State Department Ignored Security Recommendations

A 2009 audit revealed central failures for managing security.

In this Sept. 14, 2012 file photo, Libyan military guards check one of the burnt out buildings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, during a visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif to express sympathy for the death of American ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and his colleagues in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the consulate.

Libyan military guards check one of the burnt out buildings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a few days after the Sept. 11 attack.

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The Department of State has for years repeatedly ignored recommendations for evaluating security that many believe could have better prepared its facility in Benghazi from the Sept. 11 attack, a Government Accountability Office official told Congress on Thursday.

The GAO recommended in 2009 that the top levels at State take a hard look at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, whose resources are sapped by two major facilities in embattled Kabul and Baghdad. Instead, the department passed the concerns down to that bureau to address the problems themselves, said Michael Courts, the GAO's acting director of international affairs and trade.

[Source: Loopholes, Limited Resources Allowed Lax Benghazi Security]

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security is not equipped to address these shortfalls, Court says, and needs the bureaucratic heft of State Department headquarters to do the kind of deep reform recommended by GAO.

"Diplomatic Security, because it of its report function, will salute smartly and continue to fulfill the mission whether it has the resources it needs or not," he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Thursday morning in a hearing to address the Benghazi attack. This mission includes guarding as many as 11,500 staffers at 11 separate diplomatic sites in Baghdad alone.

"The Diplomatic Security Bureau itself has taken a number of measures to improve their strategic planning," he says. "But they are not in a position to say 'No' when they are asked to provide support."

The State Department needs to take a "strategic look" at a "departmental level," says Courts. The Bureau of Diplomatic Security cannot do that by itself.

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Multiple internal shortfalls undercut security at the more than 270 diplomatic posts in 180 countries, including embassies, consulates and facilities like the "rented villa" where Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was killed in September, officials say.

Among these threats is a lack of experience among staffers, 34 percent of whom (outside Baghdad) are currently in positions above their grade. Understaffing is also a concern, where one-third of domestic Diplomatic Security offices have as few as 75 percent of designated positions filled, according to the GAO.

Learn more about resource shortfalls that affected the compound in Benghazi here.

A language barrier creates serious at a diplomatic compound, Courts says. More than half of regional security officers abroad—those tasked with overseeing security at an embassy or consulate—did not speak or read the local language, the GAO study found.

[PHOTOS: U.S. Consulate Attacked in Libya]

In conducting this research, GAO researchers came across compounds of "strategic importance" where an RSO received a security tip from a local informant, could not understand it and directed the tip to a local embassy employee to translate, Courts says.

In the case of facilities in countries such as China, the U.S. must assume that these local employees also work for the host nation's government, which would leave these informants subject to retaliation.

On multiple occasions, the GAO approached the State Department to emphasize the importance of a top-down review of Diplomatic Security's resources.

"They felt they had adequately responded to the recommendations, but we disagree with that," Courts tells U.S. News of the State department response to GAO's findings. "The Department hasn't taken the steps we recommended. ... We think that's important."

The GAO, part of the Legistlative Branch of government, is Congress' main investigative arm, tasked with looking into matters regarding public funds.

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  • Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at