As Benghazi Attack Controversy Simmers, Some Diplomats Say Security Is Already Too Tight

FILE - This Sept. 12, 2012 file photo shows Libyans walking on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a
FILE - This Sept. 12, 2012 file photo shows Libyans walking on the grounds of the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. An independent panel appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is opening its inquiry into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, amid demands from Congress for speedy answers to questions about the security of the mission and concerns that the FBI investigation into the incident has been delayed. (AP Photo/Ibrahim Alaguri, File)

WASHINGTON -- Last month, shortly after an attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya left four Americans dead, Barbara Bodine sat at home watching video clips of a mob of protesters as they stormed the American embassy in Sana'a, Yemen.

Bodine knew the place well. As the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001, Bodine was at the embassy when security advisers from the U.S. State Department recommended that the facility be reinforced with heavy-duty metal barriers. The new walls, Bodine was assured, were virtually impenetrable -- even a massive bomb wouldn't make a dent.

As she watched the news that night, the simple effectiveness of what she saw stunned her: rather than trying to blast through the wall, the surging protesters just dismantled it and went around.

"Those walls were designed to withstand a truck bomb, but not, apparently, a bunch of guys who climbed up on it and unscrewed it with their hands," Bodine, who is now a lecturer at Princeton University, said recently in an interview with The Huffington Post.

Security at American diplomatic facilities has been a high-profile issue lately, particularly after the incident in Benghazi, Libya, in which a mob of attackers breached the compound walls and killed the ambassador in what was supposed to be his safe room.

Republicans in Congress have charged that the State Department ignored repeated pleas from security officers in Libya to provide extra protection at the outpost. Democrats have fired back that recent Republican budgets have significantly cut funding for State Department security operations.

"There are thousands of personnel serving this country who at any time, in any country could be a target," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), during a hearing of the government oversight committee on Wednesday. "It is a long time to wait if you're sitting in Cairo, in Algeria, in Beirut, in Damascus, and you don't trust that security measures you need have occurred."

But while there are indeed indications that the State Department failed to take sufficient precautions to protect its diplomats in Benghazi, many active and recently-retired foreign service officers are watching the brewing controversy for another reason.

As disturbed as they are by the attacks, the wary foreign service officers say they fear that the controversy could cause the State Department or Congress to go too far in the other direction: further tightening the noose of security restrictions at diplomatic outposts that has already impeded their jobs, with only limited gains in security.

"Many of us still want less security, not more," said one active American diplomat who has served in several conflict zones and was not authorized to speak about current State Department regulations.

One problem, the diplomats say, is that many of the safety enhancements constantly put in place at embassies only provide a false sense of security, and may even be counterproductive.

"I watched as they kept adding one more layer of jersey barriers and barbed wire, then another layer of jersey barriers and barbed wire, with this idea that there was some magical perimeter point that was perfectly safe," Bodine said of her time in Sana'a. "No matter what you do, I think your security can also become your prison."

The diplomats also say that the restrictions -- on the physical space of the embassy, and on the daily movement of diplomats -- can have a detrimental impact on their ability to do their jobs: gaining insights from meeting locals and sharing American values with the host country.

"We're basically negating the whole purpose and the whole function and the whole methodology of diplomacy," said Bodine. "Diplomacy is engaging. It's engaging on a regular basis, on an informal basis. If you can only go out in a huge motorcade and you can only talk to senior government officials -- that's not what we're supposed to be doing."

"You keep fortifying to this extent, then when do you pass the line that you're no longer in the work of diplomacy?" added Wendy Chamberlin, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan who is now the president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

Over the past several years, following State Department regulations designed to prevent suicide attacks, some American embassies in major world cities have been turned into impenetrable fortresses and moved out of city centers to remote suburban areas.

In some places, the security provisions make sense. The U.S. embassy in Beirut was moved to a location high on a hill some 30 minutes north of the city after a 1983 attack, considered to be one of the worst terrorist attacks in American diplomatic history.

But the American consulate in Istanbul moved in 2003 from its central location near downtown to a small district 20 minutes north of the city, and now even the U.S. Embassy in London is planning to move to a new facility in an out-of-the-way part of south London.

The new facilities are difficult for locals to reach by public transportation, diplomats say, and make daily encounters in town harder to come by.

Diplomats also complain that tight restrictions on their travel and security entourages in certain regions make it difficult for them to have regular, casual meetings, and to experience everyday life in their assigned countries.

The regulations can often seem illogical. Embassy officials in Beirut, for instance, are required to live on the embassy compound and secure an armored car and armed escort 36 hours in advance of any excursions into the generally safe city. Meanwhile -- until recently at least -- officials in places like Sana'a and Damascus operated under "self-drive" rules, meaning they could travel around the city alone by taxi or in their own personal cars. (The Damascus embassy is now closed, and Sana'a now has stricter armored-car requirements.)

This summer, the American Foreign Service Association, an independent interest group for diplomats, awarded its annual dissent award to a State Department official in Pakistan who had written a cable harshly criticizing the way that security rules were limiting the ability of diplomats to do their jobs.

"Overly barricaded" embassies and the practice of "consistently erring on the side of caution" was sending "a message of distrust to the people of our host nations," the official, Joshua Polacheck, wrote, according to snippets of the cable mentioned in his award citation.

State Department officials say the burden of security is something the department takes very seriously.

In testimony before Congress on Wednesday, Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international programs, described security evaluations as an "intensive, ongoing, constantly evolving process."

And some of the foreign service officers who spoke to HuffPost said that while the movement restrictions can be meddlesome, they don't necessarily bar effective diplomacy.

"Some people bristle against it because of how it impacts their personal life, but people find a way," a second active foreign service officer, who serves in the Middle East and is also not authorized to discuss State Department regulations, said. "You may have to plan in advance; it's inconvenient. But you can do it."

Still, foreign service officers watching the aftermath of the Benghazi attack said they are particularly concerned that if regulations are tightened, it will prove virtually impossible to undo the new rules -- no one wants to be the official who authorizes a loosening of restrictions, only to see a tragedy unfold.

"Once you create this machine, who's going to have the cojones to turn it off?" said the second foreign service officer, who also noted that big security entourages can sometimes attract more unwanted danger than they protect against.

"The concern with this whole thing is that people are going to say, 'Oh my god, people got killed! We have to prevent anybody from going anywhere!'" said the first active diplomat. "And they're in a fortress, and then you can never go back from that."

Bodine agreed that significant costs lurk in trying to avoid all risk.

"We've gone from risk management to risk avoidance," she said. "And there is no risk avoidance. There is this idea that if we simply keep everybody perfectly, hermetically sealed inside the embassy and they don't go anywhere, don't talk to anybody, nothing bad will happen -- and almost no one is willing to push back on that."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled the surname of Wendy Chamberlin. Additionally, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an embassy.