Budget cuts hindered embassy security upgrades

Diplomatic security has not been fully funded since the 2010 budget year

An unidentified U.S. official inspects a damaged car outside the U.S. Consulate June 14, 2002 in Karachi, Pakistan. At least eight people were killed and 40 injured when a suicide bomber crashed a car laden with explosives into a guard post next to the consular building.
Visual News/Getty Images

By Trevor Aaronson and Frank Bass
Al Jazeera Investigative Unit 

A suicide bomber on June 14, 2002, drove a truck to the U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, and detonated a fertilizer bomb that blew a 12-foot hole in the white concrete wall surrounding the building and destroyed cars and SUVs parked outside. Twelve Pakistanis, including two local guards, were killed in the explosion.

No one inside the consulate was killed.

For the U.S. Department of State, an investment in Karachi had paid off.

The mission had just undergone safety and security upgrades designed for such an attack. The consulate building, with its shielded windows, barely showed a scratch after the enormous blast.

In a 2003 report, the Government Accountability Office cited Karachi as an example of State Department money well spent in the effort to safeguard the lives of American diplomats.

In the decade since the Karachi bombing, the State Department has invested heavily in security upgrades for embassies and consulates in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Click for more on Al Jazeera's Benghazi Report

But due to budget constraints and the focus on those three missions, a similar level of investment hasn’t gone to U.S. diplomatic facilities in other dangerous nations, such as Libya, leaving those missions vulnerable. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11, 2012, after dozens of armed men attacked the weakly fortified U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya.

In an internal government report obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, a five-member panel of independent security and intelligence experts documented systemic security flaws at U.S. embassies and consulates that the State Department had left unaddressed for decades.

The panel, chaired by former U.S. Secret Service Director Mark J. Sullivan, found that the State Department routinely waived security standards for U.S. diplomatic posts that could not meet them, such as the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi. The missions did not meet State Department building security standards and at times had only one security officer on duty.

Thirty years after the State Department adopted heightened security standards for embassies and consulates, many U.S. diplomatic facilities, including the embassy chancery in Beirut, Lebanon, still do not meet those standards.

Funding issues

Following the attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held hearings to determine how and why the tragedy occurred.

While documenting security failures in Benghazi, the committee in a Dec. 30, 2012, report also noted congressional budget cuts to diplomatic security. At a time of fiscal conservatism, the committee said, diplomatic security has been substantially underfunded.

Diplomatic security has not been fully funded since the 2010 budget year. In 2012, for example, Congress appropriated $275 million less than the Obama administration requested for diplomatic security.

Supplemental appropriations bills made up little of the difference, since nearly all of the additional money went to security upgrades for diplomatic facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Neither the Department of State nor Congress made a point of providing additional funds in a supplemental request for Libya, or more specifically, Benghazi,” the committee, which was chaired by former Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, wrote in its report.

2012 AFP

Related: Benghazi report details security flaws at US deplomatic posts

The U.S. State Department has known for decades that inadequate security at embassies and consulates worldwide could lead to tragedy, but senior officials ignored the warnings and left some of America's most dangerous diplomatic posts vulnerable to attack. 

Read more

In February, the Senate passed a bill that would have transferred as much as $1.2 billion in surplus funds from the Iraq war to bolster embassy security worldwide.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who leads the Senate appropriations panel that doles out State Department funding, died in the House of Representatives.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, in May introduced a more wide-ranging measure, which also would have improved security funding at U.S. embassies and consulates.

The bill has been approved by Menendez’s panel and is awaiting a Senate vote.

The State Department’s current budget includes $1.3 billion for security and new construction, as well as $918 million for diplomatic security. The budget, which has cleared both the House and Senate, also includes provisions allowing the department to shift more money into its security programs.

Some members of Congress believe security problems at the State Department have more to do with spending decisions than available money.

“This is not a money problem,” U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., wrote in a Jan. 29 letter to congressional colleagues.

They criticized some of the State Department’s spending, including $322,000 for dog kennels in Iraq and $700,000 on conservation of Tanzanian ruins.

“While some of these programs may support U.S. interests in some capacity, shouldn’t the State Department consider the lives of American diplomats more valuable when prioritizing funding?” Paul and Duncan asked in their letter.

'We have very high standards'

Secretary of State John Kerry testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday as part of the Obama administration’s effort to win congressional approval for strikes in Syria, in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians.

Asked about diplomatic security and the independent panel’s findings, Kerry told Al Jazeera: “We have very high standards.”

However, Kerry declined to answer why the State Department often fails to meet its own security standards.

Kerry’s unwillingness to talk about security problems at U.S. diplomatic facilities and the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi sparked a confrontation on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Duncan, a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, told Kerry that the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi raised credibility concerns.

“The American people deserve answers before they move forward with military involvement in Syria’s civil war,” Duncan said.

“We’re talking about people killed with gas, and you want to talk about Benghazi?’” Kerry responded.

Members of Al Jazeera's Investigative Unit contributed to this report.

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