Benghazi One Year Later: Risk to Diplomats Remains High

Security experts criticize reforms since Sept. 11, 2012 attacks as diplomats continue risky work.


Wreckage and burned cars sit outside the main gate of the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Security at American embassies remains under scrutiny a year after the attacks that killed four Americans.

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A year has passed since militants assaulted a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya and killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. That the assault took place during the height of an election season elevated the profile of these attacks, which followed a long line of violence aimed at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.

[PHOTOS: U.S. Embassies Attacked]

The Middle East and North Africa continue to roil as politicians now turn their attention to the virtues of military action in Syria. The threats are ever high for diplomats and their staffs as they venture out from embassies that increasingly act as fortresses.

"You're never going to have 100 percent safety or security," says Fred Burton, a retired Diplomatic Security agent and investigator whose new book, "Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack in Benghazi" takes a look at the security situation that led to the attack. "But there are some tangible things you're going to do to ensure that the Foreign Service is better protected overseas."

Public officials, as well as security and military specialists have scrutinized information and evidence surrounding the events on and around Sept. 11, 2012. They can pin blame on a wide swath of factors, from specific details all the way up to the command elements at the State Department.

Something as easy as smoke hoods -- devices designed to help the wearer withstand smoke inhalation for a few moments -- could have, for example, saved the lives of all within the compound.

Others question why the U.S. personnel were there in the first place, pointing to Diplomatic Security leadership that should have had the information as well as the authority to pull back the ambassador and his staff until the facility was safe enough to protect them all.

Burton points to the dangers of what those in the military and protective services call "threat fatigue." Ambassador Stevens and his staff likely got so used to the idea of imminent danger from nearby militiamen that they might not have heeded warnings.

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"At that moment in time, what happens to you in these jobs is you're like the frog in the boiling pot," says Burton, now a vice president at private intelligence firm Stratfor. "You go native in your environment and you say, 'The chances of something happening, regardless of what the threat posture might be, are unlikely. So let's just go about our day.'"

Ultimately, the chief of mission is in charge of deciding what is safe and what is not. In this situation, that authority fell to Stevens.

Burton and other security experts have continued to criticize the hierarchy of Diplomatic Security and its subservience to the wishes of an ambassador on the ground.

"Ambassador Stevens was responsible for the security of all official Americans in country," says Samuel Katz, a security expert and co-author of "Under Fire." "Security agents don't argue with the ambassador and say 'It's too dangerous. Don't go.'"

An internal government report leaked earlier in September showed the Department of State is aware of some security shortcomings in protecting its embassies. It suggests, among other remedies, moving Diplomatic Security under its own undersecretary position, allowing it to connect pieces of intelligence from throughout the department, as well as the authority to restrict senior personnel from putting their lives in danger.

Diplomatic Security currently answers to the Undersecretary for Management, Patrick Kennedy, who remains in that position after relieving four senior State officials from their security jobs in December.

The department announced in late August that they had all been cleared of any wrongdoing.

"It's back to business as usual at State," says Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL and author of "Benghazi: The Definitive Report."

"The same bureaucratic issues and roadblocks exist a year later, and haven't been improved," he says. "Kennedy shuffled some people around but nobody, especially himself, was ever held accountable."