American officials say that protecting the country's diplomats are among the highest priorities but for years the selection, use and monitoring of private contractors to provide security has been shown to have shortfalls.
The way U.S. embassies and consulates protect their staffs in volatile locations has raised several red flags in Congress, among watchdogs and even an outside commission in recent years.
The concerns came into sharp focus with the death in Libya of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, as well as an attack Tuesday on the U.S. embassy in Cairo.
While the State Department has responded to some of the criticisms leveled by congressional oversight bodies and its own internal watchdog, its Diplomatic Security (DS) office recently acknowledged it lacked the funding for some recommended improvements, such as security training, and was instead looking for workarounds.
“We cannot sufficiently meet the additional training recommendations outlined in the Secretary's QDDR (quadrennial review). Therefore, DS is aggressively pursuing on-line alternatives, e.g., distance learning of FACT lessons minus the hard skills (i.e., weapons familiarization and driver's training) to increase training capabilities,” the department candidly acknowledged in a February performance evaluation report.
In response to Stevens's death at the hands of an angry mob outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that he has "directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world." U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some 50 Marines are being sent to Libya to reinforce security at U.S. diplomatic facilities.
"There is no higher priority than protecting our men and women wherever they serve," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Her department identified embassy and personnel security as one of its major management challenges in its 2012 budget and priorities report.
One of the biggest concerns raised in recent years has been the quality and capabilities of private security contractors hired to protect embassy staffs.
The congressionally chartered Commission on Wartime Contracting issued a strong warning in 2009, saying the State Department’s reliance on lowest-priced contractors was jeopardizing security.
“Lowest-priced security not good enough for war-zone embassies,” the commission wrote in a stinging report that urged other factors such as capability be considered in awarding security contracts.
The State Department inspector general highlighted the gaps in some private security firms’ capabilities with investigations of the war-time security postures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A March 2010 report by the IG cited several potential weaknesses with the private firm guarding the Baghdad embassy, while acknowledging the firm had thus far protected the facility from any major attacks. Among the problems cited:
- The diplomatic security office lacked standards for ensuring the contractor performed adequate security training,
- The security contractor’s subcontractor for explosive detection had “several weaknesses” in its canine scent detection efforts for bombs.
- The security office at the embassy did not have criteria for the number of consecutive days guards can work without a day off. “The Office of Inspector General found that some guards had worked as many as 39 days without a break,” the report warned.
- The embassy’s guard housing was “unsafe and in violation of the contract.”
Those finding echoed a September 2010 report by the inspector general of the then-private security contractor in Afghanistan, which found:
- The contractor had “not been able to recruit, train, or manage” the security force “at the staffing level or the quality required by its contract.”
- The embassy had “ employed Nepalese guards without verifiable experience, training, or background investigations in violation of its contract.”
- The contractor would not “account for 101 U.S. government-furnished weapons that have been missing since 2007.”
- The contractor had permitted “a pattern of uncorrected disciplinary problems” in its security forces.
The State Department took several corrective actions and subsequently selected a new contractor to take over the Afghan’s embassy’s security.
But that selection quickly created new controversy when the Senate Armed Services Committee issued a report finding that the contractor had relied on warlords with possible ties to the Taliban to staff its security forces.
The inspector general recently concluded that the State Department’s vetting of the contractor met federal regulations but somehow failed to uncovered the information found by Senate investigators.
“The Department was not aware of the selected contractor’s past performance, as reported by the Senate Armed Services Committee, until after the report was publicly released in October 2010, which was after the contract and the task order had been awarded. OIG also determined that the Department had used the proper systems to obtain,” the IG reported.
The Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan watchdog group that focuses on contracting, has raised repeated concerns about the contracting of embassy security operations and last year urged that the task in volatile region be in-sourced to State Department employees. The group specifically cited the Afghan situation.
“If there's a better argument for making this mission an inherently governmental function, this situation is it,” POGO’s executive director Danielle Brian said in 2011. “We've got one discredited company to be replaced by another discredited company."