Saturday, January 20, 2018
Editorials

More work needed to protect America's diplomats

The report on September's deadly attack against the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya shows a breakdown in judgment and follow-through up and down the line. Wednesday's resignation of three senior State Department officials was an appropriate first step. The Obama administration and Congress now need to fund and implement tighter security procedures to better protect U.S. diplomats working in dangerous spots around the globe.

An unclassified version of the report offers no real surprises. But the investigating panel, headed by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and the former Joint Chiefs chairman, retired Adm. Michael Mullen, detailed the many red flags that went ignored by Washington more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The panel found that officials in Washington brushed aside repeated requests by embassy staff in Libya to boost security at the mission in Benghazi. The mission's uncertain future after 2012, the relative inexperience of its staff and the risky security conditions that personnel there accepted as part of their routine combined to gloss over the seriousness of what the panel found was a "grossly inadequate" security situation.

The investigation firmed up the findings that the attack was a terrorist act, not the outcropping of a street protest against a U.S.-made, anti-Islam video, as some in the administration — notably U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice — initially suggested in public remarks. Rice appropriately withdrew from consideration for secretary of state after congressional Republicans criticized her statements on the Sunday talk shows and withheld their support. Rice was a qualified candidate, but there are other qualified candidates for secretary of state, and it would have been unwise for Obama to spend the political capital necessary to win Rice's Senate confirmation.

The report does not name who killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, which is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation. It did not single out any official for discipline. The panel found that Stevens was widely known among the disparate militias that coalesced to oust Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from power. He had a penchant for traveling freely inside the country and the latitude from Washington to do so. But that further calls into question why the department did not better protect embassy staff, especially as the security environment deteriorated in Benghazi during 2012.

Wednesday's resignation of the State Department's top embassy security officials provides the opportunity to take a fresh look at the needs at America's outposts abroad. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a letter to Congress on Tuesday that she accepted all of the panel's two dozen recommendations, from replacing local security teams in host countries with Marines and U.S.-staffed guards to hardening diplomatic sites and upgrading communications.

The department should make a priority of commissioning an outside panel to review embassy security worldwide and to align needed improvements with a capital construction plan for Congress. Foreign service officers accept that the nature of diplomatic work involves personal risk. But that does not absolve the nation from providing an appropriate level of protection to those in its service abroad with U.S. security teams, not local security guards whose allegiances can quickly shift when violence erupts.

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