November 21, 2012: The deaths of two American diplomats and two State Department security personnel (former SEALS) during a September 11th attack on a State Department compound in Benghazi, Libya was unique in that nothing like this ever happened in Iraq or Afghanistan. The latter two countries, like Libya, contained active Islamic terror groups and constant threats to American diplomats. What was different in Libya was that the post-Kaddafi Libyan government forbade private security firms from operating in Libya. This included those hired to protect foreign diplomats. It was private security firms, and their no-nonsense attitudes, that prevented any American diplomats from getting killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. But during the last decade, American media decided that the security contractors were bad guys and to blame for a lot of evil these contractors had nothing to do with. This was mainly sloppy thinking, poor (usually non-existent) research, and laziness. Once the official bad guys are so designated, there’s not much the falsely accused can do.
The damage did not end there. While diplomats operating in combat zones knew the security contractors were professionals (usually former SOCOM operators) doing a difficult job and doing it well, the State Department management back in the United States was getting most of their information about security contractors from TV shows and journalists using those TV scripts as their primary research resource. Thus, when American diplomats in Libya asked for something to replace the lack of security contractors they were told, by their clueless bosses back in Washington, to relax and shut up. The State Department managers still insist that there was no problem with security and that everything that could be done was done for American diplomats in Libya prior to last September.
While some media outlets have made much of the fact that there were no U.S. Marine Corps security guards in Libya, there were also few State Department security personnel accompanying the American ambassador while he was in Benghazi. Most Americans are unaware that marines are their mainly to protect classified data in the embassy and that the State Department has long had its own plain-clothes security bureaucracy to take care of protecting diplomats in dangerous areas.
The State Department had security personnel available for use in Libya but had apparently created ROE (Rules of Engagement) for Libya that relied on Libyans to provide most of the security and to keep American security personnel to a minimum. Many State Department personnel who had served in the Middle East believed this was a major error but they were ignored, along with calls for security contractors (who can be brought in if you make enough fuss).
For nearly a century the State Department has had a security force, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (BDS), in addition to U.S. Marine Corps guards. The State Department even has about a hundred of their 1,500 BDS personnel trained to carry out commando type missions (the Mobile Security Deployment or MSD). Members of MSD are trained to deal with kidnapping or terrorist threats at embassies. Most members are former military and receive an additional six months training at a special State Department facility in Virginia. The skills they acquire are special operations type things, including how to drive a car in a combat situation. The MSD agents are mainly used to analyze dangerous situations, come up with a security plan, and carry out direct action (commando type stuff) if needed. Mainly, the MSD is a defensive organization, trained and equipped to protect diplomatic personnel under the most trying circumstances. That involves knowing how to evacuate an embassy under attack, usually with the help of U.S. Marines or SOCOM operatives. But all this expertise is worthless if the managers back in Washington ignore it.
The BDS also perform intelligence and investigative missions at American embassies. But mainly, they are security experts, doing what needs to be done, to keep the embassies safe, even if that means running a small army of foreign and American contractors. This worked well in Iraq and Afghanistan, and many State Department diplomats and support personnel who have served in the Middle East know why.
In Libya the State Department decided it was preferable to scale back the American security and rely on the locals. This is not a new problem. The most spectacular State Department military blunder occurred in 1983, when State Department pressure led to the reduction in security around a building U.S. Marines were using in Beirut, Lebanon. This allowed a suicide truck bomb to get close to a building used by the marines as a barracks and the explosion left 241 Americans dead. The marines vowed never to let that happen again but the State Department did not change its ideas about security.