Two years after Benghazi, State battles lawmakers over training site for agents

Two years after Benghazi, State battles lawmakers over training site for agents
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More than two years after the 2012 Benghazi, Libya, consulate attack that killed four Americans, the State Department still trains its Diplomatic Security agents at an interim site made largely from shipping containers on a shared public racetrack in West Virginia.
 
Congress and the State Department both say agents need more training. But some members of Congress aren’t sold on State’s plan to build its own site and want to cut the price tag by using an already-existing site.  
 
State has zeroed in on a site in Nottoway County, Va., at an underused Virginia National Guard fort. There, Diplomatic Security would train agents, foreign military that serves as the first line of defense to high-threat embassy posts and foreign law enforcement, and provide a week-long high-threat counter-threat course required for all Foreign Service Officers, even those at a desk job. 
 
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Gregory Starr, the assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security, told The Hill the site is ideal for a number of reasons, including its relative proximity to other partners near Washington.
 
“We’ve looked at this six ways from Sunday and how to maximize our training capabilities,” he said.
 
“Our choice is Fort Pickett.”
 
State currently trains at 11 different sites, but mainly at Summit Point, W.V. That location lacks dedicated racetracks to train agents for evasive driving, so State rents time at an adjacent public racetrack.
 
That hasn’t cut it for the State Department. The department’s Accountability Review Board convened in the wake of Benghazi to call for increased high-threat training both for Diplomatic Security agents and all Foreign Service Officers.
 
The Fort Pickett proposal originally weighed in at more than $900 million, but Starr helped revise the plan to $461 million by only including hard-skills training.
 
“I came back after Benghazi, and it was evident to me that the hard-skills training was more required than ever,” he said.
 
“We are facing higher levels of instability in more places every day.”
 
State wants to move forward after it finalizes its Environmental Impact Statement in the summer and plans for the new facility to open in 2019.
 
That plan has been received warmly by some lawmakers, including Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick Election Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race Green Day's 'American Idiot' climbs UK charts ahead of Trump visit MORE and Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerRussians' indictment casts shadow ahead of Trump-Putin summit Top Senate Dem: Trump administration's lack of focus on election security an 'embarrassment' Dem senator: We need other Americans in the room with Trump, Putin MORE and Republican Reps. Randy ForbesJames (Randy) Randy ForbesToo much ‘can do,’ not enough candor Trump makes little headway filling out Pentagon jobs Why there's only one choice for Trump's Navy secretary MORE and Robert HurtRobert HurtDemocrat defeats controversial chair of House Wall Street subpanel Republican groups launch final ad blitz in key House battlegrounds Armed protester stands outside Dem's office for 12 hours MORE.
 
Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezCNN anchors break into laughter over comedian's alleged prank call to Trump Comedian claims he tricked Trump while impersonating Dem senator Schumer: Obama 'very amenable' to helping Senate Dems in midterms MORE (D-N.J.) proposed a bill in 2013 that called for direct appropriations for a Foreign Affairs Security Training Center, and noted that Fort Pickett aligns with the Benghazi review's recommendations, but it died after a committee hearing.  
 
"The State Department is best equipped to know what they need in regards to training and personnel," a Democratic Senate aide said, adding that while value is a concern, lawmakers should trust State when it says Fort Pickett is the best choice.  
 
But it hasn’t sat well with a number of lawmakers, led by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas), and Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), the chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on oversight.
 
The trio sent a letter to Secretary of State John KerryJohn Forbes KerryGet ready for summit with no agenda and calculated risks Will Democrats realize that Americans are tired of war? The Hill's Morning Report — Trump denigrates NATO allies, floats 4 percent solution MORE last year calling for State to hold off on the Fort Pickett site until the Government Accountability Office finished a more expansive investigation into whether State could build onto the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Ga., the main training site for the Department of Homeland Security.
 
FLETC has estimated it could meet the State Department’s requests with just $272 million, using its already-established facilities and building the rest.
 
Royce said while he supports State’s mission of improving diplomatic security training, it should be done “in the most efficient, timely and cost-effective manner.”
 
“To date, the Administration simply hasn’t made the case why spending twice as much on what looks like half a solution makes the most sense,” he said.
 
He added that the reduced plan stripped “critical infrastructure” from what was originally thought to be needed, and said he’s worried State might later ask for more money to build what was cut out.
 
Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.), whose district includes Glynco, called the FLETC plan a “no-brainer” because of the incredible cost savings of more than $200 million, which he said should be used to help pay down the debt.
 
“We have an existing facility that would work perfectly fine, and here's the federal government again proposing to waste taxpayer money,” he told The Hill.
 
There’s disagreement about how ready FLETC is to absorb State’s training capacity. State currently trains 3,800 foreign service officers for their weekly course each year, on top of a few thousand other agents and foreign allies. By the end of the process, the agency hopes to train more than 9,000 people a year.
 
FLETC said in a November 2013 document outlining its proposal that it can “immediately begin accommodating a substantial portion of the DS training programs.” That would cut down on the delay, save the government hundreds of millions of dollars and allow the more than 90 agencies that train there to benefit from what’s built for State.
 
Both Royce and Carter told The Hill they agreed with that assessment.
 
"I am 100 percent confident that what they are trying to achieve can be achieved at FLETC," Carter said.
 
But a State Department official familiar with the plans pushed back on that assertion. When asked whether FLETC had the capacity to absorb diplomatic security training, the official flatly said: “Nope, can’t do it.”
 
“FLETC does not have the capabilities that we need.”
 
The official added that housing training at FLETC “jeopardizes our foreign policy imperatives” and that State and FLETC agreed during an additional due diligence process that 90 percent of what’s needed would have to be built at either site.
 
The location is also another sticking point for State. While the Virginia site is about a three-hour drive from D.C., Starr said people would have the flexibility to train while serving in a domestic post instead of being recalled from abroad. It also makes it easier to train family members who join them on the potentially dangerous posts abroad.
 
While State is committed to moving forward with the Fort Pickett plan, Carter has officially requested that appropriators place a prohibition into the budget bill that blocks spending on a separate training center. State already has millions previously appropriated, but it would likely need more to finish the project.  
 
Starr said he believes Congress is united in the belief that training needs an overhaul and he is hopeful that there will be an agreement.
 
“We’ll see—our plan is to move forward on Fort Pickett,” he said.
 
“We’ve got to get our act together on training, we need a higher level of training, we need to train more people more effectively.”