Seven months after the deadly terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department says it has reorganized itself so that security concerns rise more quickly to the top and risks are more thoroughly assessed.
But some of the most substantive changes promised in the wake of the attack — including more Marines to protect U.S. embassies, a bigger diplomatic security staff, and more reliable local guards and translators for high-risk posts — will not take effect for months or even years.
The FBI says its investigation of the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, remains open and ongoing, but reports no substantive progress. Some congressional Republicans say they are still convinced of an administration conspiracy to withhold information about it and prevent survivors from talking.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, whose budget testimony Wednesday will mark his first appearance before Congress since taking office, plans to tell lawmakers that the department has taken action on all 24 recommendations made by an independent board that reviewed the Benghazi incident, a senior administration official said.
But the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity before Kerry’s public statement, drew a distinction between those matters that have been resolved and those on which implementation has barely begun.
“Some take some time to accomplish,” the official said.
Assessment teams that traveled the world after Benghazi have taken some embassies off a list of 19 posts previously designated “high-risk,” and they have added new ones. Of 285 embassies and consulates, those deemed high-risk now number in the 20s.
The senior official said the new listings were primarily in Africa and the Middle East, but declined to identify them, adding: “We don’t want a blueprint saying here are the places the State Department is most worried about.”
Internal actions already taken include appointment of a new deputy assistant secretary for high-threat posts, whose job is to keep track of the sort of threats that eluded senior officials before the Benghazi attack.
The head of the department’s diplomatic security service resigned amid criticism after the attack in Benghazi. Gregory B. Starr, a former senior security official, was brought back from a job at the United Nations to serve as acting director.
Roving security teams will regularly visit diplomatic posts for security and technology updates, and tours of duty for permanent and temporary security staff members in high-threat posts have been extended to allow for more in-country familiarity.
Anything that required “signing a piece of paper, and it’s done,” the official said, has been accomplished. Recommendations that require money, agreements with other government departments or additional personnel, however, have been more complicated to implement.
Even improvements in fire safety — recommended by previous security reviews over the past decades — remain a work in progress. Stevens, who took refuge in a safe room in Benghazi, died of smoke inhalation after attacking terrorists set the compound ablaze.
Indoor sprinkler systems are required for all new State Department construction, and they have been installed at 75 new and existing installations over the past decade. But older buildings are more problematic.
In addition to piping, “you have to have a huge cistern to hold enough water, a feed to that, a huge fire pump,” the senior official said. “Then you’ve got to have assured electricity, [and] a separate generator. If you say to me you have to be in Xanadu tomorrow, I’ll do it. But I’m not going to get you into a sprinklered building tomorrow.”
“It takes money, first of all,” the official said. “The budget the State Department receives is what it is.”
Congress responded rapidly to then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s post-Benghazi request for funds. Money was transferred from less vital Iraq accounts and an additional $1.4 billion was approved in the fiscal 2013 continuing resolution.
President Obama requested $4 billion in State Department security funds for fiscal 2014, including $2.2 billion for capital construction. Building schedules have been advanced and rejiggered to prioritize secure facilities in risky locations such as Lebanon, Mauritania, Chad, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
Once funding was approved, plans to hire up to 151 new diplomatic security agents and technology specialists could go forward. But recruitment takes time. The review board recommended increased language training for agents, especially in Arabic, which takes a minimum of one year and preferably two.
Under international conventions, foreign governments guarantee to keep embassies and consulates safe, and the State Department hires local guards to secure the perimeters of its overseas facilities. Both systems failed in Benghazi, where the disorganized government was incapable of aiding the compound and local security guards ran away.
The State Department has promised to improve its hiring and supervision of local guards, but says it remains hobbled by regulations that require it to accept contract bids offering the lowest price rather than the best-trained and most experienced personnel.
In her January testimony on Benghazi, Clinton said she had asked the Defense Department to “dispatch hundreds of additional Marine guards” to overseas diplomatic outposts. Her deputy, Thomas Nides, testified that “we’re partnering with the Pentagon to send 35 additional detachments of Marine security guards — that’s about 225 Marines — to medium- and high-threat posts.”
Marine teams as small as six and as large as a dozen serve at 150 locations, including embassies and such installations as the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany.
But a Marine spokesman said the Corps was still analyzing the State Department request to determine whether more guards could be provided “without degrading the readiness of the Marine Corps.” Any additional personnel, Capt. Gregory A. Wolf said, “would be authorized beginning Oct. 1, 2013, taking approximately three years to staff . . . identified Department of State overseas facilities.”
A senior Marine official noted that the Marine budget and force strength are being cut and that “in a prioritized list of where we want to add,” the service’s 1,200-member guard unit does not rank high.
Plans to reposition other U.S. military assets closer to high-threat diplomatic facilities remain mired in similar budget and personnel quandaries.
Many Marines who have spent years on dry land in Iraq and Afghanistan “have never set foot on a Navy ship” and are eager to go to sea, a senior Navy official said. The Marine commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, recently told the Wall Street Journal that he hopes to position Special Forces units on ships that regularly sail high-threat zones, where they could provide the kind of rapid-reaction assistance that was unavailable for Benghazi.
“We’re talking to them, but there are only so many ships and planes and bases that they have,” the senior administration official said.
“We plan, we work, we do all those things. But distances are distances,” the official said. “There are lots of American embassies that are thousands of miles away from the nearest military facility. That is simply a fact.”