Allegations Swirl Around Obama’s Pick for State Department Security Chief

Allegations Swirl Around Obama’s Pick for State Department Security Chief

This week, the Senate is poised to confirm Gregory Starr as the State Department’s chief of diplomatic security. The once-obscure position of protecting American diplomats overseas became a lightning rod last year following the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. But current and former State Department officials told The Cable that confirming Starr could be a mistake and raised a string of fresh allegations against him. Among them: that the man who is supposed to oversee thousands of new security agents has shot himself in the foot. And not just figuratively.

On paper, Starr has an impressive resumé. Before becoming the director of the Diplomatic Security Service in February, Starr served as the head of safety and security at the United Nations starting in 2009. He began his career at State in the 1980s as a special agent, and climbed the diplomatic security ranks to become a senior foreign-service official in 2000. The State Department today praised Starr as exceptionally-talented and deserving of a quick confirmation. But his rise was not without hiccups.

“Starr literally shot himself in the foot when drawing an unauthorized small caliber weapon out of his ankle holster,” said a current State Department official, referring to an incident in 1981.

“Mishandling of firearms is a big no no in the foreign service,” added a former DS official.

Of course a single mishap, three decades past, shouldn’t disqualify someone from a top security post. But this was hardly the only blemish on Starr’s record, his current and former State Department colleagues say.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have “great confidence” in Starr’s ability to lead and “believe it’s imperative that he be confirmed by the Senate.” 

“Mr. Starr had an accidental discharge with a small caliber pistol. That obviously in no way affects his ability to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security,” said Harf. “Starr is a seasoned law enforcement and security expert with extensive domestic and overseas experience, including a sterling record running operational security world-wide for the United Nations.”

Even Starr’s critics admit that he’s excellent at designing plans to protect State Department facilities. But sometimes, they allege, his security savvy seems to vanish. In particular, a 2006 plan to build a new U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon in an area controlled by the militant group Hezbollah. “Starr aligned himself with the former head of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations … in supporting the building,” a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “Hezbollah could have easily and readily severed access to the compound and any helicopter evacuation would have to fly over Hezbollah-controlled territory.”

The embassy plan was ultimately scrapped in July 2007 shortly after the publication of an ABC News report on the compound. ABC News reported that Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman sent a classified cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in May 2007 to say his staff “unanimously opposes construction” due to security concerns. Harf said the decision to scrap the plans was not due to any news articles. “The Department purchased this property prior to the 2006 Israeli – Hezbollah conflict. After the conflict, when it became apparent that the security situation immediately surrounding the site had changed adversely, the Department decided it was no longer advisable to use the site for a new embassy.”

More recently, Starr has been accused of abusing his position to benefit those around him. One former DS officer said Starr was able to waive certain medical standards, in this case, color blindness, to get his son a job as a special agent within DS. “He exerted undue influence to get his son in,” said the source. “Other people out there wouldn’t have gotten in.” Harf dismissed the allegation as implausible. “All Foreign Service candidates who receive conditional offers of employment must undergo a pre-employment medical examination and are notified by the Office of Medical Services once their medical clearance status is completed. Mr. Starr has no command over medical standards.”

In the end, Harf said Starr’s years of service and breadth of experience warrant a quick confirmation in the Senate. “Mr. Starr served as a Regional Security Officer in Tel Aviv, Tunis, Dakar, and Kinshasa,” she said. “[He] is a seasoned law enforcement and security professional with extensive domestic and overseas experience and is eminently qualified.”

Update:  In a statement to The Cable, State Department Chief of Staff David Wade added his support to Starr. “Anyone smearing a distinguished public servant should have the guts to do it on the record instead of seeking cowardly refuge in anonymous quotes,” he said.