Dan K. Thomasson
---- — Before we argue over whether Mitt Romney misspoke about Libya in Tuesday’s debate, we need to parse the meaning of what President Barack Obama said immediately after the Sept. 11 incident that claimed the lives of ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Romney said the administration waited nearly two weeks to acknowledge that terrorists, not demonstrators, carried out the assault on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi. He was corrected by the president, and by debate moderator Candy Crowley, who said the president stated almost immediately during a Rose Garden appearance that it was “an act of terror.”
Technically, that is true. But an examination of Obama’s words reveal that it was a general statement based on the belief that any such incident — including one resulting from a protest that spontaneously turned violent — is such an act.
What the president apparently did not know at the time, nor did his administration concede for days, was that there was no demonstration against an anti-Muslim video. This was, in fact, a carefully planned operation by al-Qaida terrorists.
Why did it take so long for the administration to change its story? Who knows and who cares? Where Obama, and more specifically the State Department, are vulnerable is the lax security that resulted in a tragedy — one that cost the lives of four Americans, including a highly praised diplomat whose popularity in Libya was extensive. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quick to realize this, and claim responsibility.
The situation was made worse by the fact that department security officers testifying before Congress have said they had asked for beefed up forces to ward off just such an assault and were refused. It clearly was an incident that might have turned out differently. The president said he immediately ordered improved security for all embassies, a move that can only be described as the usual closing of the barn door after the horse has fled — a philosophy that seems to permeate most of what happens here these days, from Capitol Hill to the White House.
One need only look at the history of the elite Bureau of Diplomatic Security, part of the State Department, to understand that the attitude among the striped-pants set toward DS — professionalized since the 1980s — far too often has been disdain. Though the department recruited bright young people and gave them extensive training in security and protective services, the efforts were frequently impeded by the Foreign Service hierarchy.
The department initially insisted on filling key oversight positions — from the director down to those in charge of on site embassy security — with career diplomats who had little or no security experience. DS agents, trained alongside Secret Service and other law enforcement agents, were often armed with considerably less than what was necessary to hold off an attack by assailants.
My son was in DS in the 1980s, just as it was being upgraded, and was assigned to protect the Israeli ambassador to the United States. He confided that he’d told the ambassador, in case of an incident, to “run like hell” while he would try to hold back any attackers with what seemed insufficient firepower. The ambassador, shaken by the revelation, was instrumental in having the weapons upgraded.
Later, my son was sent to oversee security procedures during construction of an important listening-post embassy. He was appalled by the lack of clearances for workers and the minimal procedures to prevent the building from being riddled with intelligence bugs and other devices. He immediately shut down the work site, and the career ambassador threatened him with recall. Fortunately, the secretary of state sent a note personally rebuking the ambassador.
In later years, DS, still understaffed, has used outside security contractors to fill the gaps. Actions by some of these contractors have produced controversies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So it is no wonder that an ambassador’s post in the tinderbox of the Middle East and other unstable areas has become so dangerous in this age of terrorism. Planned or spontaneous, it is, as Obama said, “an act of terror.”
Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.