U.S. push to put diplomats in danger zones challenges security

09/14/2012 7:53 PM

09/14/2012 8:12 PM

The Bush administration called it “transformational diplomacy,” an initiative that sent U.S. diplomats into war zones and other trouble spots to promote democracy and U.S. interests. But this week’s attacks on U.S. missions across the Muslim world and the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya highlight the deadly risks and high costs involved.

The effort, which has expanded under the Obama administration, has raised the personnel and financial burdens that the State Department and the Pentagon bear in protecting the more than 400 U.S. diplomatic facilities across the globe, from embassies to tiny facilities called American Presence Posts.

U.S. intelligence agencies also are under greater pressure to detect possible threats against American diplomatic facilities.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that President Barack Obama has ordered a review of all security arrangements at U.S. embassies and other diplomatic missions worldwide.

There were no specific intelligence warnings of this week’s violence, according to a U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak about intelligence matters. U.S. facilities, however, were advised to be extra vigilant because Tuesday was the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

The U.S. intelligence community also sent a cable to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo alerting it to growing attention that was being paid on the Internet to a 14-minute video clip denigrating the Prophet Muhammad, the U.S. intelligence official said. The video on Tuesday ignited protests in Egypt and Yemen that by Friday expanded to two dozen countries.

The decision to put U.S. diplomatic representatives in war zones and other areas where they wouldn’t previously have been sent has been especially hard on the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

“The scope and the scale of our responsibilities and authorities have grown immensely in response to emerging threats and security incidents,” Assistant Secretary of State Eric Boswell, who oversees the bureau, told a Senate committee on June 29, 2011. “The department now operates diplomatic missions in places where in the past we likely would have closed the post and evacuated all personnel.”

Although its budget has risen from $300 million to around $2 billion since two 1998 al Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa, the bureau is continuing to grapple with manpower shortages, funding constraints and other problems.

The personnel shortfall has forced the bureau to become increasingly reliant on private security contractors, who now comprise 90 percent of its workforce. They include some of the Libyan guards who were deployed outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi when gunmen attacked on Tuesday, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens and foreign service officer Sean Smith. Two other Americans, former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were shot dead at a consular annex.

The details of the assault remain sketchy. But it appeared that Stevens had only one State Department security officer with him at the time of the attack. A pro-U.S. local militia, the 17th of February Brigade, helped drive off the assailants, U.S. officials said.

U.S. Marines, who traditionally have provided internal security at U.S. missions, are deployed at 152 embassies. But they aren’t stationed at most smaller facilities, as was the case in Benghazi, although Libya has been gripped by rising violence by militias and Islamic extremist groups that refused to disarm after last year’s ouster of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The United States has become more dependent on local security forces in many areas. These personnel sometimes refuse to use force – or are ordered not to – against fellow countrymen. And it can be hard to stop determined protesters from scaling embassy walls, as occurred in Egypt and Yemen.

Security can easily change with a country’s politics.

In Egypt, some of the protections given to the U.S. Embassy during the tumultuous 2011 revolution that ousted U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak were loosened after the June election of Mohammad Morsi. A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi has cooled ties with the United States in an apparent reflection of anti-U.S. and anti-Israeli sentiments that Mubarak stifled with force.

Some Egyptian army checkpoints on approaches to the U.S. Embassy, which sits just blocks from the revolution’s heart of Tahrir Square, were removed after Morsi assumed power. All of them appeared to have been pulled on Tuesday night, when protesters scaled the wall and placed a ladder against a flagpole, ripped down the American flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner.

Local guards also seemed to have disappeared, according to several officials inside the building.

It was only after what was reportedly a brusque telephone call from President Barack Obama that Morsi on Thursday began publicly and repeatedly condemning the violence in what seemed to be an attempt to make up for his hours of silence. By nightfall, thousands of police were posted around the U.S. compound.

Embassies must conform to special design standards that emphasize fortress-like architecture and iron gates over aesthetics. And in countries like Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan, they bristle with blast barriers, razor wire-topped fences, sand-bagged machinegun posts, and metal detectors that stoke anti-U.S. indignation.

While improving security for American diplomats and other staff, such precautions make it harder for diplomats to travel and meet the people with whom they are supposed to interact.

“There is an inherent conflict between assuring real security, particularly in war zones, and the ability of diplomats and civilians to do their jobs effectively,” Susan Johnson, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, told the June 2011 Senate committee hearing. “To find the right balance between the two imperatives is difficult.”

Nancy A. Youssef in Cairo and special correspondents Adam Baron in Sanaa, Yemen, and Alan Boswell in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed.

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