Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Benghazi ARB Report Released; Finds Fault, Calls For More Resources

The Department released the unclassified version of the Benghazi Accountability Review Board report tonight. You can read it here.

Many of the report's recommendations come down to calling on Congress to provide more funding for security personnel and secure facilities. See this key paragraph from the report's introduction:
For many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work, with varying degrees of success. This has brought about a deep sense of the importance of husbanding resources to meet the highest priorities, laudable in the extreme in any government department. But it has also had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation. There is no easy way to cut through this Gordian knot, all the more so as budgetary austerity looms large ahead. 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. The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs, which, in total, constitute a small percentage both of the full national budget and that spent for national security. One overall conclusion in this report is that Congress must do its part to meet this challenge and provide necessary resources to the State Department to address security risks and meet mission imperatives.
The report's harshest criticism of the Department comes in two of its findings, this one:
Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department (the “Department”) resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.
... and this one:
The Board found that certain senior State Department officials within two bureaus demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection. However, the Board did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty.
There is a lot to absorb. More to come tomorrow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

ARB Benghazi At Last - Like Christmas Coming Early

After 60-some days the Benghazi Accountability Review Board has now completed its work, and we may expect its report, in both classified and unclassified versions, to be released to Congress as soon as Wednesday.

Now comes the hardest part, waiting until the ARB's recommendations become a matter of official concern that can be referenced from publicly available sources. After all the anticipation, it will feel like unwrapping a present when I finally see an official background briefing or a news story with named sources.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Good Questions About Tunis, Khartoum, and Sana'a

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

I'll say this for the Benghazi Accountability Review Board - it is doing a great job of maintaining the secrecy of its proceedings. I don't think the least hint about its deliberations has leaked out into the public sphere. We'll just have to wait for the report, assuming it is publicly released.

In the meantime, please read Diplopundit's post of earlier today because it contains a good many excellent and extremely pertinent questions about what lessons we have learned from the other serious attacks of last September. I partially quote from a few of them below, because they go directly to the premises that underlie some of our overseas physical security practices (which, for the record, are described pretty well in GAO reports like this one).

• If a mob can scale 9-foot walls that easily, and help from host country authorities are slow or not forthcoming, what are the recommended options for the embassy staff short of getting into a safehaven and waiting to be roasted like ducks?

In the event we cannot expect a timely response from host country authorities, I can imagine extreme circumstances under which it would be preferable to evacuate the mission, even during an attack, rather than to go into the safehaven.

• If the safehaven rooms are to function as the embassy’s “safe haven” for employees under attack, shouldn’t these rooms require not only fireproofing but also be fully smoke sealed?

That GAO report I linked to above describes "five key Overseas Security Policy Board standards to protect overseas diplomatic office facilities against terrorism and other dangers" but none of them address fire and smoke used as a weapon. Maybe the OSPB should think about that.

• Is it more advantageous to continue the path of co-location of facilities and other agencies inside one hardened facility (and provide a single target) or does the policy of co-location provide more vulnerabilities than acceptable?

Is it better to put all your eggs in one basket, or to spread the risk by distributing them in several baskets? The only answer I've ever heard that makes sense to me is this: in places where the host government provides reasonable security, distribute your eggs in several baskets; in places where it doesn't, put your eggs in one basket and use all your resources to protect that basket.

• How did the protesters easily got on top of the chancery buildings? Were these buildings constructed with built- in ladders? If so, is it time to revisit this and if the built-in ladders are there for “aesthetics” maybe it is time to screw that? As a precaution, what has been done to the current buildings constructed with built in ladders?

The embassy in Tunis did indeed have what amounted to built-in ladders (evidently vertical window stacks running from ground to roof with hand- and foot-holds wide enough to climb).

According to a definitive source of publicly available information, New Embassy Tunis completed construction on November 1, 2002, which means that it predates by one year the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations era of standard embassy designs. So, at least that architectural ladder wasn't reproduced elsewhere. On the other hand, that means the ladder was there for ten years with no action taken to remove it. Hum.  

The Stairway to Heaven was a good song, if a bit slow to get started, but it is really bad defensive architecture.

• Has the State Department updated its use of force policy since the embassy attacks? If so, what red lines require the corresponding response of active use of force?

Assuming (1) we cannot expect a host country intervention for many hours, if ever, and (2) that we may have to evacuate the compound while under attack, and (3) that fire may be used as a weapon ... that adds up to a need to use deadly force in unprecedented ways.

That's a lot of good questions.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Close GITMO? We've Heard That Song Before

Last Wednesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein tried to resuscitate a dead political issue by releasing a Government Accountability Office study on the feasibility of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and transferring its inmates to prisons in the United States. She had commissioned the GAO study in 2008.

Why release the report now, three years after the expiration of the Obama administration's self-imposed deadline to close GITMO? Because, as she told the New York Times:

“This report demonstrates that if the political will exists, we could finally close Guantánamo without imperiling our national security.”

Really? Where does she think this political will might exist? Not in these United States, where both the House and the Senate passed bills to prohibit closure back in 2009, when that was still a live possibility. Passed them by overwhelming margins. Gallop polls back then found that 65 percent of Americans opposed moving GITMO prisoners to the U.S., and by even higher margins opposed moving the prisoners to their own states.  

One day after Senator Feinstein's trial balloon, another Senator introduced the latest amendment to prohibit closing GITMO:

The Senate late Thursday night approved a Republican amendment [to an annual defense authorization bill on the Senate floor this week] that would prohibit the transfer of terrorist detainees from Guantánamo Bay to U.S. prisons.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced Amendment 3245, which would prevent the Department of Defense from using funds to move suspected terrorists from Gitmo facilities to prisons within the United States.

Kelly Ayotte is a Republican but the Senate is controlled by Democrats, and the amendment passed 54 to 41. Count that vote and see how much political will there is to close GITMO.

