By Scott Stewart and Fred Burton
The U.S. State Department ordered 19 embassies and consulates closed this week based on non-specific intelligence that an attack targeting American diplomatic posts may be in the works. The move comes nearly 11 months after U.S. diplomatic posts in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Sudan and Libya were attacked in September 2012. The most deadly of those attacks occurred in Benghazi, Libya, where heavily armed militants attacked the U.S. Special Mission compound and then a Central Intelligence Agency annex. The Benghazi attack resulted in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and communications officer Sean Smith at the Special Mission Compound and of CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty at the annex. The attack on the annex also saw two Diplomatic Security Service special agents wounded, one seriously.
Because of the loss of life involved in the Benghazi incident, an Accountability Review Board was convened in accordance with the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, which requires the convening of such a board following major security incidents. The Benghazi Accountability Review Board released a report of its findings Dec. 18, 2012. However, despite the current threat to U.S diplomatic posts, the classified version of the Benghazi report has only been released to a handful of personnel in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security known as the "DS Seniors."
This means that the regional security officers responsible for securing the posts now closed by the current threat, those protecting diplomatic posts and personnel elsewhere, and the program managers in Washington responsible for overseeing security programs at diplomatic missions globally have still not seen the classified version of the report despite having the required clearances and an obvious need to know.
Accountability Review Boards
First, it is important to understand the original intent of such review boards. The very first of these panels was convened in the mid-1980s following the attacks against U.S. facilities in Beirut and Kuwait and the systematic bugging of the then-new U.S. Embassy office building in Moscow. These security lapses led to the formation of the Secretary of State's Advisory Panel on Overseas Security, which was chaired by former Deputy CIA Director Bobby Inman. In diplomatic security circles, that advisory panel is most often referred to as the Inman Commission.
The Inman Commission's charge was not only to hold people accountable for the security lapses, but more important, to make recommendations for improving security to prevent similar incidents. In furtherance of the latter task, the Inman Commission compiled a lengthy list of recommendations. Congress took many of these recommendations and codified them in the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986. One of that law's provisions required the convening of accountability review boards where there was significant injury, loss of life, significant property damage or a serious breach of security involving intelligence activities at a diplomatic mission abroad.
Under the law, the State Department has 60 days after such an incident to convene an accountability review board. The board is to be composed of five members with a support staff provided by the State Department. The review board has the authority to subpoena witnesses to provide testimony. When the board's investigation is completed, the law mandates that it issue a report of the board's findings, which will include recommendations "to improve the security and efficiency of any program or operation the board has reviewed." The secretary of state must deliver a report to Congress 90 days after it is issued advising them of the measures taken to address the recommendations outlined in the board's report.
In the wake of the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, an accountability review board was convened. Ret. Adm. William J. Crowe, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, led this board. The Crowe Commission report echoed the points made by the Inman Commission 14 years earlier, noting that many of the same problems had persisted. Like the Inman Commission, the Crowe Commission also dealt with classified material, but that material was distributed to personnel within the Diplomatic Security Service who possessed the appropriate clearances and who had a clear need to know. The intent was to provide the information to those individuals who could help prevent future security failures.
Since 2001, a number of accountability review boards have been convened to address attacks such as the October 2002 assassination of Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan; the December 2004 attack against the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; the September 2005 deaths of DSS Special Agent Stephen Sullivan and seven security contractors in Mosul, Iraq; and the January 2008 assassination of John Granville in Khartoum, Sudan.
With the intent behind the accountability review boards being to learn from past mistakes and improve security to prevent future attacks, the findings of the accountability review boards are widely disseminated within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, where plans are made to implement board recommendations. However, in the case of the Benghazi report, five of the 29 recommendations made by the review board do not appear in the unclassified version of the report and have not been shared with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
This means that the regional security officers assigned to protect the missions now under threat, their supervisors and support personnel in Washington have not seen them. Nor have the agents who are, or who might be, assigned as regional security officers at posts worldwide, as the threat of militant attacks is persistent and not confined to a few posts in the Middle East.
Not only are these personnel cleared to access Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, but due to their duties and statutory responsibilities, they also have a clear need to know when it comes to matters impacting the security of U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel. These agents have daily responsibility for keeping diplomatic premises and personnel safe, and just as militants learn from past attacks, so must those defending against them. Lessons learned from past security failures like the recommendations from the accountability review board are critical to their mission. Indeed, if there is an attack that results in a significant security loss in the future, these are the individuals who will be held accountable by the next review board, but they simply won't know if the report contains anything that could assist them in conducting their statutorily dictated mission.
In all fairness to the State Department brass, perhaps the five additional recommendations in the Benghazi Accountability Review Board's report do not contain anything pertaining to the security of U.S. personnel and facilities abroad — or at least to personnel and facilities under the chief of mission authority, and therefore statutorily under regional security officer responsibility. The State Department has published a long list of measures they have taken to address the report's recommendations, but without knowing what the report says, it is difficult for these officers to judge if the measures are adequately addressing them. Diplomatic Security Service personnel are left feeling that they are going to be held responsible for things they are being left in the dark about.
While all the other post-2001 accountability review boards have had a professional, experienced security officer on the board, the Benghazi board did not. Not to discount the experience of senior diplomats and military personnel, but in most cases, they have no practical experience dealing with things such as physical security programs and specifications, local guard force regulations, postings and training, emergency plans, or conducting liaison with local police and militia units. If a board is empaneled and charged with evaluating security programs after a significant security failure, and then is charged with making recommendations about how those security programs can be improved, it would stand to reason that there should be at least one security expert on the panel.
Accounting, not Just Accountability
As we've written about in the past, there is a clearly discernible boom and bust cycle to diplomatic security funding, with a large infusion of cash following each major incident. This time will be no exception. However, one problem that has consistently plagued the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has been the effective utilization of cash received during a boom cycle. Some things can be quickly implemented, such as buying smoke hoods for safe havens and placing them there, but many other things, such as designing and constructing new facilities, significant security renovations to existing structures, training and deploying more Marine Security Guards, or hiring and training new agents may take years to plan and execute. Some recommendations are simply not possible without an enormous investment of money (like the mantraps and safe havens suggested for all buildings by the Jeddah accountability review board) which oftentimes leads to charges of lack of accountability, even though the funding needed to execute the recommendations simply is not there.
Quite often, Congress will respond to strong public opinion on a subject like Benghazi by giving an agency too much money. They then demand an immediate solution to the problem, rather than taking a more patient and measured approach. Frankly, it is hard to be measured and take a long-term approach in a rapid political cycle. In many instances, this funding is for a particular fiscal year and must be spent rather than carried over. Because of this, the Diplomatic Security Service scrambles to find ways to allocate the money rather than risk losing it in a bid to get what they can before the next bust funding cycle sets in. But this frenzied spending often results in waste and mismanagement. Most often, by the time the Diplomatic Security Service has figured out a system to effectively metabolize such funding, the bust cycle has set in and finding is cut. These cuts are frequently accompanied by criticism of how the original glut of funding was spent.
In this boom cycle, the challenge to effectively spend security funding may be complicated by the fact that those spending the funds do not have insight into the classified version of the Benghazi report that sparked the funding — and have not seen the full list of report recommendations that the funding is intended to address.