Monday, January 28, 2013

A Little Bit Of History Repeating

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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 Also, Department of Defense officials disliked the fact that the Department of State had withdrawn Marine Security Guard (MSG) units from several posts, and had not assigned MSG detachments to many of the new embassies.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!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Fortress Embassies Are Back In Fashion

Photo courtesy Art in Embassies Program

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I'm trying to remember where I put my hardhat and steel-toe safety boots, because all the indications are that the State Department is about to go on another new embassy construction binge.

A key recommendation in the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report was that Congress revive the moribund Capital Security Construction Program by ramping up its funding to compensate for loss of purchasing power since the program was created in 2000. As Admiral Mullen noted during the ARB press briefing, since 2000 the new building program "fell off from 10 buildings - 10 new embassies a year to three, tied to budget constraints, et cetera," and the Board believes it should go back to that original target:

Recalling the recommendations of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam ARBs, the State Department must work with Congress to restore the Capital Security Cost Sharing Program [here] at its full capacity, adjusted for inflation to approximately $2.2 billion in fiscal year 2015, including an up to ten-year program addressing that need, prioritized for construction of new facilities in high risk, high threat areas. It should also work with Congress to expand utilization of Overseas Contingency Operations funding to respond to emerging security threats and vulnerabilities and operational requirements in high risk, high threat posts.

We'll see whether or not Congress actually appropriates that $2.2 billion for more new embassy construction. The political winds are not blowing in the direction of more spending these days. It's just as likely Congress will instead allow reprogramming from other accounts, which would let them check the 'I-voted-to-improve-embassy-security' box while at the same time not giving the Department a budget increase.

If State really does get more money for embassy construction, I think it will come as a mixed blessing to many in OBO and to their fellow fans of embassy design in the larger architectural community. They were still celebrating the liberation of Art from the shackles of Security by means of OBO's new design excellence program when last September's embassy attacks occurred. Critics of Fortress Embassies could see the writing on the wall after that, and they didn't like it the least little bit.

Consider their disappointment. After twelve years of mass-producing standardized diplokitsch (see the mugshots here) they were finally about to get back into the real design business. And the cherry on top is that the incoming SecState is himself a leading critic of Fortresses who has said this of the post-2000 new embassy construction program:

“We are building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen,” Senator John F. Kerry said in 2009. “We’re building fortresses around the world. We’re separating ourselves from people in these countries. I cringe when I see what we’re doing.”

All the stars were lining up for a return to the sublime and mysterious architectural values of the era before the now-departed General Williams set OBO on a more mundane course after the East Africa embassy bombings. Now that we are back in post-disaster mode, OBO must once again turn out more new buildings, and I think design excellence will take a backseat to security and numbers. Less quality, more quantity.

Can OBO go back to grinding them out Williams-style after they've done Beijing? I'll be interested in seeing whether this subject comes up at Senator Kerry's confirmation hearing.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Let's Return the District of Columbia to Maryland

One of the boundary stones marking the District of Columbia

President Obama will make a symbolic gesture of support for the notion of statehood for the District of Columbia by putting the equivalent of a bumper sticker on his Presidential limo at next Monday's inauguration. Because, you know, the slogan "taxation without representation" will motivate Americans everywhere to rise up and demand the creation of a state of New Columbia, naturally.

Let me be blunt: the proposal to make the District the 51st state is as ridiculous and transparently self-interested a political project as has ever been launched in Washington. Its boosters are cynically preying on local voters by appealing to "fairness" and "voting rights" when all they really want is two new Democratic U.S. Senators. Fairness and voting rights could be achieved by other means, like giving DC back to Maryland except for the small core of the city that contains federal office buildings. That's something that might actually be politically possible, but the local politicians calling for statehood never mention that option. I wonder why not?

To review a little history, in 1790 the Congress carved a ten square-mile district out of parts of Virginia and Maryland for the purpose of housing federal government functions in a jurisdiction entirely under federal control. Fun fact: residents of the District of Columbia continued to have voting rights in either Virginia or Maryland from 1790 to 1801. In 1847, the parts of DC west of the Potomac River were retroceded back to Virginia, becoming present-day Arlington Country and part of Alexandria. The reasons for retrocession were complicated, but one of them was the decision, taken decades before, to build all public buildings and infrastructure on the eastern side of the Potomac, leaving the Port of Alexandria undeveloped and unable to attract investment. Things continued unchanged until 1960 when the Twenty-Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, which created new Electoral College positions for DC so that residents could vote in presidential elections. 

