In his final State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama noted in passing that the United States spends as much on defense as the next eight countries combined. He might have added that the proportions are similar for the Foreign Service and the intelligence community, which cost $50 billion and an estimated $80 billion respectively. The president might well have asked why, if that is so, is there so little bang for the buck in terms of what the U.S. taxpayer gets in return.
To be sure, no one has invaded the United States since Pancho Villa in 1916, but every war fought after 1945 has been either unnecessary, inconclusive, or a failure while the intelligence community is repeatedly caught flat footed in terms of anticipating the moves of both competitors and enemies. And a string of 294 fortress-like diplomatic missions around the world has done little to lessen foreign concerns over the seemingly persistent blundering of an imperial Washington that sometimes seems to be more concerned with style than substance. The Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is, for example, currently sponsoring an “I Love English” video contest.
With that in mind, I carefully followed the commentary on 2012’s Benghazi incident in which four Americans, including J. Christopher Stevens, the Ambassador to Libya, were killed. The tale has become something of a political football, but I was more interested in trying to determine how the response actually worked once it became clear that the consular offices were under attack.
The printed and cinematic accounts of the events in Benghazi are very similar but the Washington Post provided some additional insights through its interview of the CIA’s chief of base in the city, who was identified only as “Bob” as he is retired but still under cover. Bob was willing to talk to the newspaper because he believed that the both the book and film had maligned him, having the character who played him order a “stand down,” which delayed by at least 20 minutes the arrival of the Agency security response team at the site where the ambassador and a State Department colleague were in hiding and subsequently found dead of smoke inhalation.
Bob and at least one other CIA officer have stated that no one was ever ordered to stand down but two other officers from the security team, the sources for both book and movie, claim otherwise. Part of the delay in sending off the team, according to Bob, consisted of attempting to contact local Libyan militias for clarification of what was occurring as well as for armed assistance, if needed. Help was not forthcoming but finger pointing over what had occurred and why continued after the CIA base was attacked the following morning. The diplomatic and CIA facilities were both evacuated on the following day. Clearly there was no love lost between the chief of base and his security team.
The Post article describes Bob as a CIA case officer who had served in Latin America but who had also done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not think I know Bob, but I do know enough about Agency personnel management to guess that he speaks Spanish pretty well but no Pashto and, more to the point, little or no Arabic. Which means he was not an ideal choice for the position because he would be in a highly volatile environment working through an interpreter and in all likelihood the interpreter would be someone provided by the local militias or even someone who walked into the compound and who could speak good English. The interpreter, who might represent almost anything politically speaking, thus becomes the key link in trying to determine what was occurring, and the American officer on the ground would have to defer to the judgement and translating skills of someone whose actual loyalties would be difficult or impossible to assess.
The Benghazi brouhaha recalls an incident at Camp Chapman, near Khost in Afghanistan. The killing of seven CIA officers in 2009, the largest single toll of Agency officers since the Beirut Embassy bombing in 1984, appeared to have been a wake-up call, but perhaps not. The after-action assessment had noted that the Chief of Base Jennifer Matthews, a career analyst, may have been at least partly responsible for the security lapses that led to the deaths. She had been given the position because she aggressively lobbied for the field assignment to help advance her career and the Agency, foolishly, ignored the fact that she had not had the appropriate training and was not experienced enough to be in charge in a war zone.
So people sometimes wind up in the wrong places and as a result people die. But one has to suspect that having the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time is somehow systemic in the federal government, particularly related to those individuals who have to do official tours overseas. When I was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, complaints from officers and non-coms about the rotation system were frequent. One-year tours in Vietnam meant that soldiers were just learning how to do their jobs when they were replaced by someone new who had to learn all over again how to survive. Many did not live through the learning curve and one might reasonably suppose that some thousands of American soldiers might have come home alive if the system had been able to maximize combat effectiveness.
At that time, career officers going to Vietnam would seek safe billets whenever possible but would also speak of having their “tickets punched,” meaning that they needed to have Vietnam active duty on their service records if they were to have any hope of promotion. Currently, both CIA and the Foreign Service as well as the military rotate personnel through countries like Afghanistan and Iraq on one and two-year assignments unaccompanied by their families. The short tour is designed to make up for being unaccompanied but it results in inexperienced officers regularly replacing other officers who have only limited experience. It is a form of “ticket punching” and is a formula for failure.
To be sure, there are administrative problems in having a sufficient number of highly qualified Arabic and Pashto speakers available to fill sensitive assignments, but one would think that after 15 years of the global war on terror someone might have figured out a solution. It takes two years to learn Arabic up to a functional level and no one in mid-career is willing to spend that time and effort, particularly as language training is not particularly career enhancing. So American military officers, intelligence personnel, and even diplomats often tend to be the blind leading the blind when they arrive at an overseas post where the local language is challenging.
And the situation for easier European languages is not necessarily much better as even college-educated Americans rarely learn how to speak a foreign language. In the 1980s a run of five chiefs of station in Italy included only one who could speak Italian. Of 20 or so officers serving in Turkey only one could speak Turkish. A deputy director for operations was so perturbed by the inability of CIA case officers to speak the local language that he blocked assignments for those whose test scores were woeful. After a couple of months he gave up, aware that the problem was insoluble.
In truth the language problem is just one symptom of the “ticket punch” career management that prevails in certain parts of the federal government. Like musical chairs, everyone moves every two years, more or less. And it is not because it is necessary to operate that way because not everyone else in the world of diplomacy and intelligence does the same thing. Back in the old Cold War days, Soviet case officers studied foreign languages and cultures for years before arriving on post. They would even buy clothing and shoes locally to fit in visually. And they would stay on target for years, becoming over time experts on the nuances of their working environment. The British and French operate the same way, having officers in place for years at a time, building up their local expertise. For Americans, the constant rotation of officers was often explained by management not wanting its foot soldiers to “go native.” That chicanery aside, who would be able to work better in the foreign environment, the American or the Russian? Who is more effective today?
So the United States has a lot of its representatives overseas who do not speak the local language and who do not have a clue regarding what the local people are doing or thinking. They generally only serve short tours and their countdown to departure sometimes starts on the day they arrive. It is a bad bargain and it is the reason why disasters like Benghazi and Khost happen. And they will continue to happen because the government fails to address the real problem in training and doctrine—while continuing to spend ever more money on building bigger and better security bubbles for its facilities and people overseas.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.