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.
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.
"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."
Webb, now editor of SOFREP.com, served in the SEALs with Glen Doherty, one of the security contractors in Benghazi who lost his life. He, along with Burton and some members of Congress, believe there are still those who should be taken to task for the misgivings that fueled the attack, including Kennedy.
Kennedy defended the presence of the Americans in Libya in a congressional hearing almost exactly a month after the attack.
"Ambassador Stevens understood that the State Department must operate in many places where the U.S. military cannot or does not, where there are no other boots on the ground, where there are serious threats to our security," he said before the House Oversight Committee on Oct. 10, 2012. "He understood that the new Libya was being born in Benghazi and that it was critical that the United States have an active presence there."
Kennedy referenced the Advisory Review Board established by then-Secretary Hillary Clinton. It would later identify "systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department."
Congressmen Frank Wolf and Bob Goodlatte, both Republicans from Virginia, called in recent days for further review of the highly politicized investigation. Wolf specifically requests a new select committee to determine the potential connection between the attacks and the ongoing violence in Syria. Embassies routinely serve as cover for American spies and other counter-terrorism forces. Notoriously ousted CIA officer Valerie Plame, for example, was reportedly based in Athens as a diplomat.
But the attacks and subsequent investigations have led to some improvements in embassy security. A string of hearings featuring senior State officials, including Clinton, ultimately led to billions more in security upgrades, as well as training for more DS agents and Marine Security Guards, tasked with protecting an embassy's classified information.
Five hundred Marines also remain on alert at bases in Spain and Italy, called the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, and are poised to respond to another Benghazi-like attack. A new Diplomatic Security office, the "High Threat Unit," was established solely to oversee security at 17 dangerous overseas posts.
After all these changes, the job facing America's diplomats remains dangerous. The U.S. consulate in Lahore, Pakistan remains closed after reports of an imminent threat in early August. The State Department drew down its facilities in Lebanon and Turkey on Friday.
"Embassies are high-profile, high-value, high-impact terrorist targets," says author Katz. "There's no way around it."
"You can put 1,000 Marines at an embassy, and terrorists can shear a way around those layers. They'll still hit it," he says.