Tag Archives: Embassy

Argo: The Truth

Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, was voted best picture at this year’s Oscars. It tells the story of how Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent succeeded in helping six US diplomats to escape from Tehran in 1980. As a film, it is excellent, and well deserved its Oscar. However, it is a fictionalised account of real events. How accurate is it as a record of history? This is important because many more people will see the film than will read a book on the subject.

On 4 November 1979 supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic government seized the US embassy in Tehran. Most of the diplomats were taken hostage. Some African-Americans and women were soon released, but most were held captive until January 1980. Six, however, were able to escape; they worked in the consular section which had its own street entrance and exit because it dealt with members of the public. They were Robert Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Henry Schatz, Joseph Stafford and Kathleen Stafford.

The film shows the six taking refuge at the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador. There, they were in constant danger of discovery, which would also put Taylor and his wife at risk of arrest. The Canadian embassy was to be closed in late January, with Taylor and his staff leaving Iran.

Mendez comes up with a plan to get them out of Iran by pretending that they are scouting team looking for locations for a proposed science fiction film called Argo. Parts of Star Wars were filmed in Tunisia, so it was plausible that Hollywood might want to make a science fiction film in Iran.

The six diplomats and Mendez left on a Swissair flight on 28 January 1980, the same day that the Canadian embassy closed. The actual escape was more straight forward and less tense than the film’s version.

At the time, the Canadians were given most of the credit; the CIA’s involvement was not revealed until 1997. The film suggests that the CIA was the main player in getting the diplomats out, but Ken Taylor recently told the Toronto Star, that ‘Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.’

The film omits the role of another Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown, who put up some of the Americans. It also says little about Taylor’s significant role in gathering intelligence about potential escape routes.

A radio programme in the BBC World Service’s Outlook series interviewed Mark Lijek and his wife Cora, two of the US diplomats, and Zena Sheardown, John’s widow.

A further controversy results from a line in the film about the Americans being turned away by the British and New Zealanders. In fact, five of them tried initially to go to the British embassy, but it was surrounded by demonstrators. They spent one night at the flat of the most senior of their group, Richard Anders. The sixth went to the Swedish embassy at first, but later joined the others.

According to the London Sunday Times (no link due to paywall), Bruce Laingen, the US charge d’affaires, who was at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, contacted the British embassy the next day to ask them to find and look after his colleagues. Two British diplomats, Martin Williams and Gordon Pirie, took them to a compound inhabited by British diplomats in the northern suburb of Gholhak.

Iranian militants turned at the compound, but were turned away by the chief guard, Iskander Khan, a former Pakistani soldier. He had been a chauffeur at the 1943 Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Because of this, the British moved the Americans first to the house of a US diplomat’s Thai cook , and then to Taylor and Sheardown’s houses. The New Zealanders helped to provide the Americans with food and entertainment.

The BBC interview linked above, however, does not mention this and suggests that the diplomats remained at Anders’s hounse until 8 November, when they contacted the Canadians.

The Sunday Times quoted Affleck as telling a  New Zealand magazine that:

I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair…But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.

Some plot simplification and character amalgamation is probably necessary in a film, and it is inevitable that Affleck felt it necessary to make the escape from Tehran tenser than it actually was. However, there is no excuse for the line claiming that the British and New Zealanders had turned them away, whilst the Canadians should have been shown as more active players in the story.

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When Security Measures Work – Stratfor

When  Security Measures Work is republished with permission of Stratfor.
Read more:  When Security Measures Work | Stratfor

By Scott Stewart Vice  President of Analysis

On Feb. 1, a Turkish national named Ecevit Sanli walked up to the side  entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara like many others had done that day.  Dressed inconspicuously, he waved a manila envelope at the man inside the guard  booth as he approached the entrance. The security guard had no reason to  distrust the man approaching the checkpoint; the entrance is used to screen  packages, and perhaps the guard assumed Sanli was dropping off a document or was  a visa applicant at the wrong entrance. What the guard did not know, perhaps, is  that Sanli was a person of interest to the Turkish police, who suspected that he  was plotting an attack.

The guard opened the door of the access control building — the outermost  door of the embassy compound — to speak to Sanli, who took one step inside  before detonating the explosive device that was strapped to his body. The  explosion killed Sanli and the security guard, seriously wounded a journalist  who was visiting the embassy and left two other local guards who were manning  the entrance with minor injuries.

