Global Policy Forum

After Benghazi Attack, Private Security Hovers as an Issue

During the last decade, the US has increased security measures for its diplomats abroad, often contracting private security companies. Yet, the post-Qaddhafi Libyan government banned “Blackwater-staged” private armed contractors from operating in the country. This contributed to an unclear security strategy in Libya, which may have led to the death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi. However, more robust private security remains a dangerous alternative. In fact PMSCs’ aggressive measures in Iraq and Afghanistan led to a “growing regional resentment against heavily armed American private security contractors” in the Middle East. Not to mention that diplomats themselves increasingly complain about such “ever-tighter protections that they say make it more difficult to do their jobs.”

By James Risen

October 12, 2012

Lost amid the election-year wrangling over the militants’ attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, is a complex back story involving growing regional resentment against heavily armed American private security contractors, increased demands on State Department resources and mounting frustration among diplomats over ever-tighter protections that they say make it more difficult to do their jobs.

The Benghazi attacks, in which the United States ambassador and three other Americans were killed, come at the end of a 10-year period in which the State Department — sending its employees into a lengthening list of war zones and volatile regions — has regularly ratcheted up security for its diplomats. The aggressive measures used by private contractors eventually led to shootings in Afghanistan and Iraq that provoked protests, including an episode involving guards from an American security company, Blackwater, that left at least 17 Iraqis dead in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.

The ghosts of that shooting clearly hung over Benghazi. Earlier this year, the new Libyan government had expressly barred Blackwater-style armed contractors from flooding into the country. “The Libyans were not keen to have boots on the ground,” one senior State Department official said.

That forced the State Department to rely largely on its own diplomatic security arm, which officials have said lacks the resources to provide adequate protection in war zones.

On Capitol Hill this week, Democrats and Republicans sparred at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing over what happened in Benghazi, whether security at the mission was adequate, and what — if anything — could have been done to prevent the tragedy.

But amid calls for more protection for diplomats overseas, some current and former State Department officials cautioned about the risks of going too far. “The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker,” Eric A. Nordstrom, who until earlier this year served as the chief security officer at the United States Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, told the committee.

Barbara K. Bodine, who served as ambassador to Yemen when the destroyer Cole was bombed in 2000, said: “What we need is a policy of risk management, but what we have now is a policy of risk avoidance. Nobody wants to take responsibility in case something happens, so nobody is willing to have a debate over what is reasonable security and what is excessive.”

For the State Department, the security situation in Libya came down in part to the question of whether it was a war zone or just another African outpost.

Even though the country was still volatile in the wake of the bloody rebellion that ousted Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the State Department did not include Libya on a list of dangerous postings that are high priority for extra security resources.

Only the American Embassies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are exempted from awarding security contracts to the lowest bidder. Dangerous posts are allowed to consider “best value” contracting instead, according to a State Department inspector general’s report in February.  

The large private security firms that have protected American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan sought State Department contracts in Libya, and at least one made a personal pitch to the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the militants’ attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to a senior official at one firm.

But given the Libyan edict banning the contractors, the Obama administration was eager to reduce the American footprint there. After initially soliciting bids from major security companies for work in Libya, State Department officials never followed through.

“We went in to make a pitch, and nothing happened,” said the security firm official. He said the State Department could have found a way around the Libyans’ objections if it had wanted to.

Instead, the department relied on a small British company to provide several unarmed Libyan guards for security at the mission in Benghazi. For the personal protection of the diplomats, the department largely depended on its Diplomatic Security Service.

The wrangling over protection is part of a larger debate that has been under way for years within the State Department over how to balance security with the need of American diplomats to move freely.

Many diplomats rankle at the constraints imposed on them by security officials, who demand that they travel around foreign capitals in heavily armored convoys that local civilians find insulting and that make it nearly impossible for the envoys to meet discreetly with foreign officials. Many American diplomats have also grown deeply frustrated by the constraints imposed on them by working in the new, highly secure embassies that have been constructed around the world over the past decade.

After the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa by Al Qaeda, the State Department began a multibillion-dollar program to replace many embassies with hardened and highly secure facilities. American construction companies with experience in building prisons and military barracks won many of the contracts to build cookie-cutter buildings that look more like fortresses than diplomatic outposts. Between 2001 and 2010, 52 embassies were built, and many others are now under construction or being designed.

Often located in remote suburban areas far from crowded streets, the buildings are designed to withstand truck bombs, but they also require local security forces and heavily armed guards to resist the type of attack that the militants staged in Benghazi.

But many diplomats say the fortified embassies make it difficult for them to do their jobs, forcing them to find ways around them. Ronald E. Neumann, who served as the ambassador in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and who worked in Baghdad before that, said that many foreign officials refuse to come into American Embassies because they are insulted by the intrusive security measures, and they do not want American officials coming to their homes with huge convoys.

“So you meet people in hotels,” said Mr. Neumann, now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington. The security “has forced you to get more creative.”

That can mean taking more risks. “A lot of people are simply violating the security regulations to do their jobs,” said Anthony H. Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. “They have to find ways to get out, and sometimes they end-run the security officer, or sometimes the security officer will turn a blind eye.”

In fact, just as the Benghazi attack occurred, the State Department’s building department was beginning to address some of the frustrations by proposing more open and accessible designs for embassies. Under the new policy, embassies will still have to meet the same security standards, but the State Department will require that a higher priority be given to the visual appearance of buildings and will try to situate them in more central locations so that they are not so isolated. It is unclear whether the Benghazi crisis will force the State Department to abandon the new design policy.

“The problem is that embassies no longer function as public buildings,” said Jane Loeffler, the author of “The Architecture of Diplomacy,” a history of the design and construction of American embassies. “They used to be public, but no longer.”

For the State Department, finding the right balance between security and diplomacy has become increasingly difficult in a political environment. Perhaps no one understands that as well as Patrick F. Kennedy.

Five years ago, Mr. Kennedy, then the under secretary of state for management in the Bush administration, was caught up in a high-profile Congressional investigation of the episode in Nisour Square. Democratic lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee criticized the department for lax management of overly aggressive security contractors.

This week, Mr. Kennedy, who has the same job in the Obama administration, faced Republicans on the same House committee, who criticized the State Department for lax management and failing to provide more aggressive security in Benghazi.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.