not been brought up to the highest security standards we can expect more terrorist attacks.

As a former U.S. ambassador to three island nations in East Africa, I had to deal with terrorist threats at the embassy in Port Louis. Mission chiefs know the risks of serving in conflicted areas with the on-going Global War on Terror. However the diplomatic corps needs to be better protected. We need to make sure that military support is readily available in the event of terrorist attacks.

The Benghazi attack occurred on the tenth anniversary of the October 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks against the United States. August 7 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. embassy attacks in East Africa. The closing of twenty-two missions for a period of time, due to credible threats, may be prudent. But our embassies also serve as the first line of defense, for intelligence gathering information and protecting American citizens. Missions that meet the highest security standards should remain open as our “eyes and ears”.

We have been lax in securing some of our overseas missions after the attacks in the early 1980’s. It is time to seriously address the security requirements to protect our diplomatic troops abroad. My hope is that we will not have to again say “that providing military support would not have made any difference” in the loss of American lives. Al-Qaeda has not been decimated!

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