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New Bill Takes Aim at State Department’s ‘Bunker Mentality’

Benghazi cloistered U.S. diplomats. Lawmakers want to change that.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. soldiers stand outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
U.S. soldiers stand guard as Iraqi protesters storm grounds near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on Dec. 31, 2019. Murtadha Sudani/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A Democratic lawmaker is introducing legislation to begin rolling back what he calls a “bunker mentality” at the State Department that hampers American diplomats’ ability to conduct work in foreign conflict zones and politically unstable countries. 

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to introduce a bill this week aimed at pushing the State Department to put more diplomatic boots on the ground in hot spots around the world. Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is expected to introduce a companion bill in the House.

The legislation takes aim at the ever-stricter security measures that U.S. diplomats face in politically unstable countries abroad, including bunker-like embassy compounds and limits on diplomats’ ability to get out of the bubble, which accelerated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

A Democratic lawmaker is introducing legislation to begin rolling back what he calls a “bunker mentality” at the State Department that hampers American diplomats’ ability to conduct work in foreign conflict zones and politically unstable countries. 

Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to introduce a bill this week aimed at pushing the State Department to put more diplomatic boots on the ground in hot spots around the world. Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is expected to introduce a companion bill in the House.

The legislation takes aim at the ever-stricter security measures that U.S. diplomats face in politically unstable countries abroad, including bunker-like embassy compounds and limits on diplomats’ ability to get out of the bubble, which accelerated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

It strikes at the heart of a decadeslong existential challenge for American diplomats: It’s hard to do diplomacy from a desk, but it’s sometimes unsafe to leave it, particularly in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. 

“We need to get the State Department out of its bunker mentality and make sure that experienced political operatives can be on the ground in places where conflicts cannot end through the use of military force alone,” Murphy told Foreign Policy. “After Benghazi, the State Department imposed much greater mobility restrictions on diplomats than those facing the military and CIA personnel. This was a huge mistake, and the Expeditionary Diplomacy Act helps reverse course by providing more incentive for the Department to put diplomats on the ground in the places where we need them most.”

The legislation would, among other things, ease department reporting requirements, paring back embassy security briefings to Congress from monthly to quarterly. It would also transform the Department’s “Accountability Review Boards” that investigate security breaches into “Security Review Committees,” a change that aims to alter how the department reviews attacks against U.S. diplomats or diplomatic compounds—in effect trying to remove the reputation that the review boards had within the department of being designed to hunt for scapegoats. 

Some U.S. diplomats say the department’s current security restrictions limiting their time “outside the wire” are onerous but necessary, given how foreign adversaries and terrorist groups can target U.S. diplomats. They point to the attack in Benghazi, which stunned the diplomatic community and sent political shock waves through Washington. 

But others say the United States is impeding its own diplomatic efforts. U.S. diplomats are rarely allowed to freely travel around their host countries to meet their counterparts or interact with locals, and security officials can deny foreign service officers’ requests to travel beyond an embassy compound. U.S. military and intelligence officials aren’t subject to the same restrictions. Diplomats say the current system of Accountability Review Boards is in effect designed to find scapegoats whenever there is a security incident.

The 2012 attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, which led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, sparked a political firestorm in Washington. Republican lawmakers—led in part by then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, who would go on to become secretary of state—accused the Obama administration of misleading the public and then stonewalling Congress on the nature of the attacks. A final congressional report found security deficiencies at U.S. government outposts in Libya, but it concluded there was no wrongdoing on the part of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. (Former President Donald Trump and Pompeo later advocated for funding cuts for diplomatic security—as well as cuts to a public diplomacy initiative named in honor of Stevens—as part of broader budget reduction proposals for the State Department.) 

The Benghazi investigation had a chilling effect at the State Department, current and former diplomats told Foreign Policy. “It’s ended up in a place where there’s just total risk aversion, total atmosphere of CYA [cover your ass], and it just makes it very hard to get the job done,” said one senior diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Obviously people at the State Department want to be taken care of, they want to know the government is looking out for them and their safety … but at the same time people who accepted this job understand they need to take a certain amount of risk.”

Murphy said Congress shares a part of the blame. “Congress must accept responsibility for its part in perpetuating a risk-averse culture, as its oversight too often promotes the myth that all security incidents are avoidable and appears more focused on finding scapegoats than improving policy,” reads one part of the draft legislation, reviewed by Foreign Policy

A recent study by the American Academy of Diplomacy found that the “State Department’s current risk aversion at higher-threat posts obstructs the performance of the most basic functions of a diplomat abroad.”

“Currently, embassies are hampered by an out-of-date accountability process that essentially is at odds with the current requirement to take reasonable risks in the performance of duty,” the study concluded. 

Brian McKeon, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be deputy secretary of state for management and resources, addressed the matter during his confirmation hearing on March 3. “It’s a hard challenge. … There’s no such thing as perfect security,” he said.

Two senior State Department experts—career diplomat John Bass, former ambassador to Afghanistan, and Tom VanDenBrink, retired senior diplomatic security service special agent—are working on an internal review for the department on these issues, according to a State Department spokesperson. 

“The Secretary and Department leadership take extraordinarily seriously their responsibility to ensure the security of U.S. personnel overseas,” the spokesperson said. “We continue to work to appropriately manage and mitigate risks, even as we acknowledge that some risk is inherent in our work to advance national security priorities.”

Update, March 10, 2021: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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