Transcript: Hillary Clinton on balancing State Department’s missions & embassy security in high-threat areas

Transcribed and edited by Jenny Jiang

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on balancing embassy security and State Department’s missions in high-threat areas. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was held on Jan. 23, 2013:

We saw, for example, that when our troops withdrew from Iraq, it dramatically altered what our civilians were capable of being able to do because there had been over the course of the war in Iraq a very good working relationship between DOD, State, and USAID.

We’re going to face the same kind of questions in Afghanistan as our troops drawdown from Afghanistan.

And in a lot of these places, we don’t have military resources. You know, the Department of Defense was a very good partner to us in responding to Benghazi, but their assets were too far away to make much difference in any timely fashion.

Ambassadors are given what’s called chief of mission authority. Ambassadors, especially those we ask to go to dangerous posts, are pretty independent folks. Some of them might say, “Well, what do you think about this or that?” But most of them make their own decisions.

Chris Stevens did not ask anyone for permission to go to Benghazi. I don’t think it would have crossed his mind. Robert Ford, who served as our Ambassador to Syria, went out on numerous occasions to talk to the opposition before we pulled him out of Damascus. We had very great Ambassadors like Ryan Crocker, one of our very best, who – it would be very difficult to say, “Ryan, you can’t go do this even though you’ve decided you should do it.”

But what we’re trying to do is to create a more ongoing discussion between our Ambassadors, our bureaus back in the State Department who are regional experts, and our security people so that at the very least no Ambassador is taking an unnecessary risk – however that is defined.

I ordered the first quadrennial diplomacy and development review because as I said, I served on the Armed Services Committee where we get every four years a quadrennial defense review, which really does help the Armed Services Committee in both houses plan for their authorization. And I wanted to lay the groundwork for us to do the same with the State Department.

In that document, we began what is a very difficult analysis about how to balance and mitigate risk versus presence. It was one of the most challenging aspects of the QDDR process and we have an ongoing effort under way.

Because if you talk to many of our Ambassadors – especially the experienced ones – they really don’t want to be told by Washington or anybody where they can go, what they can do. They’ve been in the Foreign Service 10, 20, 30 years or more and they believe in their missions and they believe they have a better sense of how to evaluate risk.

At the same time, we do have to be conscious of and make difficult decisions about how to protect not just Ambassadors but all of our personnel and their families in these high-risk posts. It is a constant debate, Congressman. You know, we have authorized departure. We have ordered departure. And it is something we take very seriously…

When we left Benghazi on the night of the 11th-12th, there others still there. The Italians were there. The Turks were there. The Italians just left. I mean, people evaluate risks over time, and I think it’s important to do what we can to minimize it. Some of that will be done by technology. Some of that will be done by hard security. Some of that will be done by what we call soft power. But trying to get the balance right is very difficult.

Very, very difficult. You know, that’s going to be a question of new streamlined processes and protocols, sufficient security both hard and soft, and resources. And we have to ask you based on our best assessment about what we need to do our jobs. And sometimes, you know, you’ve got a budget process and nobody has predicted that you’re going to have a revolution against Qaddafi. And then you’ve got to scramble. How do you get somebody into Benghazi? How do you figure out what to do with Tripoli? And I could go down the line and tell you 10 or 20 of those examples that we live with every day. It’s more of an art than a science to be honest because as of now hard parameters but we’re tying to develop the best we can.

This is my ongoing hope that we can get it more right than wrong. Let me just make a few points because it’s an issue that I hope this committee takes very seriously. First of all, you’ve got to remember that when we talk about the State Department and diplomatic facilities, that covers – we are the umbrella for so many other agencies in our government. If we were not there, many of those agencies, representatives would have a difficult time being there. We are the diplomatic presence that permits us to pursue law enforcement objectives, intelligence objectives, military objectives, and so much more.

So it’s not just about us sitting around and saying, “You know, do we really want our diplomats at risk?” It’s “Okay, what are the equities of the rest of the government that would be affected if we decided we had to close shop because the risk is too great?” I want to stress that because I don’t think you can understand – at least, from my perspective – how difficult the calculation is without knowing that it’s not just about the State Department and USAID.

Secondly, I don’t think we can retreat from these hard places. We have to harden our security presence but we can’t retreat. We’ve got to be there. We’ve got to be picking up intelligence, information, building relationships. And if we have a whole table of some of our most experienced Ambassadors sitting here today, they would be speaking with a loud chorus, “Yes, help us be secure but don’t shut us down, don’t keep us behind concrete walls in bunkers so we can’t get out and figure out what’s going on.” So that’s the balance I’ve been trying to make for 4 years.

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