Amidst the election year political posturing about who knew and said what when in regard to security precautions for our diplomats in Libya, we need to stop, take a deep breath, and figure out what went wrong and why.  And we need to come to grips with the fact that we can mitigate risk to our diplomatic staffs overseas but can never eliminate it, unless we decide to withdraw from an active role in the world.

I learned these lessons the hard way on October 15, 2003, when terrorists blew up a massive bomb under a convoy of American diplomats traveling through the Gaza Strip. Three contract security personnel were killed; the killers have yet to be brought to justice. The security team was protecting embassy staff members who were going into Gaza to interview candidates for the prestigious Fulbright exchange program.

As deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Tel Aviv at the time, one of my jobs was to oversee the security of our diplomatic staff and their families. And it was a big part of the job since we had a large and extraordinarily busy mission operating in Israel during the second Intifada. At that time, the embassy also was responsible for carrying out our diplomatic work with Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.  We knew this was a dangerous mission and we took elaborate security precautions that went well beyond simply assigning security teams to our small convoys

Before those convoys left Tel Aviv, the embassy’s security office checked in with our intelligence colleagues in the mission to find out if there was any information indicating a heightened threat, they consulted Israeli and Palestinian security officials for their views on the situation on the ground. They also analyzed any unrest that was taking place and made sure they had a full understanding of exactly what the specific mission entailed. Every trip to Gaza had to be signed off by me or the ambassador, and some did not pass the test. But this system failed us on that October morning.     

As we mourned the loss of our three colleagues, we immediately halted operations in Gaza and began to analyze what we might have missed that would have indicated there was something different about the security conditions facing the targeted convoy that particular day. Did we fail to identify information from intelligence or other sources that indicated a specific, or even a nebulous threat? Did we detect any significant differences in the overall security environment on that day? Was the protection team inexperienced or did it take unnecessary risks? Finally, were there a set of dots, however faint, that we just failed to connect? The answer was no to all these questions, both in our internal inquiries and in the subsequent investigation by an Accountability Review Board.  

As the war in Iraq unfolded in the subsequent years, our troops and diplomats were subjected to roadside bombs of all descriptions, with increasing explosive power and accuracy. As a nation, we spent hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading equipment and researching ways to combat improvised explosive devices, but we were never able to claim complete success and many of the deaths and injuries sustained in that conflict were caused by these attacks.  

Diplomacy is never going to be risk-free

We have decided as a country that protection of the interests of the United States requires that we have a diplomatic presence in most countries of the world.  A good number of those locations are going to be dangerous at any time, not only threatened by terrorists, but by crime, health conditions, and isolation.   We need the eyes and ears of our diplomats to help our policymakers get a nuanced understanding of the interests of other countries and their populations and how those interests coincide or clash with our own.  We also need this on the ground presence to understand and counter threats to the security of the United States before they reach our shores. Just as reporters can’t adequately report foreign news from a desk in New York or London, the added value of diplomats is that they are on the ground interacting daily. (One of the only possible benefits of Wikileaks was to demonstrate that the American taxpayers are getting more than their money’s worth from the comprehensive analysis emanating from their US embassies around the world.)   

After the attacks by al-Qaeda on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, we began to build fortified diplomatic presences with greater setback from busy streets, often resulting in remote unattractive facilities which sent a message of US fear and isolation. This hardening of our embassies prompted many in Congress and the press to suggest that American diplomats were isolated in their fortress-like missions and that they therefore could not possibly know what was going on in the countries where they were posted. This was never true; but we did need to find new ways to manage risk and represent the interests and values of the United States in the Middle East and elsewhere.  

We will never be able to build protective bubbles around all of our people overseas that will completely protect them from attack, and we should not fool ourselves that we can. Ambassador Chris Stevens knew that when he represented the United States in Benghazi with great skill, honor and courage, both before and after the fall of Qaddafi. Just as no major news organization can ever claim to eliminate risk for its foreign correspondents reporting from dicey locations, the US government should not be held to a standard that is impossible to maintain. The standard needs to be that the very best efforts were taken to manage and mitigate risk while maintaining a strong and vital tempo of diplomatic activity. 

The key elements in managing risk for our personnel overseas are:  maintaining a superior intelligence service that works closely with the host country’s intelligence services; providing protection to threatened personnel but not deluding ourselves that we can protect against all forms of attack all the time; and nurturing leaders at all levels who understand risk, tolerate uncertainty, and strive to strike the right balance between protecting our people and pursuing our interests worldwide. US officials need to make difficult judgments every day, and they will not get it right every time.

Richard LeBaron is a visiting senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He served as US ambassador to Kuwait and in senior positions at the US embassies in Israel, Egypt, and the United Kingdom.   Photo Credit: AP.

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron