A Hidden Cause of Benghazi Tragedy

A Hidden Cause of Benghazi Tragedy

David Rohde, Reuters November 16, 2012

Amid the politicking, there’s an overlooked cause of the Benghazi tragedy

For conservatives, the Benghazi scandal is a Watergate-like presidential
cover-up. For liberals, it a fabricated Republican witch-hunt. For me,
Benghazi is a call to act on an enduring problem that both parties ignore.

One major overlooked cause of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and
three other Americans is we have underfunded the State Department and
other civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security.
Instead of building up cadres of skilled diplomatic security guards, we
have bought them from the lowest bidder, trying to acquire capacity and
expertise on the cheap. Benghazi showed how vulnerable that makes us.

Now, I’m not arguing that this use of contractors was the sole cause of
the Benghazi tragedy, but I believe it was a primary one. Let me explain.

The slapdash security that killed Stevens, technician Sean Smith and CIA
guards Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty started with a seemingly
inconsequential decision by Libya’s new government. After the fall of
Muammar Qaddafi, Libya’s interim government barred armed private
security firms — foreign and domestic — from operating anywhere in the
country.

Memories of the abuses by foreign mercenaries, acting for the brutal
Qaddafi regime, prompted the decision, according to State Department
officials.

Once the Libyans took away the private security guard option, it put
enormous strain on a little-known State Department arm, the Diplomatic
Security Service. This obscure agency has been responsible for
protecting American diplomatic posts around the world since 1916.

Though embassies have contingents of Marines, consulates and other
offices do not. And the missions of Marines, in fact, are to destroy
documents and protect American government secrets. It is the Diplomatic
Security agents who are charged with safeguarding the lives of American
diplomats.

Today, roughly 900 Diplomatic Security agents guard 275 American
embassies and consulates around the globe. That works out to a whopping
four agents per facility.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department relied on hundreds of
security contractors to guard American diplomats. At times, they even
hired private security guards to protect foreign leaders.

After Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowly survived a 2002
assassination attempt, the State Department hired security guards from
DynCorp, a military contractor, to guard him. Their aggressiveness in
and around the presidential palace, however, angered Afghan, American
and European officials. As soon as Afghan guards were trained to protect
Karzai, DynCorp was let go.

But the State Department’s dependence on contractors for security
remained. And Benghazi epitomized this Achilles’ heel.

Unable to hire contractors, the Diplomatic Security Service rotated
small numbers of agents through Benghazi to provide security, on what
government officials call temporary duty assignments, or “TDY.” Eric
Nordstrom, the Diplomatic Security agent who oversaw security in Libya
until two months before the attack, recently told members of Congress
that though he twice requested 12 agents he was rejected — and told he
was asking for “the sun the moon and the stars.”

He testified that he replied bluntly to his superiors in Washington.
“It’s not the hardships,” Nordstrom testified he had said. “It’s not the
gunfire. It’s not the threats. It’s dealing and fighting against the
people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And
I added it by saying, ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the
building.’ ”

Other State Department officials also say that the reliance on
contracting created a weakened Diplomatic Security Service. They said
department officials, short on staff and eager to reduce costs,
nickeled-and-dimed DS security requests.

“That is not a DS-centric issue,” said a State Department official, who
spoke on condition of anonymity. “That is a Department of State issue.”

Democrats have blamed Republicans for the lack of funding. They point
out that House Republicans rejected $450 million in administration
requests for increased Diplomatic Security spending since 2010. They say
Senate Democrats were able to restore a small part of the funding.

But these partisan charges and counter-charges ignore a basic truth.
Resource shortages and a reliance on contractors caused bitter divisions
between field officers in Benghazi and State Department managers in
Washington.

One agent who served on the ground in Benghazi felt the compound needed
five times as many Diplomatic Security agents, according to a State
Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official
singled out Charlene Lamb, the Diplomatic Security Service official who
oversees security in Washington, for criticism — saying she rejected
repeated requests for additional improvements in Benghazi.

These officials confirmed complaints from Lieutenant Colonel Andy Wood,
the former head of a U.S. Special Forces “Site Security Team” in
Tripoli, that Lamb urged them to reduce the numbers of American security
personnel on the ground even as security worsened across Libya. Wood and
his team left the country the month before the attack.

In equivocating, evasive and shameful testimony before Congress in
October, Lamb at first said she received no formal requests for
additional security from Libya. She then absurdly claimed, “We had the
correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11.”

Lamb’s superior, David Kennedy, has defended her. He argued that a
handful of additional Diplomatic Security guards in Benghazi — or the
Special Forces team in Tripoli — would not have made a difference.

To date, no evidence has emerged that officials higher than Lamb or
Kennedy were involved in the decision to reject the requests from Libya.
Both are career civil servants, not Obama administration appointees.

There is a broader issue beyond the political blame game. Benghazi is a
symptom of a brittle, over-stretched and under-funded State Department.
Without being able to hire private contractors, the department provided
too few guards and hoped a nearby CIA base or friendly Libyan militia
would help them. An excellent recent report in the New York Times found
that the U.S. military’s Africa Command was under-resourced as well as
unable to help.

The investigation by the Senate and House intelligence committees into
whether or not the Obama administration misled Americans after the
attack or altered intelligence should continue. But the core issue
before the attack was a lack of resources and skilled management, not
shadowy conspiracies.

Many factors caused the death of Stevens and the three other Americans.
But in the partisan free-for-all now unfolding, this key factor must not
be ignored.
 

 

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