A primary reason why the U.S. consulate was unable to defend itself? The State Department is under-resourced.Larry Downing/Reuters
For conservatives, the Benghazi scandal is a Watergate-like presidential cover-up. For liberals, it a fabricated Republican witch-hunt. For me, Benghazi is a call to act on an enduring problem that both parties ignore.
One major overlooked cause of the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans is we have underfunded the State Department and other civilian agencies that play a vital role in our national security. Instead of building up cadres of skilled diplomatic security guards, we have bought them from the lowest bidder, trying to acquire capacity and expertise on the cheap. Benghazi showed how vulnerable that makes us.
Now, I'm not arguing that this use of contractors was the sole cause of the Benghazi tragedy, but I believe it was a primary one. Let me explain.
The slapdash security that killed Stevens, technician Sean Smith and CIA guards Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty started with a seemingly inconsequential decision by Libya's new government. After the fall of Muammar Qaddafi, Libya's interim government barred armed private security firms - foreign and domestic - from operating anywhere in the country.
Memories of the abuses by foreign mercenaries, acting for the brutal Qaddafi regime, prompted the decision, according to State Department officials.
Once the Libyans took away the private security guard option, it put enormous strain on a little-known State Department arm, the Diplomatic Security Service. This obscure agency has been responsible for protecting American diplomatic posts around the world since 1916.
Though embassies have contingents of Marines, consulates and other offices do not. And the missions of Marines, in fact, are to destroy documents and protect American government secrets. It is the Diplomatic Security agents who are charged with safeguarding the lives of American diplomats.
Today, roughly 2,000 Diplomatic Security agents guard 275 American embassies and consulates around the globe. That works out to a whopping seven agents per facility.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department relied on hundreds of security contractors to guard American diplomats. At times, they even hired private security guards to protect foreign leaders.
After Afghan President Hamid Karzai narrowly survived a 2002 assassination attempt, the State Department hired security guards from DynCorp, a military contractor, to guard him. Their aggressiveness in and around the presidential palace, however, angered Afghan, American and European officials. As soon as Afghan guards were trained to protect Karzai, DynCorp was let go.
But the State Department's dependence on contractors for security remained. And Benghazi epitomized this Achilles' heel.
Unable to hire contractors, the Diplomatic Security Service rotated small numbers of agents through Benghazi to provide security, on what government officials call temporary duty assignments, or "TDY." Eric Nordstrom, the Diplomatic Security agent who oversaw security in Libya until two months before the attack, recently told members of Congress that though he twice requested 12 agents he was rejected - and told he was asking for "the sun the moon and the stars."
He testified that he replied bluntly to his superiors in Washington. "It's not the hardships," Nordstrom testified he had said. "It's not the gunfire. It's not the threats. It's dealing and fighting against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And I added it by saying, 'For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.' "
Other State Department officials also say that the reliance on contracting created a weakened Diplomatic Security Service. They said department officials, short on staff and eager to reduce costs, nickeled-and-dimed DS security requests.
"That is not a DS-centric issue," said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That is a Department of State issue."
Democrats have blamed Republicans for the lack of funding. They point out that House Republicans rejected $450 million in administration requests for increased Diplomatic Security spending since 2010. They say Senate Democrats were able to restore a small part of the funding.
But these partisan charges and counter-charges ignore a basic truth. Resource shortages and a reliance on contractors caused bitter divisions between field officers in Benghazi and State Department managers in Washington.
One agent who served on the ground in Benghazi felt the compound needed five times as many Diplomatic Security agents, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official singled out Charlene Lamb, the Diplomatic Security Service official who oversees security in Washington, for criticism -- saying she rejected repeated requests for additional improvements in Benghazi.
These officials confirmed complaints from Lieutenant Colonel Andy Wood, the former head of a U.S. Special Forces "Site Security Team" in Tripoli, that Lamb urged them to reduce the numbers of American security personnel on the ground even as security worsened across Libya. Wood and his team left the country the month before the attack.
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."
Lamb's superior, David Kennedy, has defended her. He argued that a handful of additional Diplomatic Security guards in Benghazi - or the Special Forces team in Tripoli - would not have made a difference.
To date, no evidence has emerged that officials higher than Lamb or Kennedy were involved in the decision to reject the requests from Libya. Both are career civil servants, not Obama administration appointees.
There is a broader issue beyond the political blame game. Benghazi is a symptom of a brittle, over-stretched and under-funded State Department. Without being able to hire private contractors, the department provided too few guards and hoped a nearby CIA base or friendly Libyan militia would help them. An excellent recent report in the New York Times found that the U.S. military's Africa Command was under-resourced as well as unable to help.
The investigation by the Senate and House intelligence committees into whether or not the Obama administration misled Americans after the attack or altered intelligence should continue. But the core issue before the attack was a lack of resources and skilled management, not shadowy conspiracies.
Many factors caused the death of Stevens and the three other Americans. But in the partisan free-for-all now unfolding, this key factor must not be ignored.
This post also appears at Reuters.com, an Atlantic partnter site.