US diplomatic security unit under scrutiny after Libya attack

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 3:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2012, 3:13pm

The attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi on September 11 has sharpened congressional scrutiny of a State Department office that protects diplomats in the world’s most dangerous corners, as lawmakers ask whether it fatally misjudged the dangers of post-revolution Libya.

The little-known Bureau of Diplomatic Security saw its budget expand about tenfold in the decade after the deadly 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Contributing to that growth were the US-launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, with more diplomats moving into hostile territory.

Known as “DS” within the State Department, the bureau took pride in its work last year after the Arab Spring, including its rush to establish a safe diplomatic outpost in Benghazi following political upheaval in Tripoli, according to a report touting its successes.

But its handling of security in Benghazi, which will come under scrutiny on Wednesday at a House of Representatives committee hearing, is not the first time the bureau has come under review for costly mistakes.

In 2007, the bureau’s director resigned after a State Department panel faulted its oversight of Blackwater and other private security contractors in Iraq after at least 14 Iraqi civilians were shot dead in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

In the Benghazi probe, the house committee expects to hear from at least two bureau officials – Eric Nordstrom, a regional security officer in Libya from September last year until mid-this year, and Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary of state for international programmes. Another witness will be Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood, who headed a security support team at the US embassy in Tripoli.

The hearing will examine whether the bureau responded properly to escalating concerns in the months leading up to the attack on the Benghazi mission, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The committee is expected to ask why the State Department appeared to want to “normalise” security in Libya by using more local staff and fewer Americans guards, a US government official told reporters.

Lawmakers have suggested that the personnel, infrastructure and logistics at the mission were inadequate, and that the bureau underestimated the threat, the US official said. He did not want to publicly discuss issues under investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The security provided was like “ordering in children’s Tylenol for someone who has cancer,” the official said.

Normal day, little security

On a typical day, the Benghazi compound was protected by one or two American diplomatic security agents along with about four armed Libyans from the former rebel militia, the February 17 Brigade, the US official told reporters.

The Libyans were “intimately” involved in security and were under orders to call for backup in an emergency, the official said.

Other local guards were supplied by a State Department contractor, Blue Mountain Group. Typically unarmed, they handled routine tasks like patting down visitors to the rented villa that served as a temporary US mission.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has unearthed emails and other documents showing that Americans in Libya sought additional security after a series of violent incidents in Benghazi since early this year.

These requests were denied by the State Department, the official told reporters.

He said that among the Americans working in Libya there was a saying: “The security is fine here until it isn’t.”

There was no immediate comment from the State Department on the official’s statements.

Diplomatic security expansion

The diplomatic security bureau has grown into a large US federal law enforcement presence and has added counterterrorism, cyber security, and other roles.

It has about 2,000 special agents, 340 security engineers and technicians and 101 couriers, Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, said in June last year. Personnel levels have doubled since the mid-1990s.

“The department now operates diplomatic locations in locations where in the past, when faced with similar threats, we likely would have closed the post and evacuated all personnel,” Boswell told congress last year.

Government reports show the bureau’s budget ballooned to about US$2.5 billion in 2009 from US$200 million in 1998 when the US embassies in Africa were attacked.

Last year, the bureau’s 25th year, it was rocked by the tumult of revolution across the Middle East.

In Libya, bureau staff scrambled to find a “secure location” in Benghazi as US diplomats were withdrawn from the embassy in Tripoli in February of last year.

After establishing a temporary location in Benghazi, a team then found a “more secure location, a large villa compound that significantly enhanced the security of all US personnel in Benghazi,” the bureau’s last year report said.

In a now poignant detail, the report described how the bureau guarded Stevens while he served as special representative to the Libyan Transitional National Council. Stevens was known as a diplomat who liked to move freely among the people, sometimes alarming security officers.

The report described how Benghazi evolved into “an extensive mission focused on critical political reporting and humanitarian assistance.”

Burnout rate and tensions

Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at the Stratfor consulting firm and a former diplomatic security agent, said bureau agents are often strained by their 45-day overseas postings and brief home leaves.

They have a “tremendous burnout rate,” he said.

David Carpenter, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security from August 1998 to June 2002, said clashes may erupt between diplomats establishing ties to locals, and security personnel.

“There’s always the rush to get there and get set up and start doing things, and security isn’t always in a position to respond to that in a timely fashion,” Carpenter said.

In its changing role, the bureau’s security force sometimes ends up “doing quasi-military things” like protecting Americans left in Iraq after the war, said Grant Green, former undersecretary of state for management.

“Good security in some of these environments can be very very inconvenient. But there is a necessity for it,” Carpenter said.