The defense authorization bill already contains a ban on transferring any more GITMO detainees to foreign countries. There's that political will thing, again.

Senator Feinstein might as well pull that trial balloon back down and put it away. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

If Eyes Are Windows To the Soul, Then All Of These Women Are Crazy

Paula Broadwell, Army Reserve officer and fitness freak

Something about the 'crazy eyes' and runner's physique of Paula Broadwell reminded me of someone else. It finally dawned on me who she resembles - Air Force Major Jill Metzger.

Jill Metzger, Air Force Major and marathon runner

Metzger was assigned to Manas Air Force Base in Kyrgyzstan when she mysteriously disappeared for three days just before she was due to rotate back to the USA. Then, she showed up telling a crazy story about being abducted and escaping.

There was an investigation, of course, but the Air Force seemed to not really want to find out what happened, or at least didn't want to say what happened. With the investigation unresolved, Metzger went away quietly, temporarily retired for a few years on medical grounds of post-traumatic stress disorder,  before being returned to active duty. 

Lisa Nowak, Navy Captain and astronaut

Both of them look like Lisa Nowak, the former naval aviator and NASA astronaut who assaulted and attempted to kidnap her romantic rival, an Air Force Captain named Colleen Shipman who was involved with Nowak's astronaut-boy friend, William Oefelein.

Nowak drove overnight from Houston to Orlando to confront Shipman in an airport parking lot, bringing with her some latex gloves, a black wig, an air pistol, pepper spray, a hooded trench coat, a 2-pound drilling hammer, black gloves, rubber tubing, plastic garbage bags, and a folding knife.

Her lawyer later stated that she was suffering from major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, insomnia, and brief psychotic disorder with marked stressors at the time. Ms. Shipman put it more simply to the judge at Nowak's sentencing: "It was in her eyes: limitless, blood-chilling expression of limitless rage."

Jennifer Wilbanks, civilian, runaway bride

Compare all of them to Jennifer Wilbanks, the Georgia woman who went out jogging four days before her gargantuan 600-guest wedding and then didn't return home. That brought on a nationwide police search and a full-blown media feeding frenzy until Wilbanks turned up outside a 7-11 in Albuquerque telling a tall tale about abduction and sexual assault.

While police dithered about whether to charge her with making a false report, Wilbanks checked into a medical treatment program to address physical and mental problems.

Wilbanks and her ex-fiancé sold the media rights to their story for half a million dollars. Then Wilbanks sued the ex-fiancé, claiming that she granted him power of attorney to negotiate the sale while she was hospitalized and under medication, and demanded that he give her his share of the $500,000 plus another $250,000 in punitive damages. 

As a public service to my male readers: I implore you, when you see a woman with eyes like that, don't just walk away, run.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Benghazi Goes Back On The Front Burner

Now that that little interregnum is over, it's back to Benghazi. There are four separate House and Senate hearings scheduled for this week, the last I saw. Maybe more.

State Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy and Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell will provide classified briefings this week to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, as well as to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and the Republican chairmen and top Democrats of House committees.

A/S Boswell was missed at last month's House Oversight Committee hearing, so it's good he'll be able to make the hearings this week.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee asked Hillary to testify at an open hearing this Thursday. That would make for one extremely watchable hearing. But Hillary sent her regrets, as she will be traveling next week. I would not be surprised if Hillary spends even more time than usual on urgent overseas travel from now until the day she steps down.

Will General Petraeus testify at any of those hearings, even though he has stepped down as CIA Director? A couple Senators have said it is essential that he do so, and Representative King, the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, has said Petraeus will have to have to testify "one way or the other.” As in, either voluntarily or under subpoena.

I don't know if he'll testify or not, but I do know that there is nothing like a still-developing sex scandal to amp up press coverage and public interest. While I'm on that subject, isn't it remarkable that "Paula Broadwell" sounds like a double entendre name for a Bond girl? Could that be more perfect?

And so, Official Washington is off to the next round of congressional hearings on the Benghazi incident. That should hold us over until the Benghazi Accountability Review Board finishes its report, maybe next month. The Holiday Season looks like it will be jam-packed with political delights.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

So True

Technical countermeasures have their place, but, as The Covert Comic's Executive Intelligence Summary reminds us, "the true SCIF is your soul."

Friday Document Dump Dumps On Some Unintended Libyan Victims

beep ... beep ... beep

It's usually the White House that does Friday late afternoon document dumps. But this time it was the House Oversight Committee, and it released leaked State Department cables and documents concerning the security environment in Libya. And, while the motive for a Friday document dump is usually to minimize press attention to embarrassing information, I assume the Committee wanted those documents to get all the press attention they possibly can before Monday's Presidential debate.

That's fair. This is politics (and I don't mean that in a derogatory way; all elected officials make all their decisions for political reasons, which is how representational democracy is supposed to work).

However, this document dump splattered on some innocent victims in Libya. From Foreign Policy's The Cable:

[House Oversight Committee Chairman] Issa posted 166 pages of sensitive but unclassified State Department communications related to Libya on the committee's website afternoon as part of his effort to investigate security failures and expose contradictions in the administration's statements regarding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

-- snip --

But Issa didn't bother to redact the names of Libyan civilians and local leaders mentioned in the cables, and just as with the WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables last year, the administration says that Issa has done damage to U.S. efforts to work with those Libyans and exposed them to physical danger from the very groups that had an interest in attacking the U.S. consulate.

"Much like WikiLeaks, when you dump a bunch of documents into the ether, there are a lot of unintended consequences," an administration official told The Cable Friday afternoon. "This does damage to the individuals because they are named, danger to security cooperation because these are militias and groups that we work with and that is now well known, and danger to the investigation, because these people could help us down the road."

