State fixes are long overdue

By David Rohde
December 20, 2012

This week’s scathing report on the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya – followed by the resignation of one department official and removal of three others – confirms that the United States has an underfunded State Department is in decay. It also gives the clearest understanding yet of where fault lies for four unnecessary deaths in Libya and how the U.S. can do the vital work of diplomacy in dangerous areas.

The goal of the attackers was to drive American diplomats and aid workers out of Libya. We must not let this happen. Washington’s most effective weapon in the post-Arab Spring is promoting economic growth, trade and technology ‑ not mounting invasions. Diplomats and aid workers are the vital heart of that effort.

Some takeaways from the independent review board’s report:

  •  The State Department has struggled to obtain resources for years. This long-running Washington dynamic played a role in department officials’ decisions to decline requests for additional security personnel in Benghazi:

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.

  • Congress should increase its support for the State Department. The blame lies not just with the Obama administration but also with Capitol Hill. The report found that it was “imperative” for the department to operate in increasingly risky areas and have the proper resources to do so:

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 State Department office in charge of securing embassies – the Bureau of Diplomatic Security – needs to be reformed and expanded. As I wrote last month, roughly 900 Diplomatic Security agents are guarding 275 American embassies and consulates around the globe. That works out to a whopping four agents per facility. In Benghazi, staff shortages meant inexperienced officers were shuffled through the consulate often on tours of 40 days or less. The report also found that the State Department cannot rely on host nations – or the U.S. military – to protect American diplomats:

 With security threats growing in volatile environments where the U.S. military is not present – from Peshawar to Bamako – the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is being stretched to the limit as never before … The Department should assign key policy, program, and security personnel at high risk, high threat posts for a minimum of one year. For less critical personnel, the temporary duty length (TDY) length should be no less than 120 days.

  • Specific individuals in the State Department in Washington acted poorly. The report blamed midlevel bureaucrats for poor decision making. Leadership matters, even in a federal bureaucracy.One official put on administrative leave was Charlene Lamb, the Diplomatic Security Service official who oversaw security from Washington. She was the focus of bitter criticism from security officials in Libya, who said she rejected repeated requests for additional improvements in Benghazi. In equivocating, evasive and shameful testimony before Congress in October, Lamb at first said she received no formal requests for additional security from Libya. She then absurdly claimed, “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11.” The unclassified version of the report did not name individuals but it concluded:

 Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.

Ultimately, some blame must lie with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, has been pilloried for Benghazi, Clinton has somehow emerged largely unscathed.

To be fair, the report found no evidence that Clinton personally made any specific decision that made the Benghazi consulate vulnerable. But it suggests that Clinton’s promise of revamping and revitalizing the State Department remains in some ways unfulfilled. Yes, the fiscal climate in Washington has hampered the secretary, but the report shows that the State Department remains deeply troubled.

No one can turn around a federal bureaucracy overnight, particularly one that spans the globe. But the report shows that laudatory press coverage of her performance as secretary of state may be too generous.

On Thursday, State Department officials told Congress that they would be requesting $2.3 billion per year over the next 10 years to improve security. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), or whoever becomes the next secretary of state, must obtain those funds and more, and revitalize the department. When it comes to national security, our ability to conduct diplomacy and spark economic growth is as important as our ability to wage war.

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