On the 11th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, al Qaeda affiliates staged a series of attacks against U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East. Inciting protests against the film, “Innocence of Muslims,” or possibly taking advantage of existing demonstrations, militants with alledged links to Al Qaeda burned the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith and two contracted American security personnel. Within days, violent protests sprung up in over two dozen countries across the Muslim world. In Sana’a, Yemen, protestors forcibly entered the U.S. Embassy compound and burned the American flag, replacing it with a black flag bearing the Islamic shahada.
Since the Benghazi attack, Al Qaeda and Hezbollah have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities. In light of Ambassador Stevens’ death, and remembering the 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days by “protestors” in Iran, there is growing concern about the ability of Americans to protect themselves inside diplomatic missions. While Marines from Fleet Anti-Terrorist Security Teams (FAST) have been deployed to Yemen, questions remain as to why Marines or other U.S. military forces have not been sent to other embassies. Before we discuss the operational details of what U.S. forces are available, it is imperative that we understand the political context in which our military is used to protect U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.
First, chiefs of mission, usually ambassadors, are the President’s personal representative to a given country. As such, the chief of mission has authority over every executive branch employee in that country except military personnel assigned to a theater commander. Also, according to the Department of State Foreign Affairs Manual, “The Secretary of State shall develop and implement policies and programs to provide for the safe and efficient evacuation of United States Government personnel, dependents, and private United States citizens when their lives are Endangered.” So, all activities related to diplomatic security and evacuation are under the purview of the State Department. Any U.S. military forces used to protect/evacuate diplomatic missions must be activated at the request and approval of both the secretary of State and the chief of mission.