-- snip --

"It betrays the trust of people we are trying to maintain contact with on a regular basis, including security officials inside militias and civil society people as well," another administration official told The Cable. "It's a serious betrayal of trust for us and it hurts our ability to maintain these contacts going forward. It has the potential to physically endanger these people. They didn't sign up for that. Neither did we."

-- snip --

The Cable pointed out that even WikiLeaks had approached the State Department and offered to negotiate retractions of sensitive information before releasing their cables. Hill confirmed that Issa did not grant the State Department that opportunity but said it was the State Department's fault for not releasing the documents when they were first requested.

Whoever took it upon himself to leak those documents to the Committee in the first place was in the wrong, but that's another matter. Presumably, whoever it was didn't believe that the Administration would be fully responsive to the Oversight Committee's request for documents about the State Department's deliberations over the correct level of security in Benghazi. Who would believe that, given the election year timing and the Administration's stonewalling on the Fast and Furious investigation? So, the leaker is either a whistle-blower or a traitor, depending upon your partisan leaning. 

I don't fault the Committee for releasing the documents when they did. Like I said, that's politics representational democracy. The voters are the ultimate decision-makers, and they need a reasonably free flow of information. It was a fair hit. Releasing damaging information is the most bipartisan activity in Washington.

But the Committee was reckless and irresponsible. They backed the dumpster up and tilted all that Sensitive But Unclassified info all over the street without first asking the Department to redact anything damaging. (I mean, damaging to anyone other than the intended political target.) There was no good reason not to give the Department a day to do some redacting. Apparently, the Committee leadership just didn't think about that before they acted.

I guess that why it's called the oversight committee.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

I Love the Smell Of Dip Notes In the Morning

Edward R. Murrow famously said of diplomacy:

“The real crucial link in the international exchange is the last three feet, which is bridged by personal contact, one person talking to another.”

Maybe Ed didn't know this, but the Claymore anti-personnel mine can do a lot better than three feet. It can extend the maximum range of interpersonal exchange all the way out to 270 yards, although its effectiveness is optimized at 55 yards, where it has a 30 percent chance of making personal contact with anyone standing in a 60-degree horizontal arc to its front.

After the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, I had a conversation with a casual acquaintance who asked me, in all seriousness, why U.S. embassies can't be defended with Claymore mines and concertinas of razor ribbon. Well, he was half right, since we do have razor ribbon in quite a few places. But, anti-personnel land mines? Really?

You might think - I used to think - that the practical, legal, and political consequences of that would be obvious. But, apparently they are not. In fact, I get the definite impression that many people conceive of a diplomatic mission such as the one in Benghazi as a military outpost in a war zone.

Since the September 11 attack in Benghazi, I have come to realize that nearly all of the voting, tax-paying, American public gets its information about embassies and diplomacy from ... oh, I don't know, really bad action movies, maybe.

Public diplomacy ought to start at home. Have there been any realistic depictions of diplomatic missions in American popular media? I can't recall any.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Benghazi - Not The Worst Place On The Planet

Representative Jason Chaffetz, Chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations, has been hitting the news shows hard today, giving us a preview of tomorrow's committee hearing on the security failures of Benghazi.

Rep. Chaffetz is evidently a hands-on kind of investigator, since he is just back from a fact-finding trip to Libya. He didn't get to Benghazi during that trip, however, as he related to Andrea Mitchell, he did visit the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli "for most of the day on Saturday." So, expect him to bring a bulging overloaded suitcase full o' facts to tomorrow's hearing.

I won't take issue with his facts. But I do question one thing he's been saying. In several interviews today, such as this one, he used the same line to emphasize how uniquely dangerous the environment in Benghazi was.
“Twice in the six-month lead-up to this attack and death of the four Americans — twice the British ambassador had an assassination attempt and twice our facility in Benghazi was bombed! No other place on the planet had that happen!”

Two attacks? Only two? Rep. Chaffetz should book his next fact-finding trip for Pakistan, and especially the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar, if he wants to see U.S. diplomatic facilities that have experienced multiple attacks.

-- It was on September 3, barely one month ago, that four Consulate employees in Peshawar were very nearly killed by a suicide bomber who drove his bomb-laden vehicle into theirs. How soon we forget.

-- In May of 2011, two other Peshawar employees survived a roadside bombing that targeted their vehicle.

-- In February of 2010, three U.S. military personnel were killed by a suicide bomber at a girls school in in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province outside Peshawar.

-- In April of 2010, the Consulate office compound in Peshawar was attacked by a six-man Taliban team that employed RPGs, small arms, grenades, explosive charges, and three bomb-laden vehicles. That's three bombs in a single attack. And it happened on this planet.

-- In August of 2008, the Consul General in Peshawar survived an ambush on her vehicle.

And there is much more. In fact, almost every Pakistani government or military target in Peshawar worth attacking has been destroyed. For a summary of some recent attacks see this.

I won't even get started on the full history of attacks against the U.S. Consulate in Karachi. Suffice it to say that there were suicide bomber attacks against it in 2002 and 2006, plus a failed bomb attack in 2004.

None of this is to say that Benghazi is not a very dangerous place. However, some context is called for. We have even worse threat environments, and we haven't closed the U.S. missions in those places.

I assume our national authorities have determined that in those places, as in Bengahzi, our missions are serving vital interests that outweigh the danger of  keeping them in operation.

Monday, October 8, 2012

How Many Fortress Embassies?

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

Let's talk Fortress Embassies. First, how many U.S. Embassies are fortresses?

Judging by most of the news stories about the attack in Benghazi, and all of the congressional questions about presumed waivers of security standards, anyone would get the impression that every place except Benghazi is a big ol' fortress.

However, if you read the 2010 GAO Report on New Embassy Compounds, you will learn otherwise:
State has located nearly one-quarter of overseas staff in NECs [New Embassy Complexes], which posts said are an improvement over older facilities.

