It’s a tough time to be an American diplomat. The State Department is reeling as Secretary Tillerson presides over a management trainwreck that hardly seems fitting for a man who once ran one of the largest companies in the world. Slashed budgets, senior career diplomats who have been dismissed without explanation, dozens of unfilled ambassadorial and assistant secretary positions, the appointment of an immensely under-qualified person to lead the foreign service, and a “redesign” plan that has left diplomats and management experts alike scratching their heads have all amounted to what the highly respected veteran diplomats Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker call a “deliberate effort to deconstruct the State Department and the Foreign Service.” But in the past week, with revelations that Secretary Tillerson spends virtually no time on embassy security and with President Trump tweeting out inflammatory videos, it’s clear that our diplomats need to worry not only about job security but also about their leaders’ commitment to their physical security.
The first revelation was a New York Times story detailing how Secretary Tillerson repeatedly refused briefings from Acting Assistant Secretary for D Security, career diplomatic security officer Bill Miller, until finally Miller invoked his statutory right to speak to the Secretary. According to The Times, Miller’s meeting with the Secretary lasted just five minutes, and he was removed from his position shortly thereafter. Miller had served in an acting capacity for more than five months prior to his dismissal due to the administration’s failure to nominate and confirm a permanent Assistant Secretary, which eventually occurred in November, almost four months after Miller’s departure. That Miller even needed to rely on a statutory right to speak to the Secretary is a reminder of how, despite all of the Trump team’s reliance on Benghazi as a campaign issue against Hillary Clinton, it’s not clear that they understands the true lessons of that tragedy. Most of the Republican dialogue on Benghazi has of course focused on Secretary Clinton’s role and statements made after the attack by then-Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. But within the government, the attack and its aftermath set off a period of reckoning and reevaluation of everything we did to protect our people abroad. Lost in the coverage of the planned Benghazi terrorist attack was that the Innocence of Muslims film had indeed provoked multiple large protests that turned violent in many places. Houthi demonstrators in Yemen stormed the U.S. Embassy, burning vehicles and vandalizing facilities in the process. A broader reevaluation of our diplomatic presence abroad highlighted a near-constant stream of threats to our facilities and our people, particularly in places across the Middle East and North Africa where U.S. presence was absolutely essential to combating terrorists and shoring up fragile partners. In the years after Benghazi, the heightened sense of concern would be further validated through major terrorist attacks targeting westerners in Mali, Kenya, Tunisia, and other locations. An August 2013 threat emanating from Yemen led to the temporary shuttering of our post in Sana’a and 28 other locations across the Middle East and North Africa.
President Obama demanded a series of internal reforms to address what was eventually termed a “new normal” of threats to U.S. facilities abroad. Although the mission of protecting diplomats is primarily the State Department’s responsibility, the Obama team felt strongly that if our people were in harm’s way, it was the national security community’s collective responsibility to keep them safe. The government took steps to ensure that information on threats to U.S. facilities was always shared with the right people and that all departments and agencies with people abroad were attuned to the specific dangers they faced. U.S. facilities were fortified and diplomatic posts in key locations took efforts to consolidate the footprint of their people. The Pentagon established new offices to oversee military support to embassy security and contingency planning, and the Marine Corps expanded its embassy security function. A bipartisan group of lawmakers and staff (i.e., not the Benghazi Committee) worked with the Executive Branch to ensure that the government had the proper resources and authorities to keep our people safe. As the Times story notes, Congress even took the unusual (though perhaps prescient step) in 2014 of legally giving the Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security direct access to the Secretary when necessary, thereby bypassing two senior levels of State bureaucracy. The National Security Council brought a Diplomatic Security special agent onto the staff to oversee policy for protecting Americans abroad, and the NSC coordinated weekly meetings among senior working level officials, deputy cabinet officials, and even meetings in which the President personally participated to ensure we were doing everything we could to keep our people safe.
Certainly the Trump Administration is not bound by the bureaucratic processes of its predecessor. By the end of the Obama Administration, there were plenty of places to streamline the embassy security process and reduce the White House’s role in coordinating it. And the career diplomatic security staff at State continue their hard work to secure our posts and plan for any number of contingencies, regardless of whether there is a weekly White House meeting or not. But hard problems calling for action from various parts of the government, especially when those problems involve U.S. personnel in harm’s way, do require the continued attention of our top leaders. Secretary Tillerson’s most fundamental job is keeping his people safe, and it now seems that this mission didn’t even merit a slot on his schedule.
As if this couldn’t get any worse, this week our diplomats found a new reason to worry. On Wednesday, President Trump fired off a series of retweets of videos allegedly showing Muslims attacking a disabled young man, desecrating symbols of Christianity, and pushing a teenager off a roof and subsequently beating him to death. The tweets had originated from a far-right political leader in Britain, who according to The New York Times, was previously arrested for “making threats and abusive remarks” and is “barred from entering any mosque in England. The retweets were quickly denounced by British Prime Minister Theresa May. Media reports noted how offensive the tweets had been to Muslims, a form of modern blood libel, while Trump’s supporters predictably stood behind the President for citing the supposed depravity of Islam. Lost in the conversation was just how incredibly irresponsible it is for the President of the United States to promote the kind of content that has historically been linked to protests and mob violence in the places where our diplomats live and work. In the years after Benghazi, the U.S. Government stayed closely attuned to the pending release of hateful propaganda along the lines of Innocence of Muslims and took appropriate preemptive steps to protect our people and facilities. Even the U.S. Government’s decisions to release information, such as the Senate report on the CIA’s torture program or documents seized during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, involved extensive discussions on potential blowback and contingency planning to protect our people in those scenarios.
It’s hard to imagine then that the President of the United States would risk provoking the kinds of mob violence that has made it more dangerous for our people to do their jobs and more difficult to advance U.S. interests abroad. And with Tillerson’s diminished status with the White House, it’s hard to imagine that he could convince the President to tone down his rhetoric. But as with so many things related to this Administration, the unimaginable has become ordinary.
Yesterday, The New York Times reported that President Trump plans to replace Secretary Tillerson with Director of the CIA Mike Pompeo, a former congressman who served on the House Benghazi committee. With this move, we will soon learn whether a man who has professed to care deeply about our people abroad has actually learned the lessons of Benghazi or whether the politicization of one of the State Department’s great tragedies has blinded him to the hard work the Secretary of State needs to do, both within the Department and with the White House, to keep our diplomats safe. Our country’s ability to advance our interests in some of the hardest corners of the world hangs in the balance.
Image: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty U.S. embassy, Rabat, Morocco, 2002