Saturday, May 30, 2015

Embassy Security: Could Murals and Cactus Be the Answer?

Hiding a cell tower - one of the non-traditional uses for cactus

Maybe Festivus came late this year, because it appears to be the season for The Airing of Grievances about how U.S. embassy security measures have inhibited the practice of public diplomacy.

First it was the Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy rehashing old complaints, then it was a new report from the Academy of American Diplomacy with an anti-Fortress Embassy twist added by Whirled View. Now, it's a veteran Public Diplomacy officer, retired but working part-time as a rehired annuitant, who has some problems with you security people.

He airs his grievances in an article for the May 2015 edition of the Foreign Service Journal, Keeping Embassy Security in Perspective, which he begins with a very solid statement about the inherent danger of expeditionary diplomacy and the political backlash that follows security incidents:
To put it bluntly, Amb. Stevens died because violent extremists attacked our consulate facility in Benghazi three years ago and killed him. Let’s not blame him for doing his job. As Foreign Service personnel, together with other government civilians and employees of nongovernmental organizations who work alongside us in the field, we sometimes find ourselves “in harm’s way” because that is the only way we can do our jobs. Our objectives do not become less compelling just because some danger is involved.

-- snip --

Ever since [the Benghazi attack] overseas security has been a club for politicians to use against one another. After the State Department’s Accountability Review Board sharply criticized State for “systemic failures” and “deficiencies” at senior levels, increased security was ordered worldwide.

The author then describes all the ways in which those increased security measures disappointed him when he helped the U.S. mission in Tunis recover after the 2012 mob attack.
The one thing that was not limited was the security operation. Throughout my six months in Tunis, our staff meetings typically focused on security and construction issues. Across the entire mission, relatively few U.S. employees had outside contact work as their primary responsibility.

Off duty, I was generally able to move about Greater Tunis more or less freely. Thanks to email and Facebook, I found many old friends and contacts. Some had become “ancien régime,” but they nonetheless offered an important window into our understanding of what was happening in Tunisia. Meanwhile, official Washington still had Benghazi in its teeth, and the focus was on security, not outreach.

Repeated requests by the embassy to go off ordered-departure status and bring back dependents were rebuffed. Yet just across the highway, the American School had put itself back into operation within days. Sure, there was still credible threat reporting—but we saw very little violence. Nearby, our posts in Morocco were still open, as was the embassy in Cairo, surely a more dangerous place.

The net effect of this continued security-first posture was to reduce the U.S. government’s presence and operational effectiveness in Tunisia at a crucial time. What program outreach we were doing was largely in the hands of NGOs, who could bring in staff and program support without an explicit green light from M.

The embassy’s public library (Information Resource Center) was essentially closed to the general public, both because advance clearance through the RSO was required for access and because the space itself had been requisitioned as the embassy’s training classroom. The public affairs section’s multipurpose room had likewise been taken over by temporary security staff. Since even routine access for outside visitors required 24-hour advance notice, I often met contacts at cafés just beyond the barbed-wire barriers.

Barbed wire atop and alongside high blank walls, running parallel to one of the country’s main highways, gave the embassy compound the look of a federal penitentiary. Once, I suggested to the construction folks that we use cactus (a traditional Tunisian security barrier) in place of the concertina wire, and add colorful “Info-USA” panels on the side of the perimeter wall facing the highway. The cactus, I was told, would be too expensive. (Compared to the overall cost of maintaining that huge compound on top of a reclaimed swamp?) The murals? Maybe, someday. (If anyone from the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations is reading this, please consider!)

I suppose having murals painted on the perimeter wall would be perfectly fine, but then, that really isn't OBO's job. As for putting cactus on top of the wall, I suspect the problem there was the sheer nuttiness of the idea more than the cost.

The author identifies a key aspect of the problem when he notes that we tolerate some types of risk much more readily than others.
Somehow few challenge the risks we face from tropical disease or endemic crime, only from politically motivated violence. For that, host governments have the primary responsibility to protect our official facilities under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the parallel 1963 Convention on Consular Relations. As politicians and pundits club each other with talk of “sending in the Marines” (or the 101st Airborne), let’s admit that it is almost never practical or desirable to apply purely military solutions to diplomatic security issues.

Exactly so, and let's do admit that what he calls military solutions are rarely appropriate for diplomatic security problems. Our political system tolerates some common types of risk quite well, but it goes bat-guano-crazy over terrorism and mob violence. That is not irrational, however. 

Finally, he bottom-lines it with the irrefutable statement that 'we need good security, but ...' we want other things, too.
We need to maintain good “force protection,” of course, and we need to minimize mistakes, but we also need to get out of our offices to do our jobs. That means tolerating a certain level of risk.

Well, yeah, sure. The exact same thing was said by the Benghazi Accountability Review Board Report in its introductory paragraphs:

This Board presents its findings and recommendations with the unanimous conclusion that while the United States cannot retreat in the face of such challenges, we must work more rigorously and adeptly to address them, and that American diplomats and security professionals, like their military colleagues, serve the nation in an inherently risky profession. Risk mitigation involves two imperatives – engagement and security – which require wise leadership, good intelligence and evaluation, proper defense and strong preparedness and, at times, downsizing, indirect access and even withdrawal.

So, everybody agrees that we need good embassy security, but ... also other stuff, like engagement with foreign audiences.

It's a question of priority, of what we need most at any particular time. We needed to engage the public in Tunisia after the 2012 attack on our embassy, but ... not more than we needed to repair the damage and enhance the perimeter against a possible second attack. We needed to bring the non-essential staff and dependents back in-country, but ... not until the situation in Tunisia and the region had stabilized.

These are inherently political decisions, as is the whole subject of risk acceptance for diplomatic missions. Personally, I happen to be on the side of taking reasonable risks, but, this is where I have a grievance of my own with critics of embassy security.

National priorities are set at a level well about that of the Regional Security Officer, or the Ambassador, or even the SecState. If you don't like the waves of risk aversion and increased security that follow attacks such as those in Benghazi and Tunis, then write to your Congressman. If you start a petition, I'll sign it. If you run for office, I'll vote for you. But, don't blame the security budget for your problems. Diplomatic Security isn't driving the decision train.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post TSB! gwb