Security Issues Force Foreign Service To Adapt

Weekend Edition host Rachel Martin reports on how the U.S. Foreign Service has changed over the years to adjust for security concerns and talks with Ambassador Ronald Neumann, who was posted in Afghanistan.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Of all the foreign policy issues likely to come up in the debate, it's the Benghazi story that's become one of the more contentious - the recent death of four Americans in Libya, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about that attack, but we do know that it's reverberated through both the presidential campaign and the entire diplomatic community. More than a month after Ambassador Stevens was killed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said pulling diplomats back is not the answer. Here she is last week speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Our people cannot live in bunkers and do their jobs. But it is our solemn responsibility to constantly improve to reduce the risks our people face and make sure they have the resources they need to do those jobs we expect from them.

MARTIN: This morning, we're going to dig deeper into how this tragedy has affected the Foreign Service and how the next generation of U.S. diplomats measures the risks and rewards of this kind of work.

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Security was always an issue. That was true from the beginning. I mean, my second tour was in Iran. There was a successful assassination of an official American every one of the three years that I was in Iran.

MARTIN: That's U.S. Ambassador Ron Neumann. He has his own questions about the events in Libya, and we'll hear more from him later. But first, we wanted to find out how aspiring diplomats viewed the events in Benghazi. So, we paid a visit to students at Georgetown's University's School of Foreign Service.

NICOLE BIBBINS SEDACA: What's important for us is as we start to do risk analysis, it'd be...

MARTIN: Professor Sandra Bibbins Sedaca is teaching a class about risk assessment. Twenty-five-year-old Kate Schmelzer is from Marshall, Wisconsin. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The professor's name is NICOLE Bibbins Sedaca. Kate Schmelzer is from MARSHFIELD, Wisconsin.]

And when I asked her if Ambassador Stevens' death has made her think twice about her chosen career, she says no. In fact, she expects and wants to serve in a combat zone.

KATE SCHMELZER: And like a huge part of being an American diplomat is being able to engage with citizens abroad and being able to help them and to present what America is and what America can do for them. And so I think ultimately, yeah, I would want to serve in one of those posts at least once, because I think you have the greatest opportunity to achieve those sorts of goals.

MARTIN: But for some, the deaths in Libya make the danger of this work more real. I asked Professor Bibbins Sedaca how her class reacted after they heard the news that Ambassador Stevens had been killed.

SEDACA: There was a lot of discussion about exactly the issues you're talking about. Because one student said we just need to build our walls higher, and I understand that point of view. But other students said, well, how are you going to get your job done if you're sitting inside an embassy? I think it was a wakeup call.

MARTIN: When we spoke to Ambassador Ronald Neumann, he said that is a hard balance to strike. He's a career diplomat who's worked in Iran and served as ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan.

NEUMANN: These are difficult decisions that have to be made in the field by people confronting them. They have to be able to make judgments, recognizing that sometimes you could make a mistake or you could just get unlucky. If the finger-pointing, some of which we're having now, is so extreme that the political leaders put all the weight on security, then you'll end up either with prohibitions that keep you from doing your job or operating in a climate where you have to not only risk your life but you have to risk your career if you make a decision and it turns out to be wrong, even though it seems solid at the time. That would be a very counterproductive reaction. That's a bit where we've headed.

MARTIN: I do want to ask you if it surprised you at all that Ambassador Stevens would have gone to Benghazi or is that who you knew him to be and is that what the work demanded?

NEUMANN: I don't know the situation enough to comment specifically on that trip. But let me make a comment about the Libyan situation a little more broadly, which is we have a diplomatic interest in trying to work with more moderate elements in Libya in trying to help that country move forward in a civilized and progressive direction. You have a weak government but one which is extremely sensitive, so that they're not going to let you have a military presence that looks like an occupying army. And yet, if you don't interact, if you don't know the people, if you don't understand the politics, you can't carry out the diplomatic purposes. So, the people there are going to be in a constant balancing between how much they need to be seen, how much they need to talk to people, to influence them, to understand what the countervailing influences are and how dangerous the situation is. I don't know specifically what threats they had or what threat information they had. That hasn't been very clear in what's out in the public, and I think we'll probably have to wait for more detail to answer that.

MARTIN: Part of the problem in Libya in this particular case was that there was a request made for security and somehow that was not fulfilled. In your experience, what is the bureaucratic path of a request like that?

NEUMANN: Well, the normal origination of a request would come with the security officer. He would normally propose something in his own channels directly back to Diplomatic Security Bureau. Then it's up to the ambassador, if you're still not getting what you think you need. The ambassador can go screaming to the secretary of state if the ambassador wants to. If one is going to talk about this in the case of Benghazi, then the other piece of this that has to be understood, and which I don't have, is what level of threat information did they have. Because I'm seeing a lot of public discussion about the security they asked for and didn't get. I've seen virtually no public discussion about was there any knowledge that they had the threat that they actually had in the end. Because what I've seen them asking for probably wouldn't have made a whole lot of difference for the attack that they underwent.

MARTIN: So, you're saying the resources that Ambassador Stevens may have asked for, even those alone wouldn't have been enough to stave off the attack that they suffered.

NEUMANN: That request which I have seen, which is one unclassified telegram, might well not have made a whole lot of difference. But there may have been other requests. I don't know. The questions that need answering are not just whether he didn't get help. It's also how dangerous did he perceive the situation to be? How immediate did he see the threat to be? Was the threat he saw and which he was worrying about the actual threat that they in the end were overcome by, or was that quite a different threat from anything anybody knew?

MARTIN: Ambassador Ronald Neumann. He joined us from the studios of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Ambassador Neumann, thanks so much for talking with us.

NEUMANN: You're quite welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News.

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Correction Oct. 22, 2012

We incorrectly identify Nicole Bibbins Sedaca as Sandra Bibbon Sedaka. We also incorrectly say that Kate Schmelzer is from Marshall, Wis. Schmelzer is from Marshfield, Wis.

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