What about the other three-quarters of our overseas staff? Evidently, they occupy something other than fortresses, for better or worse. Many fans of architecture and open diplomacy would say it's for the better. Whichever it is, it is a reflection of the unchanging reality that we have more needs than resources.

The best commentary I have seen recently on this subject came in a newsletter from the business intelligence firm Stratfor - Diplomatic Security in Light of Benghazi:
So while it is understandable that the U.S. government would want to base diplomats and intelligence personnel in Benghazi [due to having important national interests there], it encountered a problem: It simply did not have a facility in the city that met security standards. Instead, the personnel had to occupy a temporary facility until a suitable building could be funded and then constructed. While the U.S. State Department has adopted a modular design program that has made this process a little easier, the construction of a new office building is nonetheless an expensive undertaking and something that the department cannot do under its current operating budget without the U.S. Congress allocating funds to pay for the construction project. Anyone who has dealt with the U.S. government should not be surprised, then, that the 11 months since the fall of the Gadhafi regime were not enough for Congress to fund, and the State Department to build, a new secure facility to house the consulate in Benghazi.

-- snip --

But the issue of temporary facilities is not just confined to Tripoli and Benghazi. It comes up frequently when there is a rapid change in a nation, or even in the case of a natural disaster. For example, the U.S. recognition of the new nation of South Sudan in July 2011 necessitated the rapid establishment of an embassy in the country's capital, Juba. If the environment continues to improve in Somalia, it is possible that the United States will increase its presence in Mogadishu, and establishing an embassy in Mogadishu will also pose a problem until a secure facility can be constructed.  ["Diplomatic Security in Light of Benghazi" is republished with permission of Stratfor.]

In a world of limited resources, not even the U.S. government can have everything it wants and it must make choices. Such as, should it build a new embassy in Juba before one in Mogadishu? And if it builds them both, which other two posts won't get new embassies because the money for them was spent on urgent unscheduled needs elsewhere? Someone in authority must decide. No business or government can afford to fully meet all of its needs, much less meet all of them at the same time, so priorities must be set.

The Department's Congressional budget justification for 2013 has this statement about prioritization in the section on "Effective and Efficient Risk-Based Security:"

DS is challenged more now than ever to provide security in environments where threats are increasing and implement the most cost-effective solutions within its current budget constraints. The locations require a more agile approach to provide resources beyond those outlined by the Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards when necessary, and quickly provide common-sense waiver and exception relief in situations that other OSPB standards cannot reasonably be met due to exigent circumstances in these locales. The Bureau will act on recommendations in the Secretary’s QDDR report to reassess the global standard for risk management. DS will assess its collective resources to formalize and house individual security programs developed to address the ever-changing threat. DS will make a concerted effort to call on the skills of its partner agencies in the design and implementation of joint security efforts. [Worldwide Security Protection, page 64]

That brings me to my next question about Fortress Embassies. How many more of them is the Department planning to build?

The above-linked budget justification for 2013 contains a section on "Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance" that addresses the Capital Security Construction program, which is the source of money for Fortresses. That program is the result of a recommendation in the report of the Accountability Review Board that convened after the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 (here) whose key sentences read:
We must undertake a comprehensive and long-term strategy for protecting American officials overseas, including sustained funding for enhanced security measures, for long-term costs for increased security personnel, and for a capital building program based on an assessment of requirements to meet the new range of global terrorist threats. This must include substantial budgetary appropriations of approximately $1.4 billion per year maintained over an approximate ten-year period ... Additional funds for security must be obtained without diverting funds from our major foreign affairs programs.

It is now more than ten years later, and I see that the Department still has a capital building program based on security needs, so I have to hand it to Congress. They did indeed provide that sustained stream of new embassy construction money, as recommended.

According to the figures for "Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance" the Department has built 88 new overseas diplomatic facilities since 2001. From that, we may assume that the usual pace of construction has been around nine projects a year. The Department has 260-some embassies and consulates, so it will be quite some time before it gets around to them all at the present pace.

Moreover, the pace of new embassy construction seems to be slowing. Again according to the 2013 budget justification, the Department anticipated awarding six more contracts for new facilities in Fiscal Year 2012, and only three more in FY-2013.

Let's see ... if an average of nine projects per year have been awarded for the past ten years, but only six were awarded in the current year, and three are projected for next year ... Is it just me, or do you get the sense of a program winding down?

This will be something to watch when the Benghazi ARB makes its report. Will it recommend continuing the Capital Security Construction program as it is, or doubling down on its budget, or even ending it?

One last question about Fortress Embassies. How many more ought there to be?

It would be easy to say that Congress should increase funding beyond the 1.4 billion per year that was recommended in 1998. It would be easy, but overly optimistic.

The new construction recommendation made by the East Africa ARB in 1998 has been carried out. Maybe 88 or so new facilities is enough to meet the emergency needs that existed then, and it is now time to return the construction program to the non-emergency practices under which it operated before 2001.

Maybe it would be more useful to redirect that capital funding to hasty security upgrades for our many non-fortressy overseas facilities, the ones that three-quarters of our overseas staff currently occupy, rather than apply it to a handful of future new construction projects. There is a utilitarian argument that the best course of action is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and that argument would seem to favor security upgrades over new construction. 

It's just as well that Ambassador Pickering will not be asking for my advice, since I'm not sure how I would respond.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline Of The Week

"Iran’s secret service launches website in bid to soften its image, connect with Iranian people" (AP)

Serious Questions About Inadequate Security

Camp Bastion - crime scene or military base?

Our Congressmen have been so preoccupied with getting to the bottom of what happened at our Not-a-Consulate in Benghazi on September 11 that they are overlooking an even juicier scandal that happened in Afghanistan three days later.

On September 14, fifteen Taliban insurgents attacked Camp Bastion, killing two U.S. Marines and destroying somewhere around $200 million worth of Harrier jump-jets and refueling facilities. Camp Bastion is the largest coalition military base in Afghanistan, and houses 28,000 troops and contractors inside a 40-mile long perimeter. It adjoins Camp Leatherneck with its Third Marine Aircraft Wing and associated units on another 1,600 acres of land.

