By Spencer Ackerman/
A diplomatic security agent, right, ushers U.S. diplomats from a helicopter in Afghanistan, 2011. Photo: Department of State
U.S. embassy security in the post-Benghazi era is shaping up to be a financial bonanza for security contractors. It’s not necessarily going to look like the ‘roided-out era in which the firm formerly known as Blackwater and its ilk paraded diplomats through dangerous thoroughfares with specialty rifles in tow. But any company that can provide the State Department with either armed guards, surveillance tools or hardened facilities would be smart to practice its elevator pitch.
The scope of the bonanza isn’t yet clear, especially concerning how much of a likely cash infusion at the State Department will go to private security contractors. And the rebranded company Academi doesn’t do nearly the amount of business with State that it did under its old Blackwater incarnation, and so we’re just using its old moniker as a placeholder here. But both the influential independent commission on the September attacks in Benghazi and a Senate hearing on Thursday pointed to flooding the State Department’s security corps with money. And one of the key post-Benghazi decisions the next secretary of state will make is whether to continue spending that cash on hired guards or to bolster the ranks of State Department employees that protect diplomats themselves.
The Benghazi commission, run by former Amb. Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen, recommended spending an additional $2.2 billion over the next decade on “construction of new facilities in high risk, high threat areas.” It also urged using emergency war funding to finance “respond[ing] to emerging security threats and vulnerabilities and operational requirements” in dangerous postings. Ironically, even while the commission blasted the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for inadequately protecting the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, its recommendations will line the bureau’s coffers.
At the State Department, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton asked Congress to reroute $1.3 billion in unspent Iraq reconstruction cash for enhancing embassy security. According to congressional sources who’ve seen the request, that cash takes a variety of forms: hiring 150 more Diplomatic Security agents for the State Department; funding an additional deployment of 225 Marines comprising 35 teams; and approximately $700 million to bolster the exterior defenses of its diplomatic buildings. A letter Clinton sent to her legislative oversight committees urged legislators give her “authority to streamline mandatory processes for faster results.” The Sex Pistols called it Cash From Chaos; the diplomatic corps prefers more bureaucratic language.
Those calls for added cash were blessed by a key legislative panel, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at a Friday hearing. Senators of both parties repeated the mantra “resources matter” and decried recent cuts in the State Department’s operations budget, a perspective cheered by Clinton deputies Thomas Nides and William Burns. “Just to build a wall at an embassy could potentially take months to go through a contracting process,” Nides lamented.
Most U.S. diplomatic facilities are secured by personnel run by the governments that host them, an obligation under an international pact known as the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Some senators on the panel expressed discomfort with it, particularly after learning that the Benghazi complex was secured by unarmed employees of a British security firm and by a Libyan militia that proved unreliable. “Generally, these people are confused, said Sen. James Risch (R-Id.), who said he got a “real sense of incompetence” from foreign guards. Nides and Black pledged that a revamped team at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security was taking a look at the “capacity” of local forces in “high risk” environments to adequately protect U.S. diplomats.
This is a crucial moment for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. When it doesn’t depend on local guards to protect embassies, it depends on private security contractor in dangerous places. Numerous internal State Department studies have faulted the bureau for lax oversight of those contractors, which has led to dead local civilians and wasted money. And it’s not just the bureau: its ultimate boss, Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, blocked Congress’ Iraq watchdog from learning even basic facts about its hired army in Iraq. The bureau may have been burned by the Benghazi commission, but it’s about to have a lot more cash on its hands.
But if there was ever a time for Diplomatic Security to reform, it’s now, after its four top leaders resigned over their Benghazi performance. In addition to hiring new Diplomatic Security agents, Clinton has set up a new position in the department to oversee how it protects State’s most dangerous outposts. Congressional sources say that the biggest opportunity for post-Benghazi contract cash is in the construction windfall for bolstering embassy perimeter security and installing better spy equipment. If the bureau opts to train and deploy more of its own agents to protect diplomats instead of hiring guards, it would mark a major departure for the State Department.
That’s a departure that seemed to weigh heavily on the Senate panel chairman, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Kerry threw his support for having an “expeditionary diplomatic corps” that goes “outside the wire” to connect with locals in far-flung places. But he worried about the “unmistakable stare” from distrustful locals “as you pass through a village with masses of guns and big armored personnel carriers and Humvees.” What he didn’t say is that that’s how U.S. diplomats pass through those villages: in armored SUVs full of men in wraparound shades and carrying rifles. With Kerry likely to be nominated as secretary of state, he’ll decide how comfortable he is with State’s history of using those contractors to keep his diplomats safe — especially since he’s likely to have a lot more cash in a chaotic world to spend on security.