How to Balance Safety and Openness for America’s Diplomats

Foreign affairs professionals have faced disease, disaster, war, and terrorism over the last 234 years. How secure should today's officers be?
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The entrance to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where 63 people were being held hostage in 1980. (AP)

William Palfrey was the epitome of a patriot-diplomat. He had served as John Hancock’s chief clerk, and when American forces captured the British ship Nancy and its prized cargo of weapons during the Revolutionary War, General George Washington himself charged Palfrey with off-loading its contents. Washington then appointed Palfrey as paymaster-general of the continental army.

In 1780, Congress appointed Palfrey America’s first consul, our government’s first formal representative to another state, and in December of that year Palfrey set sail from Pennsylvania on the Shillala bound for Bordeaux. Yet, after a stop in Delaware, the 16-gun ship was never heard from again. America’s lone consul had been lost at sea.

Fast forward to August 2013. Intercepted messages from al-Qaeda operatives hinting at attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts lead the Obama Administration to temporarily close 22 U.S. embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa. Former U.S. ambassador Chris Hill called the move “unprecedented.” Twelve tanks formed a ring around the U.S. embassy in Yemen.

Clearly, much has changed since William Palfrey set sail 1780. Yet, the enduring question remains: How should America balance its need for diplomatic representation across the globe against the risks to the individuals charged with carrying out such work? The State Department Wall of Honor currently lists 244 names, and 30 more are currently being considered for inclusion. A closer examination of the 274 American diplomats and aid workers killed in the line of duty reveals some important implications for how we interact with the world.  

American foreign affairs during the 1800s were managed as a cottage industry, often conducted on an almost amateur scale. Consular positions were self-funding patronage jobs, and by the U.S. civil war, the State Department still only had 42 employees in Washington and another 280 abroad.

The initial fatalities of those working abroad, as tragic as they were, evince a certain bygone era of steamer trunks and wax-sealed dispatches. Joel Barlow, the U.S. minister to France, was summoned to meet with Napoleon in December of 1812 in what is now Lithuania, but when that meeting was canceled, Barlow got caught in the retreat of the French army and died of exposure in the Polish countryside. A handful of diplomats, including James Holden, John Meircken, and Edward Gardner, like William Palfrey, were lost at sea.

Thomas Prentis and Amedee Testart, along with 29,000 other souls, were consumed by the intense volcanic eruption of Mt. Pelee in Martinique in 1902. The eruption was so powerful that only two people survived the firestorm that consumed St. Pierre, a local shoemaker and a prisoner in the cavernous city jail. The prisoner later toured with the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Disease was the greatest threat to an American diplomat during the 1800s. The American Foreign Service memorial plaque in the lobby of the State Department that honors those Americans who lost their lives serving abroad reads like a journal of tropical disease. American diplomats were felled by Yellow Fever, Coast Fever, Tropical Fever, African Fever, cholera, smallpox, malaria, and unnamed epidemics. More than three-fifths of the U.S. diplomatic fatalities in the 19th century were caused by such illnesses.

But even during the 1800s, violence against American diplomats was not unheard of. In 1825, Harris Fudger, a U.S. consul in Colombia, was the first American diplomat to be murdered at post. A terse dispatch from the embassy noted that Fudger had been, “stabbed in the heart with his own sword, his throat cut and his trunks pillaged of their contents.” In 1888, Victor Stanwood, a U.S. consular agent operating on the west coast of Madagascar was killed by a buccaneer captain when Stanwood attempted to inspect his ship.

Several points are notable when looking at the data on Foreign-Service deaths from the twentieth century. The United States lost only a single diplomat due to enemy action during World War I, Robert McNeely who was aboard the British liner Persia when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat without warning in 1915. During World War II, the United States only suffered two fatalities related to combat. Henry Antheil Jr. was killed when the Finnish passenger plane he was aboard was shot down by the Soviet navy in June 1940. Antheil was carrying a trove of secret documents out of Estonia in anticipation of its annexation by the Soviets. Russ Engdahl, a U.S. consul in Shanghai, died of an accidental fall in a Japanese internment camp.

It was decided shortly after World War II that Marine guards should be deployed to select embassies, although their primary duty was to protect classified information and equipment rather than people.

No Foreign Service officers died as a result of hostile action during the Korean War.

The State Department had done an excellent job in mitigating the risks that had traditionally been killers of its personnel. Only two Foreign Service officers are listed as having been killed at post by disease after 1961. Only 10 U.S. diplomats are listed as having died in car accidents—an astoundingly low figure. On balance, a Foreign Service officer is actually less likely to die from an automobile accident abroad than they are in Washington.

Yet, the 20th century also marked the beginning of an era when U.S. diplomats were targeted directly because they were U.S. diplomats.

