by Global Security Staff
Members of Congress have asked the US State Dept. to arm security forces protecting US Embassies in high-or-medium risk areas around the world in response to a fast-changing threat environment involving ongoing risks of terrorist incidents or even attacks from hostile nation-states.
The Dept. of State, however, in response to a formal letter from Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., did not commit to the practice but rather cited several factors informing decision-making on the issue essentially nullifying the need to arm guards that protect US diplomats and military personnel in high threat and terrorist infested areas.
US State Dept. Asst. Secretary of Legislative Affairs Mary Waters sent a July, 2018 response letter to Representative Gosar detailing the department’s most current thinking on the question.
Waters wrote that the decision to provide weapons to security forces depends upon “whether the host nation will provide armed support for the embassy,” and whether local host-country laws allow the “US government to provide firearms to the guard force.” But, some experts in the field point out that almost every nation where there are US embassies present do allow armed security forces and in fact, other foreign embassies within these countries do have armed security forces.
This response, however, appears to fall well short of Gosar’s request; his May 2018 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argues that armed guard forces should be a matter of global policy, depending upon threat levels. The US military in contrast, does use armed private security forces at their bases in countries where the US embassies are not armed.
“Diplomats and members of the US Department of State, US Department of Defense, and other US agencies assigned to these embassies receive hazardous duty or danger pay and allowances….then it is logical that the security forces the protect the embassies should be armed,” Gosar writes.
Gosar goes on to specifically site current state department practices, which he says include a clear option to provide weapons where needed.
“The US Department of State’s Acquisition Management (AQM) division of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has the latitude to require armed security forces for embassies in high-and medium-threat locations. AQM routinely however opts not to arm security forces,” Gosar’s letter states.
While focused on the issue broadly on a global scale, the letter does cite a few specific instances, including the widely discussed attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi several years ago. Gosar’s letter draws an unequivocal connection between the lack of armed security guards at the US facility and the devastation caused by the terrorist attack.
“This is precisely what happened in Benghazi which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three brave Americans who tried to rescue him,” the letter writes.
Gosar’s assessment is reinforced by some language included in a 2014 US Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi, which references an August 16, 2012, cable to State headquarters. In the cable, as reported by the Senate, Amb. Stevens raised concerns about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi.
“The Principal Officer remarked that the security situation in Benghazi was trending negatively and that this daily pattern of violence would be the new normal for the foreseeable future,” the cable states, according to the Senate report. More specifically, the Senate committee cites the lack of “weapons capabilities” as a critical factor contributing to the tragic results of the attack.
Referring to the same Amb. Stevens cable, the Senate report states that “the Regional Security Officer expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound.”
In conclusion, Gosar recommends that armed US Embassy security forces be armed and managed and led by US veterans of the armed forces or law enforcement officials.
Overall, given the extent to which new threats are currently emerging in certain strategically vitals areas of the globe, the issue of whether to more broadly implement new policy arming security forces is likely to capture continued attention from members of Congress.