Within hours of learning about the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, President Barack Obama ordered tighter security at diplomatic posts around the world.
While 50 Marines were sent to Libya, even the increased military presence can’t guarantee security for U.S. personnel, according to veteran diplomats such as Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia.
“They’re not bodyguards,” Murphy said in an interview yesterday, referring to the Marines who stand guard at U.S. embassies. “Their mission is to safeguard the classified material.”
When it comes to providing security for U.S. embassies and consulates, the U.S. doesn’t have sole responsibility.
The 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations established that the host country of an embassy or consulate “is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage.”
In the case of Libya’s government, Murphy said, “They were not up to the job.”
The U.S. bolsters local security with its own forces. The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which protects U.S. personnel on official duty abroad, has almost 800 special agents at more than 250 posts worldwide, according to the State Department’s website.
The Marines provide internal protection for U.S. diplomatic posts “to prevent the compromise of classified material vital to the national security of the United States,” said Captain Gregory Wolf, a Marine spokesman. The Marines also can provide protection for U.S. citizens and property during “urgent temporary circumstances which require immediate aid or action,” he said.
Marines aren’t always stationed at consulates. There were none at the Benghazi consulate in Libya at the time of the deadly attack by protesters two days ago, according to a defense official who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
“The plain fact is we can’t have an army at every diplomatic establishment in the world,” said David Mack, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs who has served in diplomatic posts across the Middle East and North Africa, including Libya.
The best-known breach of U.S. diplomatic security came in 1979, when militant Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. The crisis contributed to the defeat of Democratic President Jimmy Carter by Republican Ronald Reagan.
Also in 1979, the U.S. embassy in Pakistan was stormed by a mob, which set the building on fire and forced the staff and some family members into a vault. The Pakistani security forces didn’t intervene.
In the case of Benghazi, there were signs of growing unrest in the region in the weeks leading up to the attack.
The British ambassador to Libya was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade fired by unknown assailants while riding in a convoy on a visit to Benghazi in June. While the ambassador was unharmed, the U.K. closed its diplomatic office in Benghazi and withdrew its staff.
All U.S. embassies were ordered to conduct a security review in preparation for the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and were told to enhance their security if needed, according to a senior administration official who briefed reporters yesterday on condition of anonymity.
Security at the Libyan facilities was considered adequate, the official said.
Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House intelligence committee, told CNN there was no sign of intelligence “chatter” leading up to the Benghazi consulate attack that would have warned U.S. officials to take extra precautions.
While the U.S. could have followed the British lead in closing its consulate in eastern Libya, Mack and Murphy said such a move would be a mistake.
“This would be a terrible time to do it,” Mack said. “Libyans are in the middle of settling major constitutional issues.” Closing the consulate would be seen “as taking a side in the formation of a government and the constitution of the country,” he said.
The State Department has wrestled for decades with how to build embassies that are both safe and accessible to the public.
After the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing in Lebanon that killed more than 200 U.S. military personnel, “We sort of established Beirut rules for every embassy in the world,” Mack said. “It led to building a lot of fortress-like embassies on the top of a hill. They’re very off-putting. It does not create an environment where local people feel comfortable coming to a meeting at the embassy.”
When it comes to security at consulates, Murphy said, “Generally speaking, they don’t get much.”