WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The fortifications that mark U.S. Embassies around the world are likely to grow even more impregnable after this week’s killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, creating new hurdles for U.S. diplomats as they struggle to understand foreign societies in a period of rapid political change.
President Barack Obama said on Thursday he had ordered his administration to do whatever is necessary to protect Americans abroad, as U.S. diplomatic compounds around the Middle East faced another day of violent protests.
The protests, and Tuesday’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, have thrown a spotlight on U.S. diplomatic security protocols — a shadowy and increasingly complicated network of safeguards designed to keep U.S. personnel safe in a dangerous world.
In Washington, the State Department said it was implementing Obama’s order to review security but declined to reveal detail.
“Security protocols are constantly being reviewed, and they will continue to be,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing. “We are constantly also learning lessons, particularly in the wake of a tragedy as we have in the wake of past tragedies.”
Diplomatic analysts said the Libya attack — which marked the first death of a U.S. ambassador at extremists’ hands since 1979 — would likely impose yet another layer of security on U.S. diplomats, who often already find their ability to operate in their host countries severely circumscribed.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, diplomats have frequently had to rely on elaborate security convoys to move around the capitals, even for relatively routine meetings. Even less obtrusive “low-pro” (low profile) movements can require extensive coordination with security personnel.
“We do have to do lessons-learned exercises after tragedies like this, but we’ve got to approach it thinking what we can do to keep our people safer without limiting their ability to do their jobs,” said Ryan Crocker, who stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan earlier this year after serving as ambassador to Iraq from 2007-2009.
“These are competing imperatives. You only get perfect security by never leaving your room, which means you never accomplish anything. What you have to be able to do is balance and manage the risk.”
U.S. officials have released only preliminary information about the Benghazi attack, which saw gun-wielding extremists overwhelm Libyan security outside the consular compound before mounting a direct attack on what U.S. officials describe as a “robust” American security force within the complex.
Amid the confusion, security personnel lost track of Stevens. Hours later, his body was returned to U.S. custody but what happened in the interim remains unclear.
Three other U.S. Embassy personnel also died in the attack, including information management expert Sean Smith.
Nuland repeated that the security measures in place around the consulate were reviewed as part of a regular exercise before the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks and found adequate, and that they were consistent with a number of similar missions around the world.
“We did evaluate the threat stream and we determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate,” she said.
Whether they will be judged appropriate in the future looks doubtful.
The United States undertook a major security review in response to the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut, Lebanon — ordering improvements for existing embassies, the construction of new ones for those judged most risky and setting up the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at the State Department.
Security measures were further tightened following the bombings of the U.S. missions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998.
In 2009, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report detailing the explosion of State Department security spending, noting that the annual budget for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security had grown to $2.3 billion from $200 million in 1998.
Ronald Neumann, a former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan who now heads the American Academy of Diplomacy, said Washington’s stock response to tragedy was to step up security even if it makes diplomatic work more difficult.
“Mostly it tends to mean more tightening from the Washington end and less ability to make decisions on the field,” Neumann said. “A great many foreign service officers are prepared to take more risks than Washington wants them to take.”
Crocker, too, said too much reflexive security could work against U.S. interests — particularly in a part of the world where rapid political change is redrawing the diplomatic map.
“Ambassador Stevens was doing incredible work with the Libyan government, but you can only do that work if you are out and about, and in contact,” Crocker said.
“What I hope we do in the wake of this tragedy is not suddenly tighten up,” he said. “We need to take a deep breath, and look at where our vital interests lie.”
(This story inserts dropped word “to” in quote in paragraph 20)
Editing by Warren Strobel and Cynthia Osterman