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The Danger of Lowest Cost Embassy Security Arrangements

On September 11, 2012, militants attacked a United States Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya and killed four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador. In the aftermath of the attack, an independent investigation determined that, among other issues, there were significant security failures. The report recommended that the Department of State strengthen security beyond its traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts.

However, the State Departments hands are tied when it comes to the security of its missions. Many people believe that the U.S. Marine Security Guards protect the mission compounds; however, the Guards’ primary mission is to protect the classified material located in the compound. Instead, the U.S. missions rely upon security arrangements with the host country or hire private contractors to protect the mission if host country support is lacking. A 1990 law mandates that the State Department accept the lowest bid for private security contractors, which often leads to the hiring of thousands of guards based on how cheap they are rather than their quality of work.

The concerns over cost cutting were highlighted in the Benghazi attack where the February 17 militia, assigned to protect the mission, was insufficient and did not have the requisite skills and reliability to provide a reasonable level of security on a 24/7 basis for the eight-acre compound. Additionally, fifteen months prior to the Benghazi attacks, the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy in Pakistan had dozens of its local guards walk out for three days protesting the inadequacy of their pay, putting the security of the embassy at risk. Currently, it is estimated that there are 30,000 local guards protecting 285 U.S. diplomatic missions worldwide. Two-thirds of posts that were surveyed about their security protection reported problems with the private security guards, such as absenteeism and high turnover rates.

Before Secretary Clinton left her post, she urged Congress to change the law that requires that security contracts be awarded on a “lowest price” basis. However, changing the law would increase the cost of diplomatic security, an issue that would be difficult to pass in a budget-conscious Washington. Nevertheless, Congress recently passed a bill that allowed the State Department flexibility in hiring local guards for hostile or high-risk areas, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, based on a best-value analysis, rather than lowest-cost, but that provision expires at the end of September.

Additionally, in February, the Senate approved legislation that would allow the State Department to transfer roughly $1.1 billion to improve security at U.S. embassies. Unfortunately, Congressional Democrats argue that the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester would cut $168 million from the State Department’s “Worldwide Security Protection” and “Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance” accounts, which received roughly $2 billion in fiscal year 2012. The Department has asked for $2.4 billion for fiscal year 2013. The Worldwide Security Protection funding supports the funding for local guard units at diplomatic missions and residences.

As former Secretary of Defense Gates noted in 2009, it is in the security interests of the United States to have a well-funded State Department, as they are often the first line of defense in protecting the United States and its interests. An inadequately funded security department, combined with “lowest price” security hiring, places the U.S. diplomatic corps in danger of other attacks along the lines of Benghazi.


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