Shutdown undermines embassy protection

October 3, 2013

The federal shutdown has disrupted a training program for diplomatic security officers that was ramped up after last year’s attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. officials confirmed Thursday.

The prolonged closing of a key training facility could mean significant delays in efforts to beef up protection for U.S. diplomats abroad, enhancements that were ordered after an independent review board criticized the State Department for its handling of the Sept. 11, 2012 attack, officials said.

The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, a facility operated by the Department of Homeland Security in Glynco, Ga., was shuttered Tuesday due to the congressional deadlock over spending. The center provides initial criminal justice instruction for recruits to the Diplomatic Security Service, whose agents protect the State Department’s missions and personnel around the world.

The halting of training for new agents comes on top of forced furloughs for intelligence personnel involved in assessing security threats against Americans, administration officials said. Intelligence officials revealed this week that 72 percent of the intelligence community’s civilian workforce has been idled by the government shutdown.

A senior administration official, describing internal assessments of the furloughs’ impact, cited concerns about potential damage to the State Department’s ability to “look over the horizon and see threats” if the shutdown continues.

“The shutdown has created new vulnerabilities in an already risky world,” said the official, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. The official noted that lawmakers who heavily criticized the State Department for security lapses during the Benghazi attacks have helped precipitate a financial crisis that undermines efforts to safeguard diplomats against terrorism.

“They are playing Russian roulette with our national security by forcing the furloughs of members of the intelligence community and closing schools that train the diplomatic security personnel necessary to reduce the chances of another Benghazi,” the official said.

A State Department official, who also insisted on anonymity to discuss security for department personnel, stressed that protections for employees would not be allowed to slip. “There is no scenario where the responsibility of protecting national security and the health and safety of U.S. citizens can be allowed to diminish,” the official said.

Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, were killed on Sept. 11, 2012, when a heavily armed group attacked a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The Obama administration’s handling of the attack became a prominent issue in the U.S. presidential campaign in the months that followed.

In another casualty of the budget crisis, administration officials confirmed the near shutdown of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control, the agency that administers U.S. economic sanctions against Iran and Syria, as well as terrorist organizations.

Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, told a Senate panel Thursday that the sanctions-monitoring agency was “utterly depleted.” Of 175 employees, all but 11 have been furloughed. The agency also is responsible for uncovering money-laundering and other activities that can undermine the U.S. financial system.

“We will do our best to enforce these sanctions, to stop sanctions evaders, but I sincerely hope that the shutdown ends soon,” Sherman said at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Joby Warrick joined the Post’s national staff in 1996. He has covered national security, intelligence and the Middle East, and currently writes about the environment.
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