How to keep our embassies safe
June 12th, 2013
11:24 AM ET

How to keep our embassies safe

By William Young, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: William Young is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He was formerly a senior officer with the CIA with extensive experience in the Middle East. The views expressed are his own.

Benghazi is back in the news. Late last week, clashes between protesters and militia claimed at least two dozen lives after demonstrators reportedly stormed a pro-government militia base. The latest violence is a reminder of just how unstable parts of the country remain – and how many questions remain unanswered as the United States seeks to ensure that there is no repeat of a tragedy that claimed the lives of four Americans last September.

The truth is that something has gone terribly wrong when two U.S. government officers end up making a last stand against overwhelming odds in a terrorist attack on an American diplomatic compound. Last year’s attack on the Benghazi consulate, reportedly also a CIA outpost, suggests the United States simply was not prepared to operate in such a high-threat environment and had not reassessed the changing nature of the danger.

Before entering a high-threat area like Benghazi, or indeed any other unstable environment, it is essential to determine if the mission is worth the risk. In assessing Benghazi, the first question that comes to mind is:  What was so important about having a diplomatic presence in a city characterized as unstable; a city the British, French and United Nations had effectively abandoned because of warring militias and earlier bombings?  Why was the United States still there? All assessments about the viability of the mission and all plans to protect U.S. diplomatic compounds around the world have to begin with answers to this question.

The second question that needs to be asked is: How did the embassy, the State Department and others justify such a low level of protection for a mission in such a threatening environment? An argument could be made that mission personnel were surprised, that the threat level escalated quickly and that it initially did not seem to require more visible protection and support from the militia governing that area of the city.

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But was there no reassessment of the threat?  It is standard procedure at U.S. missions abroad to hold Emergency Action Committee meetings, and to reassess the changing nature of threats in volatile environments. These meetings are held with greater frequency at posts in war zones, and where the threat of street demonstrations and terrorist attacks is high. Whether or not Embassy Tripoli held an EAC meeting is classified, but it is an important question Congress should ask.

If such questions are asked at the start of a mission and as changes occur, and if appropriate actions are taken as a result of the answers given, then there should be little chance of surprise.  Threats can be acknowledged and dealt with by evacuating unessential staff, and by enhancing the protection and deterrent posture provided by foreign hosts. At the same time, embassy personnel can increase visibility into local neighborhoods around the mission site, and strengthen the security inside the walls of the mission compound.

The original justification for having a diplomatic presence in that location can be reconsidered and perhaps justified. But not asking these questions and not continually reassessing both the mission and the risk are the equivalent of taking one’s eyes off the ball in the middle of the game. The likelihood of being hurt is high.

If the local government or militia is unable or unwilling to provide an armed, physical presence to deter an attack, then the mission should be abandoned. Without enough protection to carry out the mission, why continue to put anyone in harm’s way? If the mission is deemed too important to abandon and foreign hosts are incapable of providing adequate security, then the United States would have to consider other means to provide for the safety of mission personnel.

More Marine Security Guards are not the answer. An embassy or consulate would have to deploy too large a force of Marine guards to make a difference against an attack the size of the one that occurred in Benghazi. Outside a war zone, where the United States lacks a controlling presence, the host country probably would not anyway permit a large U.S. Marine force inside its embassy anyway – perhaps regarding such a presence as an infringement on its sovereignty and as something more than a diplomatic force.

For the same reason, it is unlikely most host nations would permit any other large U.S. military presence inside or outside the diplomatic mission. Given the history of attacks against the Marine barracks in Beirut and Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, more U.S. military boots on the ground might well be a strategy to avoid. Nevertheless, if the mission is important, perhaps the United States could persuade the host government to allow it to keep an appropriate number of troops for training and emergencies on one of its own military bases. Indeed, the U.S. military already does this in a number of countries.

If it is not possible to keep a large enough contingent of U.S. forces inside or around embassies or consulates, then it might be possible to station them nearby in the region as a Quick Reaction Force. This could work in some regions where the United States has allies willing to cooperate and where U.S. military bases exist.

If a U.S. presence is remote and the mission is still deemed essential, then U.S. allies could be called upon to assist if personnel need to be evacuated before, during, or after an attack. The relationships the United States has built over the years – and the foreign assistance it continues to provide – could serve as incentives to persuade these allies to help in times of need. The United States should ask.