According to press reports, interviews with troops who were there, and video released by the Taliban itself, the attackers entered the base perimeter undetected by cutting through chain link fencing. Once inside, they used RPGs and explosive charges to destroy six Harriers and damage two more, and then engaged a British response force in a four-hour long firefight in which more coalition troops were wounded.

How in the world could that Taliban attack have been so successful? The only possible answer is that Camp Bastion must have had inadequate security.

Here's the BBC report on this shocking security failure:

And here's an interview with one of the U.S. Marines at Bastion:

That incident ought to have sent our Congressional oversight committees into a frenzy of fact-finding and witness-calling. They should be demanding answers to such obvious questions as:

-- Was a security assessment conducted before putting Prince Harry in Camp Bastion?

-- Was the force protection posture at Camp Bastion raised before September 11?

-- Did ISAF really consider a chain link fence - a measure that seems more suitable for a junkyard than a military base - adequate for perimeter security?

-- Did the Secretary of Defense grant a waiver of security standards?

-- Is ISAF aware of the long history of terrorist incidents in Helmand Province, Afghanistan?

-- Did ISAF request additional resources for security before the attack? If so, were the requests denied?

-- Why were British troops - who are foreigners - responsible for the security of a facility that houses U.S. troops and critical assets?

-- Does ISAF believe that the vital task of security should be outsourced?

-- Didn't Camp Leatherneck have Marine guards? Aren't all Marine facilities, like all U.S. Embassies, supposed to have Marine guards???

-- Were all the guards at Camp Bastion armed?

-- Were any of the troops at Bastion unarmed or carrying weapons without rounds in the chamber, and if so, on whose authority?

-- Why has the FBI not yet arrived at Camp Bastion to conduct an investigation of this terrorist attack?

-- Has the crime scene at Camp Bastion been preserved? If not, why did ISAF allow it to be contaminated before the arrival of the FBI?

And the most serious question of all: does the Defense Department have adequate resources for security of its overseas facilities, or could it use a few billion dollars more? Just say the word and it's yours. 

Really, I am amazed at how perceptions differ between the two incidents. In Benghazi, 100 or more attackers (according to witnesses interviewed by the news media) swarmed over a few residential villas using small arms, RPGs, and mortars before the host government could bring enough force to intervene. That amounted to a spectacular failure of security, according to various Congressmen who evidently expect diplomatic missions to be protected like military bases.

At Camp Bastion, an actual military base was invaded by fifteen insurgents who inflicted enough damage to have a strategic impact upon our operations there, but that incident seems to have made no political impact whatsoever. The congressional attitude appears to be that things like that happen in war, so no one is to blame.

Fun fact: the replacement cost of the six Harrier AV/8B aircraft destroyed at Camp Bastion is likely to be, according to my best internet source, $23.7 million each or a total of $142 million. That much money would easily cover the cost of a small Fortress Embassy, according to this publicly available source of information.

What are the odds that Congress will drop any extra money in State's overseas facility construction budget next year? Much lower than the odds that it will buy more Harriers, I think. I will be delighted if it turns out I'm wrong.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Day-After Debate Thought

And I can't wait. When is that VP debate, anyway?

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Former RSO Tripoli Called To October 10 House Hearing

According to ABC News (here) tonight:

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has written to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call two witnesses for its October 10 hearings on what went wrong at the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

Per the committee, they are:

· “Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom was stationed in Libya from September 2011 to June 2012. The Department of State provided Mr. Nordstrom to the Committee for a briefing, where he confirmed for the Committee the security incidents cited in the letter, and confirmed that the mission in Libya made security requests.

· “Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs Charlene Lamb is an official in Washington is involved in reviewing security requests.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Futile Exchange of Letters On Benghazi, But A Bit Of News About The ARB

Well, that was fast. The Department has already responded to Chairman Issa's letter of earlier today with his several questions about security matters in Benghazi.

True, Hillary sent a non-answer answer, but that's all you would expect at this point. Things won't get real until Issa's committee holds hearings with Department witnesses.

One bit of news (to me, anyway) in her letter was the identification of the members of the Accountability Review Board. They include Richard Shinnick, a retired very senior management officer who served as Interim Director of the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) a few years ago, where he picked up the pieces after General Williams marched off to do whatever it is he's doing now.

Mr. Shinnick (it is a mark of my regard for the man that I always think of him as "Mister" Shinnick) was a New York City firefighter before he became an FSO, and I remember him as a pillar of commonsense and good judgment back in the era of the first big push to increase security of our overseas missions during the late 80s and early 90s. 

I was a callow youth working as a contractor in DS then, and was often sent to handcarry policy memos around to Department big-shots for their clearance. I got a frosty reception from many of them, since they tended to see the emergence of security standards as a zero-sum game in which any Diplomatic Security gain was a loss for their Office or Bureau. But Mr. Shinnick was always polite and reasonable, and he would spend his valuable time discussing whatever the issue at hand was while he read and initialed my bundle of memos. He gave me a candid education in how the Department and its interoffice politics worked, especially as regards DS and OBO. You don't forget that kind of thing.

I already thought Ambassador Pickering was an excellent choice for Chairman. Now, with Mr. Shinnick on board, I think this ARB might actually come to some useful conclusions about how we should proceed with overseas security in the aftermath of the Benghazi incident.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Univision To USA: "Turn Around And Watch The Massacres"

In a program that aired tonight, Univision News reported that it has compared the serial numbers of weapons the ATF allowed to 'walk' into Mexico with those of weapons seized at crime scenes in Mexico and has found at least 100 matches. That is 57 more matches than have been disclosed by official U.S. government reports.

