Knee-jerk reactions to the death of four State Department employees in Benghazi, Libya last month could hurt, not help, U.S. diplomacy, several former ambassadors and State Department employees warned Thursday.
The former officials, who spoke at the Stimson Center think tank, said their major concerns are that Washington’s response to the attack in Benghazi could further restrict diplomats’ ability to do their jobs overseas and that Congress could end up reducing funding for the thing they say they need most — more Foreign Service officers — to pay for more security personnel.
Even as they spoke, however, House Speaker John A. Boehner waded into the highly partisan back-and-forth over last month’s attack with a letter to President Obama. The Ohio Republican called on the president to publicly address questions about his administration’s decisions and statements before and after the attack, in which heavily armed Islamist militants attacked the American consulate and killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The diplomats, however, made clear the Libya attack was not unprecedented.
“There is a danger of overreaction right now because people are reacting as though this was not a fairly constant issue,” said Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, said.
Security, Neumann said, has always been an issue. “In my career we had an assassination of Americans successfully performed every one of the three years I was in Iran in the ’70s. . . . I served in Algeria where we had a blanket death threat to all foreigners.”
“There is going to be and there always will be a risk versus benefit calculation,” he continued, something that should be made on the ground by security officers and diplomats. “If political leaders will not accept risk, then you will make it extraordinarily difficult for people on the ground . . . to make those decisions.” Neumann warned.
Other former ambassadors on the panel agreed that the political and media reaction to Benghazi seem to be happening in a vacuum, with little acknowledgement of the daily dangers that diplomats face around the world or of the history of security risks the State Department has long juggled.
“This is not a time or a place to give mid-flight comments given, in fact, the general authority by which everybody who knows almost nothing about it is treating it,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a former ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s pick to head up a review panel on the Benghazi attacks. Given that assignment, he declined to weigh in any further on the diplomatic security debate currently raging in Washington.
That debate has produced almost daily revelations about the intelligence and internal communications on the situation in Libya, providing ample fodder in a hard-fought campaign season.
In Boehner’s letter to Obama, the Speaker wrote, “It is clear that information now in the public domain contradicts how you and senior administration officials consistently described the cause and nature of the terrorist attack in the days and weeks following. Why did the administration fail to account for facts that known at the time.”
White House officials have said that there was lots of conflicting information and intelligence in the early days, and that it took time for the intelligence community to sort through it all.
In recent days, the focus has been on how intelligence on the nature and cause of the attack was shared with officials, prompting Senate Select Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to announce Thursday that her panel will hold a series of hearings on Benghazi when Congress returns after the election, starting with a closed hearing on Nov. 15.
Several other committees in both the House and Senate also plan on examining the matter; the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee already held a rare recess hearing on the security at the Benghazi consulate that devolved into partisan finger-pointing.
‘No Silver Bullet’
Pickering and Thomas D. Boyatt, a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former ambassador to Colombia, agreed with Neumann Thursday that while the Benghazi attack was a tragedy, it is just one in a long line of threats facing American nationals working abroad.
“I speak not only as somebody who was hijacked once and somebody who lived a very rough life in Colombia for three years and somebody who was president of a security company that provided security services to the U.S. government and specifically to the State Department,” said Boyatt. “There is no silver bullet” for diplomatic security.
“We still have to do our missions,” Boyatt continued, “and that means that people are going to have to take chances. And that means that people are going to get killed. And that was certainly the reality when we were in the service.”
A new report on State Department personnel conducted by the Stimson Center and the American Academy of Diplomacy and released Thursday found that security staffing has increased significantly since the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Russell Rumbaugh, Stimson’s director of budgeting for foreign affairs and defense, noted that under Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, President George W. Bush’s first secretary of State, “security personnel increased by about 700, which was almost a 50 percent increase.”
That, he said, “was where most of the growth of personnel in State Department happened” at that time. In the last five years, security personnel “increased by about 400 people, a 20 percent increase.”
According to the report, the State Department now employs more diplomatic security specialists than political and economic officers. It advises adding 722 more positions in core diplomacy and public diplomacy in its fiscal 2014 budget request. Right now, State and the U.S. Agency for International Development “operate with too few personnel for the next two decades,” it concludes.
But with more budget cuts likely coming for fiscal 2013 and subsequent years, there are concerns that Congress’ reaction to the deaths in Benghazi will be more funds for security at the cost of other personnel and programs.
“You could easily imagine a world in which we decide to stay everywhere but the ratio of people guarding and the people doing diplomacy would maybe not be an optimal ratio,” said Stimson Center President Ellen Laipson, a former vice chairwoman of the National Intelligence Council and State Department staffer. “We want to make sure that even if a decision is made to strengthen the security function that it not come at the expense of the people who do political reporting and who really do the representational work.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.