The embassy’s local security personnel, as designed, bore the brunt of the  attack. They are hired and trained to prevent threats from penetrating the  embassy’s perimeter. The low casualty count of the Feb. 1 attack is a testament  to the training and professionalism of the local guards and the robust, layered  security measures in place at the embassy — factors for which those responsible  for the attack apparently did not sufficiently plan.

Layers of Security

Sanli apparently had hoped to breach the outer perimeter of the compound and  to detonate his device inside the embassy building. Reportedly he carried a  firearm and a hand grenade, and the way he approached the access control point  likewise suggests he hoped to gain entry. Had he wanted to kill Turkish  citizens, he could have done so simply by hitting the visa line outside the  embassy.

At embassy compounds, secondary access control posts for vehicles and  pedestrians typically are staffed with fewer guards than more heavily traversed  access points, such as the main entrance or the entrance to the consular  section. This particular access point had two guards at the vehicular entrance  and a third guard to receive and screen packages and pedestrians. Since there  was no drop slot for packages and envelopes, the guard inside the access point  had to open the exterior door to receive deliveries. It is likely that the  plotters knew about this procedure, which probably factored into their decision  to breach the perimeter at this entrance. Moreover, the attack happened around  lunchtime, so it is also possible that attackers thought the guards would be  inattentive.

Though these smaller access control points have fewer people guarding them,  they still boast at least two heavy security doors that all visitors must pass  through. Many embassy compounds, including the one in Ankara, have a third door  located inside the building. This multiple-door configuration, referred to as a  sally port by security officers, provides an additional level of security at  perimeter security posts. Sally ports equipped with magnetic locks and  reinforced doors can also serve as effective traps for intruders.

The access control point constitutes just the outer perimeter of the embassy.  There is also another layer of external security at the entrance to the embassy  building itself. It is possible that Sanli thought he could somehow use his  weapon or grenade to penetrate that layer once he got through the access control  center, but the forced entry/bullet resistant doors and windows on the embassy’s  exterior would not have been quickly or easily penetrated by such weapons.

Whatever his plan, Sanli never had the opportunity to fully execute it. He  was stopped immediately inside the access control center by the security guard  and detonated his suicide device just inside the door. The force of the blast  blew the outer security door off its hinges and cracked the reinforced concrete  exterior wall of the access control building. But the embassy perimeter was not  breached, and Sanli never got near the embassy building.

Security Designs

Embassy security measures are designed with specific threats in mind. Sanli,  for example, executed precisely the type of attack that embassy security was  meant to counter: an isolated terrorist strike that circumvents a host country’s  police and security services. Ankara is an older embassy office building, but it  has received security upgrades over the past few decades that have given the  facility decent access control and concentric layers of security meant to stymie  intrusions.

Like most older embassy buildings, however, it does not meet the security  requirements put in place in the wake of the embassy bombings of the 1980s. The U.S. Consulate  General building in Istanbul, which was completed in 2003, exemplifies a  building that meets those requirements. Not only is it constructed to  specifications, it is also appropriately far enough from the street to help  counter threats, such as those posed by Sanli, and to help withstand the damage  of a vehicle bomb.

But even the most modern embassies cannot withstand all types of threats,  including those posed by long periods of mob violence. On Sept. 14, 2012, a large mob  overwhelmed the outer security perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in  Tunis — a newer facility with a robust security design — causing  millions of dollars of damage. Tunisian authorities responded quickly enough to  prevent the mob from entering the main embassy building, but with sufficient  time the  mob could have breached the facility.

Such was the case at the newly built and occupied U.S. Embassy in Tripoli,  Libya, in May 2011. After U.S. diplomats were ordered to leave the country, the  local security force was unable to prevent a large  mob, which constituted security forces and Moammar Gadhafi supporters, from  ransacking, looting and burning the facility. The attack rendered the building  uninhabitable.

Embassy security measures are also not designed to prevent prolonged  assaults by militant groups armed with heavy weapons. Security measures can  only provide a delay against a persistent attack by a mob or militant  organization. They cannot withstand an indefinite assault. Without extraordinary  security like that of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in the 1980s and 1990s, embassy  security only works when the facility enjoys the support and protection of the  host country as mandated by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The Attackers’ Weakness

Sanli’s method of attack played right into the strength of the embassy’s  security measures. Perhaps he and his colleagues in the Revolutionary People’s  Liberation Party-Front believed Sanli could threaten or shoot his way through  the embassy’s concentric rings of physical security. If so, they underestimated  the physical security measures in place and the dedication and bravery of the  local guard force.

