The New York Times' investigative reporter, James Risen, looks into the real wrangle about the attacks on the Benghazi embassy. What's going on here is a three-way battle. Over here we have the State Department stretched thin by a Republican Congress; over there is a diplomatic corps which is frustrated by and protesting against increasing security; and, finally, over there is also an understandable detestation -- on the ground in the Middle East and North Africa -- for America's private security contractors. Can you blame them?
The Benghazi attacks, in which the United States ambassador and three other Americans were killed, comes at the end of a 10-year period in which the State Department — sending its employees into a lengthening list of war zones and volatile regions — has regularly ratcheted up security for its diplomats. The aggressive measures used by private contractors eventually led to shootings in Afghanistan and Iraq that provoked protests, including an episode involving guards from an American security company, Blackwater, that left at least 17 Iraqis dead in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
The ghosts of that shooting clearly hung over Benghazi. Earlier this year, the new Libyan government had expressly barred Blackwater-style armed contractors from flooding into the country. “The Libyans were not keen to have boots on the ground,” one senior State Department official said. That forced the State Department to rely largely on its own diplomatic security arm, which officials have said lacks the resources to provide adequate protection in war zones. ...NYT
So all of this began during the Bush administration. Now, while a resentful, Republican-led committee is trying to force the issue of security for its own political reasons, diplomats themselves are trying to protect their jobs from virtual lock-down.
“The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker,” Eric A. Nordstrom, who until earlier this year served as the chief security officer at the United States Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, told the committee.
Barbara K. Bodine, who served as ambassador to Yemen when the destroyer Cole was bombed in 2000, said: “What we need is a policy of risk management, but what we have now is a policy of risk avoidance. Nobody wants to take responsibility in case something happens, so nobody is willing to have a debate over what is reasonable security and what is excessive.”...NYT
Some private contractors hoped to get around the ban. One company told the Times that they had appealed directedly to the ambassador, Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the attack.
The large private security firms that have protected American diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan sought State Department contracts in Libya, and at least one made a personal pitch to the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the militants’ attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to a senior official at one firm.
But given the Libyan edict banning the contractors, the Obama administration was eager to reduce the American footprint there. After initially soliciting bids from major security companies for work in Libya, State Department officials never followed through.
“We went in to make a pitch, and nothing happened,” said the security firm official. He said the State Department could have found a way around the Libyans’ objections if it had wanted to....NYT
The ban on America's private contractors complicates the issue. And you can bet it greatly annoys members of Congress whose campaign chests accepted contributions from the likes of Blackwater and Dyncorp, notorious and often out-of-control, secretive contractors who regularly bullied (and occasionally murdered) the local people.
... Many diplomats say the fortified embassies make it difficult for them to do their jobs, forcing them to find ways around them. Ronald E. Neumann, who served as the ambassador in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and who worked in Baghdad before that, said that many foreign officials refuse to come into American Embassies because they are insulted by the intrusive security measures, and they do not want American officials coming to their homes with huge convoys. ...NYT
In the end, this comes down to a political wrangle on two fronts. One is the obvious one: members of Congress profit from their support of private contractors of all kinds. They profit from direct contributions; they profit politically from arranging government contracts for businesses in their home states.
Then there's the matter of the "small footprint" the Obama administration wants for all American government activities overseas. That respect for other nations' sovereignty doesn't go down well with the right and its supporters within the defense industry.