National Security

Diplomatic Security In An Age Of Terror Threats

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The State Department announced that all but one of the 19 embassies and consulates closed because of terror threats last week will reopen Sunday. The embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, will remain closed. Host Jacki Lyden talks with Prudence Bushnell, former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala, about what changes on the ground when an embassy closes and how diplomatic security has evolved in recent decades.


The State Department has announced that 18 U.S. embassies closed last week because of terror threats will reopen tomorrow. The U.S. post in Sana'a, Yemen, however, will remain closed. Prudence Bushnell is a former U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala and Kenya. She joins us now to talk about this. Welcome to the program.

PRUDENCE BUSHNELL: Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: Very sadly, on September 11 of last year, 2012, Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others were killed during an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi in Libya. And after that incident, you wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which you argued that we have to make the work of diplomacy safer. I'm wondering if these closures are a step in the right direction.

BUSHNELL: I'm delighted that the State Department and the interagency of the U.S. government is taking necessary precautions. What I would like the interagency and State Department to do is to sit down and do a policy scrub that goes to the issue of what we are trying to accomplish in many of these dangerous places, who needs to be there to accomplish our objectives and then how do we keep people safe. And that's a conversation that I don't see taking place yet.

LYDEN: You also wrote in that op-ed that diplomats don't often make headlines until something horrible happens. Give us a glimpse into that world. What is the role of the ambassador in securing an embassy?

BUSHNELL: The U.S. ambassador, all U.S. ambassadors receive a specific letter from the president outlining their responsibilities, which include the safety of all American citizens in the country to which they are accredited. So clearly, all ambassadors have to take their security responsibility seriously lest what happened to me and our embassy in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam should happen again.

LYDEN: So in 1998, during your time as ambassador, the U.S. Embassy in Kenya was bombed by al-Qaida agents, a terrible event. Over - about 44 U.S. government employees were killed, many, many Kenyans, over 200 people were killed. This week, August 7, is the 15th year anniversary of that bombing. Tell us, please, something about that day.

BUSHNELL: Every August 7, some of us who were involved in the bombing and who live in the Washington, D.C., area go to Arlington Cemetery where a marker has been placed. When 10:35 comes, we hold hands. Often, we have tears running down our eyes. We are a very tight community bonded with one another and with our counterparts in Kenya and Tanzania through this very sad event.

LYDEN: That is a very, very moving testimonial, Ambassador. You must have had many thoughts since then through September 11 and on about how our approach to diplomacy and security have changed and what the lessons learned have been.

BUSHNELL: You are absolutely right that the world has changed. And I think we need to step back and say, what do these changes mean in terms of how we conduct diplomacy in the 21st century? Likely, it is not the way we conducted diplomacy in the 19th and 20th century, and it's about time we figured out an appropriate and modern way to do so.

LYDEN: Prudence Bushnell is a former U.S. Ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala. She's now CEO of the leadership consulting firm Sage Associates. Thank you so much for being with us.

BUSHNELL: You're very welcome.

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