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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Do American Embassies Need More Security?

Libyan guards block the gate of the U.S. Consulate while Libyan investigators look into the attack that killed four Americans. (AP)

News Wednesday of an attack on the American ambassador to China is raising more questions about how to secure American embassies abroad, following last week’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

But Ambassador James Dobbins, who served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, says we probably won’t see many changes.

“One has to acknowledge that there is some degree of risk and reducing those risks to low can interfere with the capacity of the mission to do business,” he told Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “If the mission can’t do their business, in the long run the risk to America is much greater.”

Extended Interview Highlights

On Whether Today’s Embassy Attacks Represent Change From Past

“The only difference is that they’re more widespread. That, in an Internet age, there’s a contagion that occurs much more quickly and so a demonstration in one place can lead to demonstrations in distant locations among populations that have the same sorts of concerns or local conditions.”

“Diplomats do take risks. What is different now than from most of the Cold War is much of the diplomacy was the traditional sort of diplomacy in, essentially, settled areas.”

– Ambassador James Dobbins

Should Embassies Be More Isolated?

“There’s a price that’s paid for higher levels of security that has a pretty direct connection with an ability to access the society and the ability of influential members of a society to access American representatives.”

“If you locate the embassy out of town, it means your diplomats have to spend half their time commuting into town and have half as many appointments every day and see half as many people and it means that virtually nobody comes to visit them. Now, clearly there are societies and locations where these degrees of precautions are necessary. Too often, the department tends to establish universal guidelines that apply everywhere in areas that are relatively benign; establish the same kind of physical rules for the structure of the embassy, the distance from the street, that sort of thing, as they would in much more dangerous areas.”

On Whether To Rely On Host Countries For Protection

“In areas where the host country has limited ability to provide protection, and this is true, for instance, in some of these new regimes in the Arab world that have only recently taken office, that are inexperienced, that have fragmented security forces, that have limited control over some elements of their security establishment, the US has to supplement that by beefing up its own internal security. More guards, more Marines in some cases, we saw that, for instance, in Iraq, where the bulk of the US presence were, in fact, security guards.”

On The Use Of Defense Contractors For Embassy Security Instead Of Marines

“The standard arrangement is that the Marine detachment is responsible for security within the building where the diplomats work and that security guards who are paid – they’re either local nationals or they’re third country nationals – under the supervision of professional diplomatic security agents, provide security outside the building within the larger perimeter. And then the host country is responsible for security outside the perimeter. That’s been the case for decades, that hasn’t changed. What has changed is there are more security guards now.”

On Newer Practice Of Sending Diplomatic Missions Into Politically Dangerous Areas

“American ambassadors have been killed in a variety of circumstances that were at least as dangerous as the places where they’re operating today. In Lebanon back in the ’70s, in Afghanistan, also in the ’70s, both countries [were] in the midst of Civil War and we maintained embassies there. What may be true is that we are putting more people into these kinds of missions because we’re conducting larger programs in these societies. But, I don’t believe, under any conditions, that we wouldn’t have had a mission in Libya or Egypt in any period in the last 60 years.”

“I opened the embassy in Kabul in 2001, only a few weeks after the Taliban had been chased out of town, at a period where there were almost no American forces in the country. The only American forces in Kabul were the company of Marines that was guarding my Embassy.”

On Balancing Risks And Benefits

“Diplomats do take risks. What is different now than from most of the Cold War is much of the diplomacy was the traditional sort of diplomacy in, essentially, settled areas. Maybe very tense areas, but not areas noted for popular insurrections. Now, the shift has been to societies that are in turmoil, that are in ferment, and I think that one has to acknowledge there’s some degree of risk and that reducing those risks too low can interfere with the capacity of the mission to do its business. And if the missions don’t do their business well in the long term, the risks to the United States go way up.”


  • Ambassador James Dobbins, director of the RAND international security and defense policy center

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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