John Kerry underscores need for better embassy security in his welcome remarks to State Department employees

Secretary of State John Kerry addressing State Department employees on Feb. 4, 2013. SOURCE: State.gov

Addressing State Department employees on his first day as Secretary of State, John Kerry pledged that improving security at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad will be one of his top priorities in light of the recent deadly attacks against diplomatic posts in Benghazi, Libya and Ankara, Turkey.

The suicide bombing at the U.S. embassy in Ankara, Turkey on Feb. 1st highlighted the dangers that American diplomats face even security improvements are underway in high-threat posts. The bombing killed one local guard, seriously wounded a Turkish visitor, and the flying debris from the blast injured several American and Turkish staff.

“The dangers could not be more clear. We’re reminded by the stars and names on the wall, and we are particularly reminded by Chris Stevens and Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods and Sean Smith,” said Kerry. “I guarantee you that beginning this morning, when I report for duty upstairs, everything I do will be focused on the security and safety of our people. We have tough decisions to make, but I guarantee I’ll do everything I can to the high standards that Secretary [Hillary] Clinton and her team put in place.”

The deaths of 4 Americans in Benghazi haunted Clinton’s final months at the State Department. The Accountability Review Board (ARB) – headed by Admiral Mike Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering – concluded that the U.S. consulate in Benghazi did not have adequate security at the time of the Sept. 11th attack.

Clinton accepted all of the ARB’s findings and began putting in place the security improvements recommended by the independent review board. According to Clinton, “85%” of those security improvements are on tract to be completed by the end of March.

In her final testimony before Congress, Clinton repeatedly cited the ARB’s finding that the chronic shortfalls in State Department funding has resulted in a culture of “husbanding resources”, which has hindered the department’s ability to make the necessary security upgrades at high-threat posts in a timely fashion.

Clinton also pointed out that even after the Benghazi attack, the House of Representatives has blocked granting the State Department transfer authority to “move money we already have to address the needs and deficiencies that the ARB has recommended we do.”

The State Department has asked Congress for permission to move $1.4 billion of the agency’s existing funds to boost security at diplomatic posts abroad. Of that $1.4 billion, $533 million is for additional Marine security guard detachments at embassies; $130 million to add and equip another 155 diplomatic security personnel to posts; and $736 million for construction upgrades to embassies and consulates to high-threat posts.

“Let us have the permission to take money we already have – we’re not asking for more money – and put it to work where the ARB told us to do,” said Clinton.

Obtaining the transfer authority from the Republican-dominated House is one of the first hurdles Kerry will have to overcome if he wishes to follow through on his pledge.

Another serious budgetary challenge confronting Kerry is the prospect of sequestration – or automatic across-the-board cuts to discretionary funding mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

If Congress allows sequestration to take effect this spring, the State Department’s funding for embassy security upgrades will be slashed by 8.2%.

“Those cuts would significantly impact security programs…[that] provide physical protection for diplomatic personnel and facilities overseas,” wrote Rep. Norman Dicks (D-Wash.) in a letter to the House Appropriations Committee on Oct. 9, 2012. “Sequestration cuts to these programs would place the safety of American citizens and diplomatic personnel abroad at risk.”

Clinton warned that sequestration will be “very damaging” to the State Department and USAID.

“It throws the baby out with the bath,” she said. “Are there programs that we could reduce, make more efficient? Yes… But there are also a lot of essential programs – first and foremost, the security of our personnel in dangerous places that we can’t afford to cut more of.”

 

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