According to an English-language report on ABC Univision News:

Univision identified a total of 57 more previously unreported firearms that were bought by straw purchasers monitored by ATF during Operation Fast and Furious, and then recovered in Mexico in sites related to murders, kidnappings, and at least one other massacre.

-- snip --

In Mexico, the timing of the operation coincided with an upsurge of violence in the war among the country's strongest cartels. In 2009, the northern Mexican states served as a battlefield for the Sinaloa and Juarez drug trafficking organizations, and as expansion territory for the increasingly powerful Zetas. According to documents obtained by Univision News, from October of that year to the end of 2010, nearly 175 weapons from Operation Fast and Furious inadvertently armed the various warring factions across northern Mexico.

"Many weapons cross the border and enter Mexico, but that [Fast and Furious] number, quantity and type of weapons had quite an impact in the war in this area" Jose Wall, an ATF agent stationed in Tijuana from 2009 to 2011, told Univision News.

-- snip --

"Americans are not often moved by the pain of those outside [their country] …" Javier Sicilia, a Mexican poet whose son was killed in the midst of the violence, told Univision News. "But they are moved by the pain of their own. Well, turn around and watch the massacres."

Monday, September 24, 2012

Did I Miss Much While I Was Gone?

In retrospect, I could have picked a better month than September to tour the Middle East. Then again, when your business is to dig wider moats around our Fortress Embassies, you need to go where the work is.

The question of what really happened in Benghazi (and there is a good summary of the knowns and unknowns here, by Domani Spero) will get unpacked in due time by the Accountability Review Board, I'm sure. But what happened everywhere else is already perfectly clear.

The mob attacks in Tunis, Khartoum, Sanaa, Cairo, Chennai, Jakarta, Islamabad, Lahore, and of course Karachi - my favorite! - followed the same old pattern. Where the host government fulfilled its obligation to protect the integrity of diplomatic premises, the mobs were kept back. Where the host government did not do so, our missions had to rely on physical barriers - their walls, doors and windows - to keep the mobs outside.

Physical barriers themselves are not absolute protection, of course, but are there just to delay the attackers until the host government acts, if it ever does.You cannot keep people out of embassy compounds for long if the local authorities don't show up. However, you can keep people out of your embassy office building for a good long time, maybe even long enough for them to give up and leave, if the building was built for that purpose.

By a stroke of good luck, the most serious attacks occurred at embassies that had been constructed in the last ten years and therefore met current security standards (see the list of completed projects here, on the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations website), or at ones that were built during the old 'Inman' program in the 1980s. In either case, those buildings were designed and built at great cost to resist exactly the kind of attacks that occurred.

Good ol' Fortress Embassies! What they lack in aesthetics they make up for in their ability to wear down the typical rioter. 

How many more times do I have to hit this damn window?

I'll be very interested in seeing how the Accountability Review Board plays out, and, in particular, whether it recommends continuing the stream of capitol construction money that Congress has provided to OBO every year since it was recommended by the last big ARB in 1999, the one on the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam (read its report here).

That investment in new, secure, embassy buildings paid off very big for those USG employees who were inside the safe havens in Tunis, Khartoum, and Sanaa last week.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Thrill Is (Not Yet) Gone

While packing my suitcase this morning, I tried to estimate how many times I've flown out of Dulles Airport over the years decades, but gave up almost immediately. Numbers don't go that high, at least not ones I can calculate in my head.

Air travel has never sucked more than it does today. The thrill has definitely gone away from that part of TDY-ing it. But, I have to admit I still get a small thrill of anticipation when I start another foray outside the cubicle to visit some of the world's most vibrate and exciting locales. Or Pakistan. I'm not quite tired of Pakistan yet. But, I'm heading to other places on this trip.

I'm going light on the electronic baggage this time, so I'll monitor blogospheric events through the little screen on an iPod touch.

Wheels up in a few hours, and there should be a hint of Fall in the air when I get back home.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Peshawar - U.S. Consulate Employees Attacked By Suicide Bomber

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

Once again, U.S. government employees overseas have survived a terrorist attack thanks to the heavily-armored vehicle in which they were riding. Dollar for dollar, the State Department's armored car program may have prevented more deaths and injuries than any other physical countermeasure out there.

Note the vehicle frame is largely intact, although burned-out

Also note the distance between bomb crater and vehicle

The most complete news story on today's attack that I've seen so far is from the New York Times (here):

There were conflicting reports about the number and nationality of the casualties. Pakistani officials said that at least two people were killed and at least 13 were injured, including two police officers. The United States Embassy in Islamabad confirmed the attack and said in a statement that two Americans and two Pakistani employees of the consulate were injured. It denied early reports that an American had been killed.

A senior Pakistani government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that an American backup vehicle immediately retrieved the four who were wounded inside the S.U.V. and took them to the consulate. The official said two Pakistanis were killed outside the vehicle.

-- snip --

The American vehicle had left the heavily guarded and fortified consulate building and was passing a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees guest house on Abdara Road when it was rammed by a vehicle containing at least 200 pounds of explosives, according to police officials. A thick plume of smoke rose over the site after the explosion that could be seen a mile away. The blast left a five-foot-wide crater in the road.

The last time a U.S. consulate vehicle in Peshawar was bombed was May of 2011 (here), and all employees survived that one, too. In that incident, the bomb was planted along the side of the road and detonated remotely when the consulate vehicle passed by.

Today's attack used a suicide bomber to drive an improvised explosive device directly at our vehicle and detonate against it while both vehicles were moving. That escalation in tactics indicates that the Taliban - who are the most likely culprits, although no one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack - are capable of learning lessons and adapting to what they perceive of U.S. government countermeasures.