Notably, attack planning is not a strength of the Revolutionary People’s  Liberation Party-Front. Over the past decade, the group has conducted several  attacks, including five suicide bombings, but their attacks have been famously  poorly planned and executed. Often they fail to kill anyone but the suicide  bomber. They also have had problems with the reliability of their improvised  explosive devices, such as the suicide vest that failed to detonate during  the suicide  bombing attack against the Turkish justice minister in April 2009.

The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front’s Sept. 11, 2012, suicide  bombing against a police station in Istanbul killed the bomber and one police  officer. In that attack, the bomber threw a grenade at the security checkpoint  at the building’s entrance, but when the grenade failed to detonate he was  unable to get past security at the building’s entrance. Only then, in a move  similar to the Feb. 1 attack, did he detonate his device.

Following Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Devrimci Sol, the Revolutionary  People’s Liberation Party-Front’s parent organization, conducted a spate of  attacks in Turkey that targeted the United States and NATO. Because of the  timing, U.S. terrorism investigators believed that Saddam Hussein’s government  sponsored these attacks. Currently, some leaders of the Revolutionary People’s  Liberation Party-Front’s factions live in Syria and maintain close connections  with the al Assad regime. Some of the group’s militants have fought with the  regime forces, and the group has published statements supporting the al Assad  regime. They have also fomented pro-al Assad and anti-intervention  demonstrations inside Turkey. This pro-Syrian sentiment, or perhaps even  financial enticement from the Syrian government itself, could explain the motive  for the attack against the U.S. Embassy. Therefore, it is possible that there  could be other anti-U.S. or anti-NATO attacks like those seen in 1991.

The Feb. 1 bombing serves as a timely reminder of several facts that tend to  be overlooked. It reminds us of the underlying terrorist threat in Turkey. It  also reminds us that not all suicide bombers are jihadists, let alone religious.  Indeed, there is a long history  of secular groups engaging in suicide terrorism. Last, it reminds us that  not all threats emanate from al Qaeda and the constellation of groups and  individual actors gathered around its ideological banner.

Perhaps most important, the incident highlights the heroism and dedication of  the local guards who serve at U.S. embassies around the world. In the Feb. 1  attack, the embassy’s security equipment functioned as designed, and the guards  performed as they were trained, undoubtedly saving many lives. These local  guards are often criticized when they make a mistake, but they are too  frequently overlooked when security works.

Read more:  When Security Measures Work | Stratfor

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The Benghazi Report and the Diplomatic Security Funding Cycle – Stratfor

The  Benghazi Report and the Diplomatic Security Funding Cycle is republished  with permission of Stratfor.”

By Scott Stewart Vice President of Analysis

On Dec. 18, the U.S. State Department’s Accountability Review Board released  an unclassified version of its investigation into the  Sept. 12 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to  Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack,  so the report was widely anticipated by the public and by government officials  alike.

Four senior State Department officials have been reassigned to other duties  since the report’s release. Among them were the assistant secretary of state for  diplomatic security; two of his deputy assistant secretaries, including the  director of the Diplomatic Security Service, the department’s most senior  special agent; and the deputy assistant secretary responsible for Libya in the  State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

The highly critical report and the subsequent personnel reassignments are not  simply a low watermark for the State Department; rather, the events following  the attack signify another  phase in the diplomatic security funding cycle. The new phase will bring  about a financial windfall for the State Department security budgets, but  increased funding alone will not prevent future attacks from occurring. After  all, plenty of attacks have occurred following similar State Department  budgetary allocations in the past. Other important factors therefore must be  addressed.

Predictable Inquiries

The cycle by which  diplomatic security is funded begins as officials gradually cut spending on  diplomatic security programs. Then, when major security failures inevitably  beset those programs, resultant public outrage compels officials to create a  panel to investigate those failures.

The first of these panels dates back to the mid-1980s, following attacks  against U.S. facilities in Beirut and Kuwait and the systematic bugging of the  U.S. Embassy in Moscow. These security lapses led to the formation of the  Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security, chaired by former  Deputy CIA Director Adm. Bobby Inman. The law that passed in the wake of the  Inman Commission came to be known as the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and  Antiterrorism Act of 1986, which requires that an accountability review board be  convened following major security incidents.

There are a few subsequent examples of these panels. Former Chairman of the  U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. William Crowe chaired an Accountability Review  Board following the bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998. And after  the Benghazi attacks, an Accountability Review Board was chaired by former U.S.  Ambassador Thomas Pickering. The Dec. 18 report was the findings of the  Pickering board.