No single period stands out so glumly as Vietnam when looking at the history of lives lost. More than 40 U.S. diplomatic personnel lost their lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1960 and 1975. Almost three times as many diplomatic personnel were killed in the broader Vietnam theater than in the rest of America’s wars combined.

Why?

Vietnam was one of the largest ever deployments of civilian international affairs personnel, with officers from State and USAID used as the frontline implementers of a massive “pacification” program targeted at the South Vietnamese. Many of these officials were posted outside of Saigon in villages building schools and working on agricultural projects, and the Viet Cong viewing them as legitimate targets.

The leaderships of both State and USAID were appallingly opaque about the burgeoning death rates within their own ranks during Vietnam, and it wasn’t until 1972 that the State Department was willing to acknowledge to its own staff how many people had been killed in the field.

Foreign Service officers became increasingly vocal with their concerns about Vietnam, and junior officers quit the service at record rates. Some 50 Foreign Service officers wrote to Secretary of State William Rogers condemning Nixon’s 1970 decision to invade Cambodia, the largest ever such protest. When the contents of the letter leaked to the press, President Nixon placed a 2 a.m., profanity-laced call demanding that all the offending staffers be fired. They were not.

With the Cold War in full swing, the spike in political violence was not limited to Vietnam. John Gordon Mein became the first U.S. ambassador assassinated while in office, gunned down in Guatemala City by pro-Castro revolutionaries in August 1968. His death marked the beginning of a deadly 11-year stretch for U.S. ambassadors. In 1973, terrorists from the "Black September" faction of the PLO stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, taking U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel hostage and summarily executing him in the embassy basement. Slightly more than a year later, Rodger Davies, the U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, was killed by a burst of machine gun fire when the embassy was besieged Greek Cypriots angry with U.S. Cyprus policy.

In June 1976, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Francis Meloy was kidnapped and killed by the PLO as he crossed the “Green Line” that divided Beirut. Then in 1979, Ambassador Adolph Dubs was killed after being kidnapped by Islamic militants in Kabul when Afghan forces and their Soviet advisers stormed the Kabul Hotel where he was being held. The dismal decade ended with the 1979 seizure of 66 American hostages at the American embassy in Tehran. Although all were eventually released, the 444-day ordeal underscored that the concept of diplomatic immunity was increasingly hollow.

The worse was yet to come in an event whose fallout would mark an important shift in America’s diplomatic security posture. On April 18, 1983, a suicide van laden with a ton of explosives rammed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 86, including 17 Americans. Then, the U.S. marine barrack in Beirut was hit with an even larger car bomb on October 23, 1983, killing 241 Marines and sailors—the largest loss of life for the marines in a single day since Iwo Jima and one of the most blatant security failures of the modern era. 

Less than four months later, President Reagan withdrew U.S. forces from Beirut. Not only had terrorists learned they could kill significant numbers of Americans with asymmetrical tools, it was clear that such attacks could significantly alter U.S. policy.

In the wake of the Beirut bombings, the State Department assembled an accountability review board, chaired by retired Admiral Bobby Ray Inman. Its 1985 report pushed for a basic set of guidelines, or what came to be dubbed “the Inman standards:” All embassies should be set back at least 100 feet from the street and be located on plots of 15 acres or more—preferably outside of city centers. The prominent use of glass facades in buildings, which was once seen as being symbolic of America’s openness and transparency, was discouraged. The report urged overhauling 126 different posts around the globe. Although Congress blanched at the price tag of fully implementing the recommendations, it upped funding and staffing for embassy security considerably.

U.S. diplomatic outposts were becoming more hardened targets, and no U.S. diplomats were killed during 1986 or 1987.

Ambassador to Pakistan Arnold Raphel died in the 1988 plane crash that also killed Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq. An investigation by the Pakistani government claimed that a case of mangos aboard the plane may have been spiked with a nerve agent that was released mid-flight. A U.S. investigation blamed mechanical difficulties and inexperienced pilots. Neither theory felt entirely satisfying. Three officers from the State Department were killed in the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988, and another three died in the accidental 1989 plane crash in Ethiopia that killed Texas Congressman Mickey Leland as he traveled to a refugee camp.

There were six deaths as a result of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, with three people dying after their armored personnel carrier crashed on an icy road in Bosnia in 1995, and three more perishing in the plane crash that killed Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown as he flew into Dubrovnik in 1996.

The relative lull in major attacks, coupled with reduced foreign affairs spending during the 1990s, led to a drift in attention away from security. Then on August 7, 1998, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were hit with twin car bomb attacks. The blast in Nairobi could be heard 10 miles away.

Twelve Americans were killed in the attack masterminded by Osama bin Laden, eight of whom appear on the wall of honor. The Africa embassy bombings quickly prompted an accountability review board chaired by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs William Crowe. The bottom line: 80 percent of facilities around the globe still did not fully meet the Inman standards. Spending spigots reopened, and Congress approved a five-year, $4.5 billion plan to upgrade embassy security.  

