Commentary Magazine


The Unanswered Questions on Libya Attack

As Americans mourn the loss of our ambassador in Libya and three of his colleagues, the circumstances of their demise remain murky. Some accounts suggest there was a spontaneous demonstration at the Benghazi consulate followed by a well-executed ambush against consulate personnel while they were being evacuated; other accounts suggest that the initial assault was not the result of demonstrations but planned by a jihadist group in advance. Whatever the case, the situation raises an obvious question: Why didn’t the consulate have better protection, especially given the presence there of Ambassador Chris Stevens? Was there an intelligence failure, a failure of security, or simply a “perfect storm” that could not have reasonably been anticipated? These are all questions that both the State Department and Congress need to probe, and urgently, because of the continuing threat against American outposts in the Middle East.

In general, the State Department has done an excellent job of protecting its ambassadors and other diplomatic personnel–not a single senior diplomat has been killed so far in either Iraq or Afghanistan, notwithstanding numerous plots aimed at doing just that. Partly this is a matter of serendipity, but it’s also a tribute to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the private security contractors it has hired, including the now-notorious Blackwater. In my experience traveling around the Middle East, Regional Security Officers–the officials responsible for security in each embassy–tend to err on the side of caution, so much so that their desire to protect their charges often makes it hard to conduct the outreach with the local community needed for successful diplomatic initiatives. That makes it all the more surprising that Ambassador Stevens did not have more protection.

The decision to deploy some extra Marines to Yemen and Libya, among other places, is a good one but that’s only a temporary fix since, contrary to myth, Marines are seldom the main security force at a diplomatic installation and they seldom if ever provide personal security to the “principals,” such as Ambassadors. The Marine presence is important but in most cases symbolic since the bulk of exterior security is normally provided by local contractors and local security forces and personal security details for the ambassador and other senior figures are provided by diplomatic security agents and foreign contractors. Those are the areas that need examination, including examining the possibility that Libyan jihadists may have infiltrated either the consulate’s guard force or the local security establishment. Washington needs to figure out why the Benghazi security setup was so flawed and fix the shortcomings ASAP