I well recall a CIA instructor at the agency’s Williamsburg, Virginia training center (“The Farm”) who would stand in front of the class with his arms outstretched demonstrating that when the right arm “security” went up, the left arm “efficiency” went down. The instructor had unusually long arms and had apparently been hand-picked (or arm-picked) for the job. Those who are now second-guessing what happened in Benghazi three weeks ago should recall the efficiency-security relationship. A United States Embassy’s main job is not to huddle in a bomb-proof pile of masonry – it is representing the president and the American people in a foreign country. A good ambassador is an active ambassador, out among the local population speaking and promoting U.S. interests, which is precisely what Ambassador Chris Stevens was doing when he was killed in a terrorist attack. If Ambassador Stevens wanted to be safe, he could have stayed in a fortress-like building in Tripoli surrounded by Marine guards, but instead he believed that he should be visible and accessible. That is called diplomacy. He certainly understood that there was risk involved, but he also believed in doing his job the right way, for which he should be commended.
The media is reporting that there were “warnings” that the ambassador and his staff should have heeded. But embassies and consulates receive warnings and threats every single day. When they are non-specific, as in the case of Benghazi, they are most often considered but not acted upon. The truth is that many American Embassies have become fortress-like secure zones that have made diplomacy obsolete, and some have ironically made working in a foreign environment more dangerous since the comings and goings of the employees are more easily observable. It was not always so. Before the Inman report of 1985 mandated the construction of Fortress America Overseas, creating facilities that were bomb-proof and invasion-proof, embassies and consulates were deliberately placed so that public access to them was easy. I can recall working in the old U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul in the 1980s. The building was a former palace in the heart of the city that had once belonged to an Italian-origin businessman whose family had resided in Turkey since the 15th century. It would not have looked out of place in Venice. It was located next to the venerable Pera Palas Hotel, made famous by Agatha Christie and the real James Bond, Sean Connery, and had all kinds of ways in and out. I used to debrief sources who did not want to be seen coming in the front way by letting them in through the water gate near the Golden Horn and having a chat in the garden gazebo. And when I wanted to slip out unobserved I could do that too.
And our security was sometimes improvised. When surveillance cameras noted that several apparent Iranians were following the consulate’s American employees who left through the front door, a colleague and I were designated rabbits to draw out the surveillance — CIA employees considered to be expendable. I remember walking up the street where I was soon tailed by one of the suspects. When he began to speed up to close with me, he was suddenly engulfed by an avalanche of Turkish intelligence officers who had been alerted and were also following the action. The Iranian had a knife. I don’t know what happened to him afterwards and don’t really care.
Today’s U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul is a fortress on a hill with a nice view of the Bosporus. It is located north of Istanbul in an area that is very difficult to get to. It is even more difficult to actually get in and out of the building, but it is very, very safe. I often wonder how CIA case officers and diplomats operate, as they can be easily observed and followed when they go in and out since the building is set back and has one main, very secure entrance.
So anyway, the point is that diplomacy or spying or soldiering in overseas environments can be dangerous business. If an ambassador is actually doing his job there is no way to protect him 24/7, particularly when attackers are willing to die and are armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. A good ambassador will weigh risk versus gain in going about his business, security versus efficiency. Turning the tragedy in Benghazi into a political football serves no one, least of all those who died, and it leads to the wrong conclusion about what the role of an overseas embassy should be. If it is made completely safe it will also be non-functional.