But even as new walls were being built, there was a growing undercurrent of pushback. Many feared that embassies were being transformed into “Fortress Americas.” Being removed from city centers meant embassies were no longer enmeshed in a country’s cultural and social life. Getting through security at new, post-Inman U.S. embassies became a time-consuming, and sometimes humiliating, ordeal. Tighter security restrictions also made it harder for diplomats and aid officials to get out in the country, and diplomats that were locked away were very unlikely to accurately predict which way the political winds were blowing in any given country.

Then came September 11, 2001. Before long, the United States was engaged in two major land wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. State and USAID were deployed alongside the U.S. military in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, Kabul, and Kandahar.

Fatalities among foreign affairs personnel remained low during the post-September 11 period, surprising given the waves of car bombs in Baghdad and the roiling conflict in Afghanistan. Six names were added to the wall of honor as a result of deaths in Iraq and three from Afghanistan. By comparison, more than 4,400 U.S. service-members were killed in Iraq and more than 2,270 in Afghanistan.

State and USAID have done stellar job in protecting their work forces during this perilous period of American international engagement. But this increased security is expensive. In 1998, the diplomatic security budget was $200 million; by 2012 it had leapt to $2.6 billion. That is a more than 1,000 percent increase in 14 years.

Enter Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others were killed in a terrorist attack on September 11, 2012. Much of the subsequent confusion about the particulars of the attack stemmed from the fact that Stevens was in Benghazi for an intelligence community meeting. While it is natural that conspiracy theories would erupt from lives lost in such circumstances, the long history of Foreign Service incidents makes it obvious that the hue and cry over Benghazi was as partisan as it was hyperventilated. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of California has held multiple hearings on the topic, but as one Foreign Service officer observed to me, “Issa could not have cared less about the Foreign Service,” before Benghazi.

The fact is, working and traveling abroad carries risk. Since 1999, the United States has suffered, on average, 1.5 fatalities a year among its foreign affairs workforce— and that is a period during two ground wars and a global offensive against al-Qaeda. That rate of fatalities is five times that faced by a normal desk worker in the United States today. It translates to almost exactly the same fatality rate as the domestic construction industry, an enterprise that we think of as routinely hazardous, but not on a catastrophic scale.

Since William Palfrey died 234 years ago, there have been 133 different years where there were no deaths of international workers cited on the wall of honor, including six years since 1990. These comparisons are not meant to either minimize or sensationalize the risks of being an American diplomat, but to put them in perspective. 

The new U.S. embassy in Iraq is the logical extreme of America’s new approach. The $750 million embassy sits on 104 acres—a plot of land larger than the Vatican—and is the largest and most expensive U.S. embassy ever built. Its complex includes six apartment buildings and a shopping mall. As architectural historian Jane Loeffler observed, “Although the U.S. Government regularly proclaims confidence in Iraq’s democratic future, the U.S. has designed an embassy that conveys no confidence in Iraqis and little hope for their future.”

All of this is potentially a trap for American diplomacy. U.S. embassies feel more and more like military bases. These citadels of jersey barriers and bulletproof glass have become symbolic representations of an over-muscled hegemon that spares no expense to protect its own citizens. Both the Foreign Service and the American public seem far more accepting of risk than Congress, and it is cruel irony that many of the young Foreign Service officers who flocked to the State Department after September 11—fully accepting the risk—are now being treated like Peace Corps volunteers away from home for the first time.

So what is to be done?

There have been useful steps since Benghazi. Efforts are underway to review the role of marines at embassies, and a similar look should be taken at the design of accountability review boards. The State Department seems determined to get away from the cookie-cutter approach to embassy security, recognizing that getting threat assessments right demands a regular, and highly contextualized, discussion at senior levels. In some instances, these discussions may determine that conditions on the ground are too hazardous for a traditional diplomatic presence or that local forces are not sufficiently reliable to provide the additional force protection upon which most embassies and consulates rely when things take a turn for the worse. In other cases, smaller, more flexible diplomatic teams might offer a better solution for working in chaotic environments because they require less fortification and can often provide superior political and economic reporting than more static missions.

But right now the greatest challenge is a Congress that whipsaws between ignoring the Foreign Service and scapegoating it after disasters, effectively pushing the State Department toward a zero risk approach that will trap American diplomacy in a hermetic bubble. As one former ambassador argued to me, “If the American public is willing to take a certain number of casualties to promote our interests overseas—and I believe the answer to that question is “yes”—that message needs to be conveyed to the State Department.”

William Palfrey knew full well that a sea voyage to France in 1780 was a hazardous affair. He still got on the ship.

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John Norris is the executive director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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