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.