Benghazi: Questions Unasked and Opportunities Missed


Benghazi is in the news again as former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is slated to testify today before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack, countless questions have been asked regarding the circumstances that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. The State Department, intelligence community, and Department of Defense (DoD) were subject to significant congressional oversight regarding the events of that day and the associated administration response. The oversight has been so extensive that the Pentagon sent a letter to lawmakers noting the high costs of the repetitive requests for information from about “50 congressional hearings, briefings, and interviews.” While useful to a certain extent, these public inquiries and debates have missed the mark by failing to ask the real question: How can the United States balance the benefits of an expeditionary diplomatic corps with the risks from the volatile environments in which these personnel will sometimes operate?

Attacks on embassies and other U.S. government facilities take place virtually every year, according to State Department reports. And while the attacks in Benghazi, Cairo, and elsewhere prompted significant improvements in the physical security and emergency planning surrounding American diplomats, in the public debate critical questions on how much risk the United States is willing to sustain — and where — remain unanswered.

Securing U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel

The United States maintains approximately 285 diplomatic facilities worldwide. These facilities vary in their size and scope. The threats they face also vary based on the overall environment, the host nation’s capabilities, and the proximity of U.S. military crisis response forces. In all cases, U.S. facilities employ a layered defense, which includes an outer ring of security provided by the host country and internal security provided by the United States. Internal security includes hardened facilities, armed State Department Diplomatic Security (DS) agents, U.S.-contracted local security guards, and sometimes U.S. Marine Security Guard detachments.

The lead security officer on the ground is typically a DS special agent referred to as a regional security officer (RSO). The RSO is the primary advisor to the chief of mission (in most cases, the ambassador) on all security matters and is the lead person responsible for: managing security programs and personnel; formulating emergency action and contingency plans; coordinating external security with the host nation, to include evaluations and additional training of host nation forces in the outer ring; and securing U.S. personnel and dependents, facilities, and sensitive information.

In addition to the RSO, DS agents, and any contracted guard forces, some facilities also have a Marine Security Guard (MSG) detachment. The MSG detachment does not follow the typical Marine Corps model of command and control by a military headquarters. Instead, these small detachments, typically only about eight to 10 Marines, receive operational direction and supervision from the RSO. Until recently, the primary purpose of these specially trained Marines did not include protection of personnel; their primary mission was to prevent the compromise of classified U.S. government information and equipment.

It is worth noting that the military was not traditionally considered part of the security equation at diplomatic facilities. The military did not have forces on stand-by for short notice response to threats because the security of diplomatic facilities and personnel was not a defense responsibility. However, the DoD did has mechanisms in place for routine coordination with the State Department regarding threats and response forces.

Diplomatic Security after Benghazi

After the Benghazi attacks and other violence directed at U.S. diplomatic facilities in the fall of 2012, the State Department increased its oversight of and support to posts around the world. In order to do this, the department implemented the recommendations of its internal post-Benghazi review called the Accountability Review Board, and identified a set of 27 high threat/high risk posts” worldwide. The State Department also established a new office, the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, charged with assessing and monitoring the threat environment to identify, update, and validate the designation of “high threat” posts. The daily oversight of these posts falls to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of High Threat Posts. Furthermore, any decisions to open new posts in dangerous areas are now vetted through a new process known as the Vital Presence Validation Process, intended to ensure a fully considered assessment of the mission’s importance versus the risk it entails to personnel.

There were a number of other executive branch initiatives, many of which were supported by additional appropriations; however, most of the actions were focused on hardening and securing the high-threat/high risk posts. These include continuing efforts to expand and enhance the DS program (including revised training focused on terrorist and mob attacks) and physical security upgrades at U.S. embassies and consulates (including hardening facilities and adding fire safety equipment). The State Department and the Marine Corps also expanded the MSG program in three ways: directing that protection of personnel is a “co-primary” mission; expanding the MSG program to add 35 new detachments and about 1,000 trained marines by the end of 2014; and establishing Marine Security Augmentation Units (MSAU). The MSAUs were intended to serve as interim security forces until a standing Marine Security Guard detachment could be established at high threat posts, helping to enact some anti-terrorism measures to reduce the threat of attack and providing extra security when requested.

Additionally, there were updates to Emergency Action Plans, which were reviewed and revised by senior leadership. Part of this review involved efforts to address potential vulnerabilities, including pre-positioning military assets for rapid response and deployment of security augmentation forces under certain conditions prior to any significant hostile actions. This last aspect changed security planning not just for the State Department but also for the DoD, which will return to including protection of diplomatic missions as a dynamic aspect of the global military asset planning process. This naturally raises a question: How should the DoD balance the need for prepositioned military assets for diplomatic security purposes with other U.S. national security objectives?

Weighing Risk and Reward

Despite all of these reforms, it should come as no surprise that the State Department will continue to face emerging, evolving, and unpredictable threats for the foreseeable future. Incidents vary in their nature and motive from attacks in Ankara in February 2013, Herat in September 2013, Istanbul two months ago, and Tashkent last month. Further risk comes in new places such as Bangladesh and even South Korea in the aftermath of the stabbing of the U.S. ambassador in Seoul.

While the question of possible intelligence gaps may be politically interesting, those lines of inquiry do not serve the men and women of the State Department and the DoD. What should really animate congressional oversight and public debate is an examination of how much risk is acceptable and with what level of benefit from diplomatic activity. And so, the question remains: How much risk is too much risk?

To be sure, diplomats are willing to accept some risk and in fact, some worry that excessive aversion to the risks in a potentially unstable host nation environment will limit their effectiveness by keeping them “behind the wire” of U.S. facilities. Conversely, although the military can accept additional risk, some question the feasibility of military-provided security for diplomats in the face of well-known and substantial risks, especially when even a ready military force may take hours to respond when minutes count. Moreover, the risks and costs extend well beyond just those immediate threats to diplomatic staff and the cost of deploying military personnel to reinforce security or conduct rescue operations. These costs include both the incremental financial costs of keeping forces deployed and on a heightened readiness status and the opportunity cost as DoD moves key assets away from other missions or pre-positions them at forward staging bases to facilitate rapid response.

So, instead of asking whether a video precipitated the attack or whether Ambassador Stevens should have been in Benghazi on that fateful night, the right question to ask is under what conditions the United States should have a diplomatic presence in these high-risk areas. The true oversight questions should be: What types of outputs for diplomatic or intelligence activities are sufficient to tolerate risk? Are the new State Department procedures consistent with these values? And what, if any, changes in the scope and scale of missions are appropriate given the U.S. government’s risk preferences? These are issues that the American people, through their representatives, should have the opportunity to influence and support. And the fact that three years and 50 congressional briefings later there are still no public answers to these key questions is one of the biggest missed opportunities of the tragedy in Benghazi.


Radha Iyengar, PhD, is a senior economist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. She served as member of the Department of Energy (DOE) Chief of Staff team and served as Deputy Chief of Staff to Deputy Secretary at DOE. Before that, she worked as the Director for Defense Personnel, Readiness, and Partnerships on the National Security Council. Before moving to the White House in 2013, she was policy advisor to the Assistant Secretary and Chief of Staff of the Office of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict in the Department of Defense from 2012-2013. She has worked as an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at Harvard University.