The first line of defense for each U.S. Embassy is the host nation. If the local populace, as in Egypt, makes it onto Embassy property, particularly in the Middle East, then in many cases it is because the host nation allowed such a lapse in security or their own security arrangements were inadequate. It has been acknowledged by the State Department that local militia had been hired in Benghazi as one element of protection because of the inadequacy of Libyan security.
Security at the embassy is the responsibility of the Regional Security Officer who is a member of the State Department and a member of the embassy staff. A common misunderstanding is that the Marines guard our embassies. They are armed. However, their primary responsibility is protecting classified material and they come under the operational control of the RSO for that mission.
Which segues into what is the role of the Defense Department in guarding embassies and consulates? It depends on each embassy and the ability of the combatant commanders to support any contingency plan to protect an embassy. Our military simply does not have the capability to defend every embassy. As to the military offices in the embassy, the two main ones — the security assistance and defense attaché offices (I have worked in both) report to two separate military organizations. These offices are administrative in nature and have no offensive or defensive capabilities.
There are support teams from our operational forces that can augment security at an embassy. However, unless they are coincidentally in country on a mission, the delay (and confusion) surrounding the military deployment to Benghazi is the norm not the exception. There seems to be an assumption by many that we have forces stationed throughout Europe and Africa that can be repositioned like chess pieces. Many would be surprised by the impact that sourcing troops for the Iraqi and Afghanistan wars has had on our operational reach as have drawn down our military forces since the Wall fell.
Fourthly, there is no shortage of information at each embassy about potential threats. As the senior defense representative in the Embassy, I had access to hundreds of pages of intelligence analysis and raw data. The fundamental question was and is: What are the enemy’s intentions? Good luck with that, as we have seen before and after 9/11.
The operative questions regarding Benghazi surround the embassy’s threat assessment and its plan to address the known challenges. Whatever the nature of the plan, it was clearly overtaken by events. The focus of any hearing should be on measures to prevent this from happening again.
Much has been made that Ambassador Stevens sent cables expressing concern about the security situation in Libya. If his concern was that great, why did he exchange the relative safety of the Embassy in Tripoli for the acknowledged exposed facility at Benghazi? While some see a sinister conspiracy directed from Washington, I like to believe that he did so for the same reason that our troops leave the safety of their base camps — because you don’t win this kind of war by sitting in your castle. That he and others were ambushed and died in Benghazi speaks to the asymmetric nature of this war, where every American is considered a legitimate target by Islamic terrorists. The ambassador took a measured risk and he guessed wrong. The four men died as casualties of war and their deaths are just as tragic as all the others in this global conflict.
Is the president lying about what happened at Benghazi? Gosh, really? You think? Eisenhower lied about the U-2, Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon lied about Watergate, Reagan lied about selling military equipment to the Iranians, and Clinton lied about Monica.
More exasperating is the insensitivity and ineptness of the White House cover story about the events in Benghazi. Calling the tragedy at Benghazi a bump in the road goes beyond the pale of decency, even by Washington political standards. My sense is that nobody saw any possibility of this outcome, which reflects badly on everyone from the president on down to his cabinet and agency members who have offices in the Embassy. This is even more damning if the Benghazi meeting was a cover for a covert operation.
Now the rats are abandoning a sinking ship and distancing themselves from the White House story. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that DoD started cold that night and the CIA has taken the remarkable step of outing its fallen members who died.
There is no unity to the message coming out of Washington because I believe there was no unified plan for going into Benghazi. That alone speaks to the complacency of all involved. For that people should be held accountable.
Probably the most surprised group that night was the al-Qaida cell which could not believe the gift horse they were given in a virtually unprotected high-value American asset.
The hearings this week are an opportunity for Congress to separate fact from fiction. CIA Director David Petraeus’ resignation so close to the hearings darkens already murky waters. Petraeus’ conduct may or may not have influenced his judgment on Benghazi but that should only be one element of the main effort in unraveling ground truth that night of Sept. 11 in the American consulate.
We lost this battle. We should honor the heroes in this fight by affording them the right to lie in peace at Arlington National Cemetery and ensuring as part of their legacy that we learned from their sacrifices.
Mike Boyce is a retired Marine colonel and lives in east Cobb.