Predictably, the review boards, including Pickering’s, always conclude that  inadequate funding and insufficient security personnel are partly to blame for  the security breaches. In response to the reports, Congress appropriates more  money to diplomatic security programs to remedy the problem. Over time, funds  are cut, and the cycle begins anew.

Funding can be cut for several reasons. In times of financial austerity,  Congress can more easily cut the relatively small foreign affairs budget than it  can entitlement benefits budgets. Cuts to the overall State Department budget  generally result in cuts for security programs.

Moreover, rivalries among the various State Department entities can affect  spending cuts. The Diplomatic Security Service’s budget falls under the main  State Department budget, so senior diplomats, rather than Diplomatic Security  Service agents, represent the agency’s interests on Capitol Hill. Some within  the security service do not believe that senior diplomats have their best  interests at heart when making the case for their budgets — at least until a  tragedy occurs and Congressional hearings are held to air these problems. For  their part, others in the department resent the Diplomatic Security Service for  the large budgetary allocations it receives after a security failure.

More than a Matter of Funding

With Congress and the presumed next Secretary of State John Kerry now calling  for increased spending on diplomatic security, the financial floodgates are  about to reopen. But merely throwing money at the problems uncovered by the  accountability review boards will not be enough to solve those problems. Were  that the case, the billions of dollars allocated to diplomatic security in the  wake of the Inman and Crowe commission reports would have sufficed.

Of course, money can be useful, but injecting large sums of it into the  system can create problems if the money provided is too much for the bureaucracy  to efficiently metabolize. Government managers tend to spend all the money  allocated to them — sometimes at the expense of efficiency — under a “use it  or lose it” mentality. Since there is no real incentive for them to perform  under budget, managers in a variety of U.S. government departments spend massive  amounts of money at the end of each fiscal year. The same is true of diplomatic  security programs when they are flush with cash. But the inevitable reports of  financial waste and mismanagement lead to calls for spending cuts in these  programs.

If the U.S. government is ever going to break the cycle of funding cuts and  security disasters, the Diplomatic Security Service will need to demonstrate  wisdom and prudence in how it spends the funds allocated to them. It will also  be necessary for Congress to provide funding in a consistent manner and with an  initial appropriation that is not too big to be spent efficiently.

Beyond money management and a consistent level of funding, the State  Department will also need to take a hard look at how it currently conducts  diplomacy and how it can reduce the demands placed on the Diplomatic Security  Service. This will require asking many difficult questions: Is it necessary to  maintain large embassies to conduct diplomacy in the information age? Does the  United States need to maintain thousands of employees in high-threat  places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at the expense of smaller  missions, or can the critical work be done by hundreds or even dozens? Is a  permanent U.S. presence even required in a place like Benghazi, or can the  missions in such locations be accomplished by a combination of visiting  diplomats, covert operatives and local employees?

At the very least, the State Department will need to review its policy of  designating a facility as a “special mission” — Benghazi was designated as such  — to exempt it from meeting established physical security standards. If the  questions above are answered affirmatively, and if it is deemed necessary to  keep a permanent presence in a place like Benghazi, then security standards need  to be followed, especially when a facility is in place for several months.  Temporary facilities with substandard security cannot be allowed to persist for  months and years.

Host Countries

As they consider these issues, officials need to bear in mind that the real  key to the security of diplomatic facilities is the protection provided by the  host country’s security forces as dictated by the Vienna Convention. If the host  country will not or cannot protect foreign diplomats, then the physical security  measures mandated by security standards can do little more than provide slight  delay — which is what they are designed to do. No physical security measures  can stand up to a prolonged assault. If a militant group armed with heavy  weaponry is permitted to attack a diplomatic facility for hours with no host  government response — as was the case in Benghazi — the attack will cause  considerable damage and likely cause fatalities despite the security measures in  place.

The same is true of a large mob, which given enough time can damage and  breach U.S. embassies that meet current department security standards. The U.S.  Embassy in Tripoli, a state-of-the-art facility completed in 2009, was heavily  damaged by a mob of pro-Gadhafi supporters in May 2011 and rendered  unserviceable.

In another example, a  large crowd caused extensive damage to the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and the  adjacent American School just three days after the Benghazi attack. In that  incident, Tunisian authorities responded and did not provide the attacking mob  the opportunity to conduct a prolonged assault on the embassy. Though the mob  caused millions of dollars worth of damage to the compound, it was unable to  breach the main embassy office building. Without host country security support,  there is little that can be done to assure the safety of U.S. diplomats, no  matter what happens to security budgets.

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