Leverage our tech advantages to boost embassy security

Last May, when I read Congress was developing legislation to beef up embassy security in the aftermath of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, I was hopeful Congress would change our current embassy security paradigm. Unfortunately, while the respective bills approved last summer by the Senate and House Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs Committees would make some improvements in physical security (bricks and mortar) and in security training, neither has been enacted into law. Moreover, they don’t leverage the U.S. advantage in technology to achieve improved situational awareness.

In the planning and execution of many overseas operations, I learned to appreciate the critical importance of maximum situational awareness in a hostile or even a potentially hostile environment. There is no effective way to position United States forces capable of responding to complex contingencies in every location that merits concern. However, my recent experience in Iraq and Afghanistan taught me that risk can be mitigated by superior operational acumen and exceptional technology.

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When small units were dispersed across a wide geographical area, United States military forces learned to fully integrate information and intelligence, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance Platforms, and friendly and enemy force tracking into a cohesive picture that provided for shared situational awareness. The various investigations and reports on the Benghazi attack make it clear that the key decision makers and the military forces capable of responding to the crisis did not have a “shared picture” of the situation on the ground.

What do I mean by situational awareness? One good definition comes from the Center for Naval Analyses, which said in 2000 that situational awareness is “the result of a dynamic process of perceiving and comprehending events in one's environment, leading to reasonable projections as to possible ways that environment may change, and permitting predictions as to what the outcomes will be in terms of performing one's mission.”

Simply put, you need to have detailed information about what’s going on to (a) best understand your situation and threat risk; (b) predict what will happen in the near future; and (c) plan and execute your mission accordingly. 

This failure to adequately grasp the situation and plan for it was implicit in the report by the Accountability Review Board for Benghazi, which concluded that, “Security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a ‘shared responsibility’ by the bureaus in Washington charged with supporting the post, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security.” Security is, if nothing else, a shared responsibility, and to facilitate better mission planning and execution you need information before a crisis starts and in real time throughout the event. 

But without a commitment to leverage existing processes, systems and technologies to establish the functionality needed to achieve better security, better situational awareness, and better operational context for key decision makers, the mistakes of the past may well be repeated.  We can no longer simply be reactive – we need to be proactive, applying our superior technological capabilities to diplomatic scenarios in advance of a threat, and backing them up with the right situational awareness technologies.

This can all be done with existing off-the-shelf U.S. technologies to provide context to key decision-makers and vital information for crisis response. 

Unfortunately, my experience has shown that developing better situational awareness is not just a technical or a budgetary problem (although additional resources will help). It is also a cultural problem, one of getting organizations to think functionally rather than organizationally or bureaucratically. Much like the Goldwater-Nichols Act forced the services to think and act jointly, Congress has the opportunity to exercise leadership by directing this change in the cultural mindset as part of an embassy security bill. 

Members of the House and Senate would do well to add language to their respective bills to further enhance the security of U.S. embassies/facilities and personnel by providing greater situational awareness to decision makers. Even if it is only started as a pilot program at facilities located in what are defined as “high-risk” countries, we need to implement and then evaluate various ways to use our existing technological advantages to achieve greater situational awareness, and thus better security for diplomatic personnel stationed in high-threat countries.

As the State Department recently noted, “While risk can never be completely eliminated from our diplomatic and development duties, we must always work to minimize it.”  Using technology for enhanced situational awareness must be part of this effort, and we need to do it before the next Benghazi.

Corcoran served as commander, Joint Communications Support Element (Airborne) and as CENTCOM’s chief of operations and planning for the C4 Directorate.  He has participated in numerous conflicts and contingencies, most recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa.  He is now director of Cyber Strategy for Telos Corporation.

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