September 14, 2012

Broadening Intelligence on the Ground Key to Embassy Security in Changing Middle East

Anti-American demonstrations turned violent Tuesday at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, and at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where attacks killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others. With similar protests now spreading throughout the region, the Defense Department, State Department and White Houseare working to step up security at embassies in the Middle East and around the world.

While the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations holds the host country responsible for embassy security, the U.S. has established its own complex security bureaucracy to respond to ongoing threats. But in light of this week’s security breaches, diplomatic posts are reviewing and improving their security postures.

Melissa Dalton, a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a foreign affairs specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told Trend Lines that when it comes to the chain of command in U.S. embassy security, the ambassador, as the chief of mission, is the one “who makes the final call,” based on information from a team of advisers. 

“He or she makes decisions for the entire staff, and that includes what type of force protection or security should be in place to meet the objectives of the mission and protect the staff,” she said.

Regional security officers from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security develop security programs to protect U.S. missions and serve as the primary advisers to the ambassador when it comes to security matters, Dalton said. The embassy’s military attaché advises the ambassador on security dynamics in the host country, while intelligence officials provide a picture of what is happening on the ground.

“In cities or areas where security has to be tighter, that involves closer coordination with host nation security forces,” Dalton said. “We are on their soil, and they know the country better than we do.” 

Dalton said the relationships between U.S. embassies and their host nations are governed and guided by bilateral agreements the two nations have in place.

“It can be something as simple as an exchange of diplomatic notes that basically say relatively formally, but not in a legally binding way, that this is the way the relationship is going to work, and that covers security aspects as well,” she said. “It can also involve a status of forces agreement to protect U.S. defense personnel and give them the same diplomatic immunity that diplomats have.” 

When a crisis emerges, Dalton said, the first step at an embassy is convening an emergency meeting of the relevant staff.

“They will review the information they know about the current crisis, where things could go from there and the current force protection mechanisms in place” in order to determine whether security needs to be heightened in order to counteract a threat, she said. 

The State Department’s regional security officers often rely on the U.S. military in times of crisis. Unified commands, such as the United States Central Command, have the ability to supply diplomatic posts with combat troops, as seen this week when a Marine Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team was deployed to Libya.

Explaining that embassy security has evolved in response to threats in the past, such as the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, Dalton said the latest protests are already leading to improved security countermeasures. The challenge, she emphasized, is to “strike that balance between trying to integrate new practices in a way that is going to protect U.S. personnel while also crafting them in a way that will best suit that particular environment or those particular partnerships.”

One consequence of the Arab Spring, she said, is that the U.S. can no longer “afford to just rely on our relationships with regimes in these regions to give us the best understanding of what is happening on the ground.” 

“Particularly in that part of the world,” Dalton said, “the more the U.S. can do to engage various members of society as well as the government, the greater the sense the U.S. will have of the different viewpoints and the different sensitivities and the potential flashpoints for our relationships in these countries.” 

To this end, she added, U.S. officials now meet with groups they might not have consulted before the Arab Spring. Moving forward, Dalton said, the U.S. has to continue to focus on broadening and deepening its sources of engagement and intelligence to mitigate the risk of getting caught off guard.