Various Pakistani reports have added interesting nuggets of information beyond what was in the NYT's story:

-- The attack took place at about 9 AM this morning
-- The consulate vehicle was being escorted by three police vehicles
-- The vehicle was en route from the consulate to the nearby American club, according to one of the escorting police drivers
-- An official of the police bomb disposal squad was quoted saying the vehicle bomb was assembled out of military munitions (mortar shells); if so, then it had much higher explosive force than a typical improvised device
-- The bomb was reported to be 100 kilos (220 pounds) in size; such estimates are highly speculative, however, I can believe it was that big by the distance that the U.S. vehicle appears to have been blown off the road
-- The Pakistani driver of the consulate vehicle told local news media that he was knocked unconscious by the blast, but recovered in a few minutes

The tactic of using a suicide bomber against a vehicle in motion is not new. It was used in Karachi in 2006 to attack a U.S. consulate vehicle, killing a U.S. citizen employee, David Foy, who was transiting from his home to the office, as well as a locally engaged employee who was driving, and a Pakistani Army Ranger who was manning a checkpoint outside the consulate. That was the last fatal attack on a U.S. government employee in Pakistan.

The same tactic was used in 2002, again in Karachi, to kill eleven French naval engineers who were in transit from their hotel to their workplace.

More details about today's attack will eventually be released, I'm sure. But for now this looks like a favorable outcome, and one that we can credit to the RSO's security programs, as well as to the Department's huge investment in armored vehicles.

Note: If you are looking for local news coverage of today's incident, this Pakistani Geo TV clip has the most comprehensive video coverage of the immediate aftermath of the bombing:

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Chronic Politics

Washington DC's newest advocacy group has come out in support of President Obama's reelection, but the WaPo reports there are doubts about the group's grassroots bona fides.

When the U.S. Medical Marijuana Chamber of Commerce this week endorsed President Obama for reelection, folks in the media were surprised that an industry that hadn’t been too thrilled with the administration was rallying behind it.

Even more surprised by the development? Mainstream marijuana activists, many of whom have never heard of the organization or its founder, Tom Leto. The major lobbying and advocacy groups have so far held off on endorsing a presidential candidate — they say Obama hasn’t lived up to a vow to back off raids.

-- snip --

Leto, a California-based promoter of hydroponic equipment, explained the gen­esis of the company, a story that only adds a bit of mystery: He was working with the New York PR firm Todd Shapiro Associates to help market his hydroponics business when the concept snowballed into a nationwide organization advocating federal legalization of medical marijuana.

The U.S. Medical Marijuana Chamber of Commerce evidently consists of just Tom Leto plus a website that features a marvelously incoherent statement of endorsement for Obama. Check out the stoner syntax of this sentence:

“Recent research has shown that Obama’s Medical Marijuana usage is a big reason in which he understands the value of Federally allowing this industry to exist.”

Here's a good rule for all weed legalization lobbyists: don't toke up until after you're done drafting policy papers, because otherwise you might come across like a self-parody of a doper wasteoid.

Leto's legislative proposal, which has the heading "HR TK420" - oh, 420, I get it! - would make the USMMCOC the sole authority to tax, regulate and control the newly legalized marijuana industry. That would be a sweet deal if he could get it, but I think there are some heavily armed Mexicans and others who might take issue with that monopoly.

The WaPo story suggests that stoners may tend to be a bit paranoid. Maybe so. Or maybe you're freaking out, man.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mexican Standoff Over August 24 Shooting Incident

Mexican authorities are still being tight-lipped about Friday's shooting incident, in which two U.S. Embassy employees and a Mexican Navy officer were wounded by gunfire while driving to a naval facility south of Mexico City. The first report from the Associated Press called the incident "a confused running gunbattle," and that remains the case nearly three days later. See Diplopundit's write-up (here) for details of what little is known.

The first official Mexican press release came from the Naval Ministry, and it placed blame on the federal police for misidentifying the embassy vehicle. A Mexican Attorney General's Office spokesman confirmed Saturday that all the shots were fired by federal police units, and he added that Mexico's top police official, Public Security Secretary Genaro Garcia Luna, personally went to the site of the shooting, indicating how seriously he is taking the incident. I've seen unconfirmed reports that twelve federal policemen were relieved of duty pending investigation, however, federal police spokesman Ramon Salinas told CNN yesterday that he would have no further comment and that in the future all information must come from the office of Mexican President Felipe Calderon. President Calderon's office did not respond to a request from CNN.

The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City waited about twelve hours before sending out its first, and so far only, press release.

So, what exactly happened? Did narcos attempt to stop the embassy vehicle, thereby provoking a chase by federal police? If so, it seems they got away clean, leaving no trace behind. Or did federal police mistakenly assume the embassy vehicle was operated by narcos using fake diplomatic plates - which would be an entirely plausible scenario - and fire on it when it evaded their ambush? Did the embassy employees mistake a cluster of federal police vehicles for a narco ambush and flee, leading to mutual confusion? Were the federal police posing as narcos, in some kind of a ruse? Were the federal police themselves narcos?

That last question is the big one, and such suspicion is warranted. Just last week Mexico announced that it replaced all 348 federal police officers assigned to security details at the Mexico City International Airport as a result of the June 25 incident in which three officers were shot to death by fellow officers who were involved in trafficking drugs through the airport.

Mexican press reports say the two embassy employees were treated at a hospital in Cuernavaca for only two hours before they were taken elsewhere. From that, I conclude that somebody thought it prudent to get them into U.S. control as soon as their conditions were stable enough for them to travel.

Since there are two witnesses to the incident who are not under the control of the Mexican government, I assume we will eventually get a satisfactory explanation of what happened.

FYI, Google Earth has good overhead and Street View imagery of the location of the incident. Search for "El Capulin, Morelos, Mexico" and look for the intersection of two east-west highways, Mexico 95D and the Cuernavaca-Ciudad De Mexico. The shooting reportedly took place on a side road about 100 meters north of the large square paved space (which is a Pemex gas station) in between the two highways.

