The question to be asked about the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is simple: Have the lessons learned three decades ago about who and what are needed to physically protect American interests overseas been forgotten? The lapses during the Carter administration -- which resulted in both the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979 and Moscow bugging of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the early '80s led ultimately to security reforms within the State Department.
But the attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans -- a disaster that apparently had been in the making for some time -- appears to have come about in a policy shift that downgraded protections for American embassies and personnel throughout the Middle East. Stevens may or may not have been in Benghazi for a covert nighttime meeting that he thought was safe with minimal personal security. Certainly, the consulate itself was not well-enough protected.
The minimalist approach to security advocated by the "black dragons" -- career foreign service officers who have risen to the upper echelons of the State Department -- that stimulated a major overhaul during the Reagan White House following a study by Adm. Bobby Inman appeared to be creeping back into vogue under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. There have been some $300 million cuts in the department's security budget despite the obvious continuing threat to U.S personnel and interests in the world's biggest tinderbox.
Al-Qaida operatives throughout the Middle East as well as Europe are constantly searching for soft targets as opposed to the bigger embassies, which are well fortified and reinforced by Marine detachments. Obviously a consulate in Benghazi was high on their list. They seemed to have been able to track the movement of Stevens and Sean Smith, a Foreign Service information officer. The ambassador's popularity among several of the key factions in Libya also worked against him by giving him a false sense of security, according to those close to the situation. The two highly trained former Navy SEALs with him -- Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty -- while capable enough, were overwhelmed.
There have been unverified rumors that the SEALs had been able to laser target the attackers from a rooftop to call in an air strike. If that was the case, either help didn't get there in time or, for whatever reason, was called back.
What appears indisputable are these facts. The tragedy was aided and abetted by serious budget cuts, refusal to heed numerous warnings that Libya was increasingly unstable, and failure to respond to several requests for beefed-up forces. Why the State Department's policy and budget wonks refused to shift money to make up the cuts in security is anyone's guess, but election pressures on the administration to bring the budget into balance may have played a role.
Gen. David Patraeus' statements may be true that the CIA knew from the start of the attack that it was not a demonstration gone bad but did not announce that in an effort to protect vital intelligence about terrorist activities. It is, however, a pretty lame excuse. That was compounded by the administration's decision to put the spotlight on UN Ambassador Susan Rice as a possible replacement for Clinton, who has announced her intention to retire. Rice knew little about the incident nor was that her area of expertise. Accused on Capitol Hill of playing politics, Obama seemed to want to have it both ways by giving Rice exposure but denying that this was politically motivated. Expect much more of this tit-for-tat in the coming weeks.
Historically, Congress closes the gate after the animals have fled. So one can expect not only a thorough examination of what went wrong, but an action or overreaction in fixing it. This tragedy is not going away and the president can expect to enter his second term facing a major crisis in how he protects American men and women abroad. Going back to the days when security was in the hands of an "admin" officer answering to the striped-pants set that never thought it necessary is certain to produce more tragedies.
Whatever it takes to fortify and defend our embassies should be spent. We already have trouble with outsourcing protective services to private contractors, so why not beef up the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and make sure there are enough Marines with the firepower to hold off the terrorists until help arrives?
(Dan Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)