At a time when the Pentagon is slashing budgets and downsizing all branches of the armed forces, the State Department plans to send hundreds more Marines to endangered diplomatic posts abroad in an attempt to prevent another Benghazi-like terrorist attack.
The government will send 35 more detachments of Marine Security Guards to medium- and high-risk posts worldwide, according to State Department officials, adding roughly 225 Marines to the 150 detachments already posted abroad. This move, in cooperation with the Department of Defense, also accompanies a 5 percent increase in the number of Diplomatic Security staff and security improvements to diplomatic facilities abroad
These Marines, however, are tasked primarily with protecting classified information, not people. Experts and lawmakers say a major overhaul of embassies' security posture is also necessary if the United States is serious about preventing a similar attack.
"The use of additional Marine detachments would be enormously helpful," said Deputy Secretary of State Thomas R. Nides while testifying Thursday before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. "They will serve as a visible deterrent to hostile acts."
"We'll also be asking to build barracks on our grounds so they actually live on the facility or close by," he adds.
Nides testified with Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns days after an Advisory Review Board submitted its report to the State Department and Congress, offering 29 recommendations – five of them classified – to improve security following the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi in September.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tasked Nides, deputy for Management and Resources, with leading a task force to implement all of the recommendations. She has submitted a proposal to Congress to withdraw more than $1.4 billion next year from the department's Overseas Contingency Operations savings fund to pay for the security upgrades, including the new Marines. Clinton was supposed to testify before the committee herself, but she suffered a concussion after collapsing from a serious virus last week, said Committee Chairman Sen. John Kerry – her potential successor.
Republican Sen. James Risch of Idaho said at the hearing he was "shocked" at the "minimal Marine presence," in countries hostile to the U.S. he has visited on committee business.
He said he was also surprised to learn of the Marine Security Guard's primary mission which, according to its website, is, "to provide internal security at designated U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in order to prevent the compromise of classified material vital to the national security of the United States."
"Their first obligation should be to serve Americans in that embassy," Risch said.
This role usually falls to the Marine Corps Fleet Anti-terrorism Support Teams following terrorist attacks. It deployed roughly 50 people, according to some reports, following the Sept. 11, 2012 assault. Defense Department spokesman George Little said Thursday additional forces are still in those areas.
Risch sentiments on Marine guard capabilities are echoed by those with experience in securing diplomatic posts.
"The U.S. Marines in the embassies and consulates are there to protect classified material and property. They are not there to provide a counter-assault capability," a former State Department security official familiar with previous terrorist attack investigations tells U.S. News. "Unless their mission at the embassies/consulates is changed, it won't matter how many new detachments are stood up."
"What is needed are more highly-trained [Diplomatic Security] agents to run the security programs worldwide without undue influence in the decision making process," the official adds. "What is really needed is the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to become an independent Bureau reporting directly to the Secretary of State, without having to bend every which way to accommodate the myriad of other bureaus in the Department."
The bureau is not currently equipped to address their shortfalls, Government Accountability Office representative Michael Courts told Congress in November.
GAO has recommended since 2009 that top State officials take a hard look at the limited resources at Diplomatic Security, whose culture is not to argue but to "salute smartly and continue to fulfill the mission whether it has the resources it needs or not."
This concern is echoed in the Advisory Review Board report's recommendations, citing a positive first step in the newly created Diplomatic Security assistant secretary position for High Threat Posts. This position will focus on diplomatic facilities in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.
Little said on Wednesday the Pentagon is "working closely with the State Department to define what kind of support going forward the U.S. military might be able to provide for the protection of diplomatic installations around the world."
"We haven't gotten to specifics yet, but we stand ready to work closely with the State Department to, wherever we can, support security at diplomatic compounds," he said, adding this could require money, resources and personnel. "That's something we're going to have to take a close look at. And we're in the midst of that analysis right now."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.