The Mexican news media report that I've embedded above has a depiction of the incident starting at about the 1 minute mark, and well as more still photos and video of the Mexican response to the crime scene than I've found anywhere else.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Most Eyebrow-Raising Headline Of The Week

"Nepali man bites snake to death in revenge attack"

Apocalypse Not

Obama's fundraising appeals went off the deep end again today. Obama wonders: is this ‘the end?’

“It’s August 23rd,” Obama wrote in a fundraising email with “the end?” as its subject line. “And 75 days from now, I’ll either be looking at another four years in the White House — or the end of this opportunity.”

He asked for contributions of $5 or more, saying “we’re getting outspent by wide margins in critical battleground states — and what we do about that today could be the difference between winning and losing on November 6th.”

How desperate is Obama for campaign cash? According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission (summarized here) Obama has raised and spent way more than Romney so far in 2012. He raised $348 million to Romney's $193 million. He spent $263 million to Romney's $163 million. And he has nearly three times more cash on hand than Romney, $87,747,678 to $30,181,373.

This is the end? My only friend, the end? Of our elaborate plans, the end? Of everything that stands, the end?

Yes, in the silly season that hits Washington every fourth year this qualifies as The End.   

[Colonel Kurtz voice] "the horror ... the horror."

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Narco War in Ciudad Juarez Has A Winner

It looks like the narco war in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, that sub-state conflict on our southern border that has raged on with such excessive violence, and which two years ago reached into the U.S. Consulate staff and their families, has now settled down.

Good news, to be sure, but maybe for a bad reason, as the WaPo reports today - In Mexico’s Murder City, the War Appears Over:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — When this city was among the most murderous in the world, the morgue ran out of room, the corpses stacked to the ceiling in the wheezing walk-in freezers.

Medical examiners, in plastic boots, performed a dozen autopsies a day as families of victims waited outside in numbers sufficient to require a line.

For all this, Mexico has not made much sense of one of the most sensational killing sprees in recent history, which has left 10,500 dead in the streets of Juarez as two powerful drug and crime mafias went to war. In 2010, the peak, there were at least 3,115 aggravated homicides, with many months posting more than 300 deaths, according to the newspaper El Diario.

But the fever seems to have broken.

In July, there were just 48 homicides — 33 by gun, seven by beatings, six by strangulation and two by knife. Of these, 40 are considered by authorities to be related to the drug trade or criminal rivalries.

Authorities attribute the decrease in homicides to their own efforts — patrols by the army, arrests by police, new schools to keep young men out of gangs and in the classroom.

Yet ordinary Mexicans suspect there is another, more credible reason for the decrease in extreme violence: The most-wanted drug lord in the world, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, and his Sinaloa cartel have won control of the local drug trade and smuggling routes north.

Put that crown squarely on Guzman's head, because "El Chapo" (Shorty) is by acclamation the biggest drug lord ever. How big is that, exactly? Well, no one on the outside knows exactly, but the New York Times had a very informative essay last June on Cocaine Incorporated that gives you a pretty good idea of how big:

So in a spirit of empirical humility, we shouldn’t accept as gospel the estimate, from the Justice Department, that Colombian and Mexican cartels reap $18 billion to $39 billion from drug sales in the United States each year. (That range alone should give you pause.) Still, even if you take the lowest available numbers, Sinaloa emerges as a titanic player in the global black market. In the sober reckoning of the RAND Corporation, for instance, the gross revenue that all Mexican cartels derive from exporting drugs to the United States amounts to only $6.6 billion. By most estimates, though, Sinaloa has achieved a market share of at least 40 percent and perhaps as much as 60 percent, which means that Chapo Guzmán’s organization would appear to enjoy annual revenues of some $3 billion — comparable in terms of earnings to Netflix or, for that matter, to Facebook.

-- snip --

Even so, the business generates such volumes of currency that there is only so much you can launder or reinvest, which means that money can start to pile up around the house. The most that Martínez ever saw at one time was $30 million, which just sat there, having accumulated in his living room. In 2007, Mexican authorities raided the home of Zhenli Ye Gon, a Chinese-Mexican businessman who is believed to have supplied meth-precursor chemicals to the cartel, and discovered $206 million, the largest cash seizure in history. And that was the money Zhenli held onto — he was an inveterate gambler, who once blew so much cash in Las Vegas that one of the casinos presented him, in consolation, with a Rolls-Royce. “How much money do you have to lose in the casino for them to give you a Rolls-Royce?” Tony Placido, the D.E.A. intelligence official, asked. (The astonishing answer, in Zhenli’s case, is $72 million at a single casino in a single year.) Placido also pointed out that, as a precursor guy, Zhenli was on the low end of the value chain for meth. It makes you wonder about the net worth of the guy who runs the whole show.

When the Sinaloa cartel got that kind of crazy-big it could afford to mop up its remaining enemies and consolidate control over its market. That consolidation allows it to operate as a true cartel for the first time, and when cartels are cartels, public safety wins:

To anyone conversant with economics, reading stories about the Mexican drug wars has long come with a bit of irony. The drug trafficking organizations are commonly known as cartels, but the horrific violence stems precisely from the fact that they aren't cartels. In a legal competitive marketplace in a country with an effective legal and law enforcement apparatus, firms compete by trying to offer a good value proposition to their customers. In an illegal market, firms can compete by trying to kill one another. And in Mexico, that kind of violent competition has been running amok leading to a massive body count. Insofar as you get true cartels—stable, anti-competitive arrangements—then a lot of the problems associated with the drug market go away. There are no competitors to kill, leading to less violence and fewer risks to bystanders.

The U.S. Government once offered a reward of 5 million Gringo dollars for the capture of Guzman, but I can no longer find that offer online, so it may be that we have withdrawn it out of embarrassment. After all, five million would hardly be enough to motivate anyone who is close enough to Guzman to rat him out. He and his crew probably spill that much money.