The political fallout from the 2012 terrorist attacks on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, has had a chilling effect on the Foreign Service that has left U.S. diplomats wary of treading into areas with questionable security.
Former diplomats say the heightened security has become excessive and warn that American leadership is suffering as a result.
“It undermines the ability of our diplomats to do our job when you essentially have a governor in place that restricts their every movement and the decision process of the security because nobody wants anything to happen,” said James Smith, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia until 2013 and is now president of the consulting firm C&M International.
“There’s a lot of officer pushback on this,” added another source with knowledge of the State Department and the Foreign Service. “I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating for a member of the Foreign Service than to be out there, deployed abroad, and unable to do any good.”
The State Department has repeatedly argued that the tight security has not led to a loss of U.S. clout, but diplomats paint a different picture.
A survey of 1,600 active-duty State Department employees released in April by the American Foreign Service Association found that more than half believed that “post-Benghazi, it is now more difficult for employees to effectively engage overseas.” Twenty-five percent of diplomatic security agents said the same thing.
Additionally, just one-quarter of State Department employees and less than 10 percent of diplomatic security agents said that the department “has struck the right risk/reward balance.”
Complaints about the “Benghazi effect” have bubbled up to Congress.
“I have had a number of Foreign Service officers express concern that in the wake of Benghazi they’re being too heavily circumscribed in what they’re allowed to do and where they can go to meet people,” said Rep. Adam SchiffAdam SchiffSchiff to Trump: Taxpayers will 'bear the brunt of your broken promises' Dems knock Trump on Earth Day Five questions for the House's new Russia investigator MORE (D-Calif.), “and [they] feel that we’re maybe moving too much towards making a fortress out of our diplomatic facilities.”
Schiff is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and also sits on the House panel on Benghazi.
The State Department portrays its security duties as a balancing act, with officials weighing the desire of diplomats to get out in the field against the safety concerns of security agents.
Too little security leaves American diplomats vulnerable to attacks from protesters, terrorists or hostile governments. But too much can leave diplomats stuck behind embassy walls, unable to build crucial relationships with local officials, activists and bureaucrats.
“Keeping U.S. personnel overseas safe is an ongoing, evolving process defined by proactive planning and responsive improvements,” Gregory Starr, the State Department’s assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security, testified in the House Select Committee on Benghazi one year ago.
Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryWith help from US, transformative change in Iran is within reach Ellison comments on Obama criticized as 'a stupid thing to say' 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force MORE was more forceful in May 2013 while speaking at a seminar on overseas security eight months after the Benghazi attack killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
“We will not pull back,” Kerry insisted. “Retreating behind the wire cannot be the way that we do business.”
The State Department declined to comment for this story.
The limits placed on Americans abroad manifest themselves in several ways, according to former diplomats who have experienced them firsthand.
“The net effect is you limit the ability of people to move around,” said James Cunningham, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from the summer of 2012 through December 2014 and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
In Afghanistan, civilians have been removed from some parts of the country because of decisions that Cunningham said “were clearly influenced by this heightened sensitivity in Washington to security issues.”
“Those decisions may have come out the same way anyway,” he acknowledged, “but it was clear that there was closer attention being paid to the cost-benefit ratio of having people in various places.”
Ronald Neumann, a longtime diplomat and former ambassador to Afghanistan, recalled attending an October security dialogue with diplomats from all corners of the globe — with one glaring exception.
“The British Embassy was represented, the French Embassy was represented, the Russians were represented, the Iranians were represented,” said Neumann, who has since left the government and is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. “There were no official Americans.
“I know it was because of security.”
The scenario is becoming increasingly common, Neumann warned, due to heightened restrictions on Foreign Service officers.
U.S. embassies and consulates were temporarily shuttered in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and a dozen other countries in the summer of 2013 due to what Smith, the former ambassador to Riyadh, said was “absolutely” political sensitivities about Benghazi in Washington.
“There was a concern about a couple of guys from Yemen ... leaving Yemen, so we essentially were told to shut down the embassies in the whole region for several days,” the former ambassador said. “We were not brought into the thought process.”
The decision underscored “a shift from decentralized control and execution to centralized control of all those decisions,” he said, arguing the shift damages the legitimacy of the diplomats present.
“And by the way, there was no other Western embassy closed.”
The skittishness about security isn’t always written down in formal orders. Instead, it often becomes clear in discussions with Washington, when officers abroad are asked questions that suggest they need to be vigilant on security.
“Some higher level supervisors feel that if anything bad happens on their watch, their careers are over — even if a security incident came totally out of the blue, even if the bad guys got a lucky shot or something,” said John Naland, a career Foreign Service officer who retired in September. Naland was previously the president of the American Foreign Service Association, which acts as both a union and advocacy group.
The 2012 death of Stevens in Benghazi was the first of an American ambassador since Arnold Raphel, who died in a plane crash in Pakistan in 1988. But his death was not unprecedented.
In the 11 years from 1968 to 1979, five American ambassadors were killed by militants in a particularly brutal stretch of incidents spanning from Afghanistan to Guatemala.
A plaque in the lobby of the State Department’s headquarters in Foggy Bottom lists the names of 247 people who died “under heroic or tragic circumstances” while serving as diplomats or consular officers.
The job “has always come with risk, which we are fully prepared to accept,” said Barbara Stephenson, the head of the American Foreign Service Association and a 30-year veteran of the Foreign Service.
“What we ask in return is a dedicated effort to mitigate danger where possible,” she added, “including through providing the resources needed to accomplish our mission safely while serving abroad.”
Every person contacted by The Hill for this story insisted that diplomats understand the dangers of the job and accept them willingly.
“These things are cyclical,” said Patricia Butenis, a longtime diplomat who retired last year after serving in a number of overseas posts, most recently as ambassador to Sri Lanka.
“We go through this throughout a career,” she added. “Something happens, somebody horribly dies. Yes, you want accountability, you want lessons learned — ‘What could we have done better?’ — but at the end of the day it remains a dangerous profession.”
Yet some worry that the apprehensive climate created by Benghazi won’t recede as quickly.
On Capitol Hill, the Benghazi Committee continues to investigate the attack and plans to issue a formal report in coming months.
Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the House Benghazi Committee’s Republican majority, said the report that the panel plans to release could include “potential solutions” to the security dilemma.
“Committee Republicans are working to fully understand what happened before, during and after the Benghazi attacks to ensure America does everything it can to keep this kind of tragedy from happening again,” Ware said in an email, “so we certainly are interested in hearing any concerns about State Department’s management of security issues directly from its employees.”
Schiff and Democrats, however, have criticized the panel as being more about torpedoing Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonObama to net 0K for Wall Street speech: report O'Reilly: Fans will be 'shaken' when truth comes out about Fox exit Overnight Cybersecurity: White House adviser ditches cyber panel over 'fake news' | Trump cyber order 'close' | GOP senator pushes for clean renewal of foreign intel law MORE’s presidential campaign — raising questions about whether it can offer a way forward in balancing the foreign service’s handling of security versus diplomacy.
“Rightly or wrongly, it has become a political issue for the Republicans,” said Neumann, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, who has been appointed to top posts by presidents of both parties.
“But I think it has made the issue of casualties so sensitive that that may carry over into the next administration — whichever party it is.”