All this said, the best way to safeguard U.S. diplomatic missions abroad is to think hard up front about the purpose of the mission and to constantly reassess it in light of changing conditions.  Being vigilant about using the procedures and mechanisms already in place at embassies will help diplomatic staffs collaborate with decision makers in Washington to realistically assess the threats they face. Like a doctor’s checklist before surgery, these procedures will help guard against the complacency that can build up slowly in high-threat environments.

Making this way of thinking a routine is the best way to condition personnel to be alert to signs of warning, which will help prevent more tragedies like Benghazi.

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Topics: Libya

soundoff (21 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Why do you say every time that RAND is non-partisan? Why don't you say its a thinktank serving the CIA rather than our democratic organs?

    June 12, 2013 at 11:50 am | Reply
  2. Rule #1

    Don't build them in Towel Head countries.

    June 12, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Reply
    • Rule #1

      I like to go ice fishing in my speedo.

      June 12, 2013 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  3. Quigley

    If we weren't the most hated country in the world today, maybe our embassies abroad wouldn't be in such danger in the first place! This is all a direct result of our needlessly aggressive foreign policies formulated by the greedy right-wing thugs in Washington. Unfortunately, none of this will stop in the foreseeable future as this stupidity goes on and on and.........!

    June 12, 2013 at 5:18 pm | Reply
    • Jon D'oh

      Like! Plus ten!
      The only addition one would make is it's not only right-wing thugs. Both (nearly identical) political parties are involved in the greed and stupidity of war mongering these days.

      August 2, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
      • harry

        Agree. 1,000%. (And then some)

        August 2, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  4. THORN

    Everyone should shut up about Benghazi. There was a mission, the good men going in knew the danger, they died, don't tell me they didn't know it was a hot zone, the whole world knew, stop being so outraged, this is what we sign up for when we choose this path. Having ANY talking head discuss it is hopelessly disrespectful.

    June 12, 2013 at 9:50 pm | Reply
  5. sskkk6

    Please hold a talk about why that CIA secret agent escaped to Hongkong. USA's behaviour was so ironic, just one week before USA blamed That China held the cyber attack to the America...Now, the whole world realy knows who is the attacker!

    June 12, 2013 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • Fact Checker

      He worked for the NSA, not the CIA... don't further confuse the two. They both are cousins, but with differing missions. Keep your facts straight and then you would have a more effective and respected argument.

      August 2, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    In certain parts of the world, Western – in particular American – embassies are not safe, due to political instability, that the host countries (e.g. Libya) can't provide for security. However fraught the relationship a host country has with the US, it is obliged by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations to protect foreign representatives on their soil. But US-embassies abroad always rely on their own marines for protection.

    June 13, 2013 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Please read: to protect foreign representatives on its soil!
      Unfortunately the US has enemies abroad and targeting its embassies is a way for them to show the world how unpopular the US is!

      June 13, 2013 at 11:17 am | Reply
      • desert voice

        The U.S. is unpopular among most terrorists in the world. But our "national hero" Edward Snowden, is preventing the U.S from finding those terrorists, for he feels that his "rights" are more important thaan the U.S. Voila a hero!

        August 2, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  7. Bob

    Well to start with if a country (Pakistan is a good example) does not fight terrorist 100 percent then we stop ALL foreign aid and shut down our embassy is that county. This of course means that 90 percent of our embassies in the middle east would close and we would be saving a lot of money. P.S. No U.S. travel allowed to those countries either. Sorry bleeding hearts.

    August 2, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  8. harry

    If we simply change our policies and be a fair player in the world, we wouldn't have come to this point.
    Make friends not war.

    August 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  9. desert voice

    How safe the embasssies are. Ask Edward Snowden! He will tell you: Don't even touch this information, for you will be violating my rights!

    August 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  10. jseth

    Not one of you idiots know what you are talking someone in charge of protecting embassies I can tell you the fault lies with the policy of YOUR elected officials. We maintain a presence in many countries too dangerous for a diplomatic mission.

    August 2, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  11. paul martin foreign correspondent

    There's only ONE way........REMOVE them from dangerous countries and save the taxpayers hard earmed bucks !

    August 2, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Reply

    The best way to protect Americans and our embassies is to change our warped foreign policies that have created all these unnecessary enemies for the US.

    Start with Israel and help the Palestinians get their own nation, it is their right just as much it was ours when we fought the Brits for independence.

    Same thing in India, help the kashmiris gain freedom and Independence from India.

    Yes, Mr Fareed dare not speak the truth as a new American and an ex Indian.

    August 3, 2013 at 11:07 am | Reply

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