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I've just been reading the last chapter in the Diplomatic Security Service's institutional history, which covers the period from the end of the Cold War to the restructuring of DSS into its current organizational form. If anyone in Washington is looking for some perspective on the present, post-Benghazi, crisis in overseas security, I highly recommend reading up on those olden days.
Nothing going on now in response to the Benghazi attack is new, not by any means. Deep cuts in security budgets, reduction of MSG Detachments, tenant agencies considering relocating outside of diplomatic premises in order to get adequate security? Terrorist attacks, review boards, interagency security assessment teams? Battles with Congress and the Administration over appropriations for new overseas security programs and personnel? We have been there before, most recently in the 1990s.
Reading the history, it's striking how things never really change much. The Assistant Secretary for DS during most of the '90s was none other than Eric J. Boswell, then on his first time around in DS. He found his bureau's budget had been cut back so far that staff shortages left DS “unable to meet our most critical requirements.” Things had gotten so bad by early 1997 that Boswell told the Acting Under Secretary of State for Management that “asking this Bureau to take further reductions … is irresponsible and inconsistent with the intent of Congress.”
And who was the Under Secretary for Management back in that bygone era? Why, Patrick F. Kennedy, of course. Hasn't he always been? At least, I'm having a hard time remembering the last time anyone else held that job.
Back then, as again today, we had some tenant agencies who looked at State's sparse security budget and wondered if they couldn't find more secure facilities if they struck out on their own.
The Department of Defense became highly critical of the cuts to DS. With many military attachés and other military personnel working in U.S. embassies across the globe, the Department of Defense complained that the Department of State “unilaterally” decided to set aside physical security standards when it opened new embassies in the former Soviet republics, the former Yugoslav republics, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Also, Department of Defense officials disliked the fact that the Department of State had withdrawn Marine Security Guard (MSG) units from several posts, and had not assigned MSG detachments to many of the new embassies. The Department of Defense made clear to the Department of State that it was considering three options: “weigh[ing] the risk of operating in less than secure facilities, choosing not to locate in the host country, or, with DOS approval, constructing a DOD facility.” - History of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the United States Department of State, page 345
After the 1998 embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the Department sent out interagency security assessment teams to look at selected high-threat posts and make urgent security upgrade recommendations. Sound familiar?
The assessment effort was extensive, with each team led by a DS officer and including members from DOD and several other agencies, as well as a specialist from State's Foreign Buildings Operations office. The teams visited 27 posts over the course of about one month and made many good actionable recommendations, including the immediate relocation of operations in Qatar and Dushanbe. But their most significant product was this observation:
In summarizing the ESATs’ [Embassy Security Assessment Teams] findings to Under Secretary Cohen, DS officials confessed that most of the 27 embassies required replacement facilities and that there were limits to what the United States could do to improve existing facilities.
I think that is the truest thing I have ever heard, or will ever hear, from all the interagency security assessment teams past and future. And I like the honest 'bucket of cold water' effect of confessing that we are stuck with the embassy facilities we have until they get replaced. I wonder if anyone will ever say something similarly candid to the Benghazi ARB follow-up bodies that the Department is forming now?
Bottom line: you can harden or reinforce an existing building up to its physical limits, but no further. If you want to ensure an office building can withstand a sustained ground attack, or a Nairobi-sized truck bomb, there is no substitute for constructing one expressly for that purpose. Even applying loads of money, assuming we have it, will not change that reality.
The Crowe ARB report on the Dar and Nairobi attacks was published in an unclassified version, and Admiral Crowe proceeded to light a fire under Congress and the Administration, resulting in an unprecedented level of new overseas security funding:
For its intensified effort, DS received the necessary money from Congress and support from senior Clinton Administration officials. Supplemental funding from Congress not only funded the Surveillance Detection Program and security upgrades at U.S. embassies, it also enabled DS to hire 200 new Special Agents ... 34 new technical security specialists, and 20 new couriers. The hires expanded DS by one-third, and the Bureau numbered more than 1,000. It also increased DS’s presence at overseas posts from 270 people to more than 400 ... The Department reinvigorated the long understaffed Mobile Training Teams and advised all Chiefs of Mission to “personally participate” in as many training sessions as possible. In his 1999 State of the Union message, President Clinton declared diplomatic security a national priority, and asked the nation to give U.S. diplomats the “support, the safest possible workplaces, and the resources they need so that America can lead.” - History of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the United States Department of State, page 355
The biggest of the Crowe Commission's recommendations was a new security-based construction program that targets the most vulnerable embassy facilities for expedited replacement:
The Crowe Commission’s proposal for a capital building program for the Department of State reflected Washington’s new appreciation of the terrorist threat. The Commission estimated that the sustained building program for new U.S. embassies would require $1 billion per year for 10 years, and an additional $400 million per year for security upgrades and new security personnel. The Clinton Administration had already asked for $3 billion over 5 years to rebuild embassies overseas, but budget caps prevented the Department from asking for more. Secretary Albright also tried to convince a hostile Congress to lock in a commitment for the five-year building program. Admiral Crowe now criticized Congress and the Department of State. He said that the Department was being “intimidated by Congress,” and he warned Congress not to appear as if it was “putting money in front of lives on the priority list.” By the summer of 1999, the Clinton Administration increased its request for FY 2000 by another $264 million, and by $150 million a year for the following 4 years. In an attempt to demonstrate the national commitment to security that the Crowe Commission had called for, Congress approved $1.4 billion for embassy security in 2000, more than what the Clinton Administration had requested. - History of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the United States Department of State, page 359
Well played, Admiral Crowe, well played.
And you, Ambassador Pickering, did you see how he did that? First taunt the Administration into asking for more resources than it had planned to do, then threaten Congress with political blackmail if they withhold anything, and in the end they'll appropriate even more new construction money than the $2.4 billion you recommended in your ARB report. Sweet!