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POLITICS: PennAve

One year after Benghazi, State Department tackles security flaws and new threats

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Politics,White House,National Security,Benghazi,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,State Department

One year after the deadly September 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department has yet to implement key security reforms to protect diplomats in flashpoints worldwide.

The Libya attack, which killed four Americans, sparked a firestorm of controversy, with Republicans questioning if the administration neglected to provide adequate security.

The tragedy cast a long shadow over the State Department, which is still enacting 29 recommendations from an independent panel that probed the attack, even in the face of new threats.

In early August, the administration shuttered 19 U.S. embassies across the Mideast and Africa amid reports terror groups are targeting those installations.

And last week, as President Obama pushes for a military strike on Syria, the administration directed staff to leave missions in Beirut, Lebanon and Adana, Turkey, and warned travelers not to enter Iraq.

Many experts question if temporary closures and the post-Benghazi reforms are merely Band-Aids and urge a larger reevaluation of diplomatic security.

Retired Ambassador Prudence Bushnell was the chief of the U.S. embassy in Kenya when it was bombed — along with the mission in Tanzania — by al Qaeda in August 1998, wounding her and killing hundreds.

On the 15th anniversary of those bombings this year, as State was shuttering a record number of embassies, she made her annual trek to Arlington National Cemetery to pay respect to those who died.

Bushnell calls Benghazi a turning point and is pushing State to reassess the very need for maintaining U.S. embassies in volatile countries.

“What were we doing in Benghazi? It begs the question...and what were we doing in Peshawar, [Pakistan],” Bushnell asked the Washington Examiner. “Don't tell me that people are lining up for visas there or the U.S. has a lot of citizens there.” The U.S. Consulate in Peshawar was attacked in 2010.

Some experts also question if the State Department is being forced to close embassies because security reforms are still being enacted.

A State Department spokesman, however, said embassies were closed in August and September after specific threats, not because many-post Benghazi security reforms have yet to be implemented.

The department has already expanded training for diplomats assigned to the riskiest areas and ensured that all high-risk posts have “adequate” fire-safety equipment, an administration official confirmed. By the end of September, State also plans to send 113 additional diplomatic security agents to high-threat embassies.

Congress has appropriated more than $5 billion for embassy security this fiscal year alone. Part of that money will go to recruiting and training some 350 additional Marine security guards and assigning them to two dozen embassies, including in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen.

The Pentagon has also posted a 500-member quick-response force in Spain that can be ready to deploy on six hours' notice to trouble spots.

But experts predict it will take years and and a deep commitment to change the culture at the State Department to carry out the reforms needed to keep personnel safe.

Congressional Republicans questioned if the administration learned any lessons from the Benghazi tragedy after Secretary of State John Kerry reinstated four employees who were placed on administrative leave after the independent review.

“Instead of accountability, the State Department offered a charade that included false reports of firings and resignations and now ends in a game of musical chairs where no one misses a single day on the State Department payroll,” said House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., of Kerry’s decision.

Kerry has insisted that embassy security is a priority, and President Obama has pressed lawmakers to provide more funding.

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