Benghazi's Lesson: Diplomacy Can't Be Done on the Cheap

A primary reason why the U.S. consulate was unable to defend itself? The State Department is under-resourced.

RTR3AHBO-615.jpgLarry 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.' "

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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