If Congress followed the Virginia retrocession example, it would only be necessary for the Maryland legislature and the residents of DC to agree in order to treat DC residents as belonging to Maryland for purposes of congressional representation. Since presumably we're all in favor of fairness and voting rights, who could oppose that? Only local politicians who want to be U.S. Senators, I guess.

Problem solved. Now take that unsightly bumper sticker off the Presidential limo.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Risk Management "Going Forward"

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Well, Official Washington is finally back at work after the holidays. Hillary is scheduled to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee next week, and we may expect her to update them on how she is carrying out the recommendations of last month's Benghazi Accountability Review Board report. In her cover letter transmitting the ARB report to Congress she had stated her intention to have every recommendation well on its way toward implementation "by the time the next Secretary of State takes office," and that time will be real soon now.

So, how is that effort going? "Going forward" was the phrase we heard over and over at last month's hearings. Will embassy security get better "going forward" after Benghazi? Will any real improvements come out of that disaster?

It's all about risk management. Both the Accountability Review Board and the SecState talk a good game about managing risk. From the ARB report:

No diplomatic presence is without risk ... the total elimination of risk is a non-starter for U.S. diplomacy given the need for the U.S. government to be present in places where stability and security are often most profoundly lacking and host government support is sometimes minimal to non-existent ... American diplomats and security professionals, like their military colleagues, serve the nation in an inherently risky profession ... [The] Department should urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risk and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas ... [and adopt] an explicit acceptance of those costs and risks that cannot be mitigated.

From Hillary's letter to Congress:

Our diplomats cannot work in bunkers and do their jobs ... we must accept a level of risk to protect this country we love and to advance our interest and values around the world.

All of that is undoubtedly true, but I don't believe they really mean the part about accepting risk. If the Department actually accepted the risks that are inherent in the dangerous enterprise of having diplomatic missions in unstable and insecure places, then it wouldn't be necessary to find someone to blame after an attack, especially a one-off attack like the one in Benghazi, which was of a "ferocity and intensity [like] nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service" as the RSO in Tripoli described it in his written statement to Congress.

At least in theory, it ought to be possible to conclude after a future attack that all reasonable precautions had been taken, and that the damage inflicted on our mission and personnel could not have been avoided short of retreating into those bunkers from which diplomats "cannot work." We'll see if that ever happens.

The Accountability Review Board was just as good on the subject of setting strategic priorities:

At the same time, it is imperative for the State Department to be mission-driven, rather than resource-constrained – particularly when being present in increasingly risky areas of the world is integral to U.S. national security. The recommendations in this report attempt to grapple with these issues and err on the side of increased attention to prioritization and to fuller support for people and facilities engaged in working in high risk, high threat areas.

Risk management, once again. To set priorities means to select, or prefer, or rank-order, some alternatives higher than others, and to allocate resources accordingly. That's the definition of the word "priority" (allow me). A prioritized approach to the security of diplomatic missions will not result in even-handed treatment, or in all missions getting everything they ask for. How likely is that approach to be accepted as we "go forward" after Benghazi? Not so much, I think.

According to Hillary's letter to Congress, the Department will now prioritize resources on a list of about twenty specially designated high threat posts. All well and good. But, if the next attack happens at one of those posts, will we then blame middle managers in an office annex in Rosslyn for not having sent more money and manpower to High Threat Post A and less to HT Posts B and C? And if the next attack happens at one of the 250 or so other diplomatic missions in the world, will we blame the same managers for not having upgraded Post D to the high threat group? And won't every post in the world request every security measure it can think of "going forward" after Benghazi? Yes, yes, and yes. We can prioritize by risk, or we can cover our bureaucratic asses by spreading resources around evenly, but we can't do both at the same time.

By the way, what's up with that very odd term being used to describe those posts of special concern? High threat posts? As Diplopundit has noted, they are not literally the Department's high threat level posts, and the criteria for designating them has not been explained, so far as I know. The ARB used the phrase "high risk/high threat" posts but that's no better, not to mention kind of incoherent if you are a stickler for risk management definitions, since "threat" is only a component of "risk."

Why isn't the Department using the perfectly good term "Special Conditions" posts? That's already an established category of diplomatic post with its own special rules for applying security standards and providing resources under extreme conditions. You can find it in 12 FAM 057.3, which the department has made publicly available here. That would be a step forward in terms of clarity, at least.

The ARB recommendations include all sorts of interesting new resources to be applied to Fortress Embassies and others. I'll post some thoughts on all of that in a day or two.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline of the Week

Spicy Soup Burns Hole Straight Through Man's Stomach  (Medical Daily)