WASHINGTON — Lost amid the election-year wrangling over the militants’ attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is a complex back story involving growing regional resentment against heavily armed US private security contractors, increased demands on State Department resources, and mounting frustration among diplomats over escalating protections that they say make it more difficult to do their jobs.
The Benghazi attacks, which left the US ambassador and three other Americans dead, came at the end of a 10-year period in which the State Department — sending its employees into a lengthening list of war zones and volatile regions — had regularly ratcheted up security for its diplomats. The aggressive measures used by private contractors eventually led to shootings in Afghanistan and Iraq that provoked protests, including an episode involving guards from Blackwater, a US security company, that left at least 17 Iraqis dead in Baghdad’s Nisour Square.
The ghosts of that episode clearly hung over Benghazi. This year, the new Libyan government expressly banned Blackwater-style armed contractors from flooding into the country. “The Libyans were not keen to have boots on the ground,’’ one senior State Department official said.
That forced the State Department to rely largely on its own diplomatic security arm, which officials have said lacks the resources to provide adequate protection in war zones.
On Capitol Hill this week, Democrats and Republicans sparred at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing over what happened in Benghazi, whether security at the consulate was adequate, and what — if anything — could have been done to prevent the tragedy. But amid calls for more protection for diplomats overseas, some current and former State Department officials cautioned about the risks of going too far. ‘‘The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker,’’ Eric Nordstrom, who served as the chief security officer at the US Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, until earlier this year, told the committee.
‘‘What we need is a policy of risk management, but what we have now is a policy of risk avoidance,’’ said Barbara Bodine, who served as ambassador to Yemen when the destroyer Cole was bombed in 2000. ‘‘Nobody wants to take responsibility in case something happens, so nobody is willing to have a debate over what is reasonable security and what is excessive.’’
For the State Department, the security situation in Libya came down in part to the question of whether it was a war zone or just another African outpost. Even though the country was still volatile after the bloody rebellion that ousted Moammar Khadafy, the State Department did not include Libya on its list of dangerous postings that are high priority for extra security resources.
Only the US embassies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are exempted from awarding security contracts to the lowest bidder. Dangerous posts are allowed to consider ‘‘best value’’ contracting instead, according to a State Department inspector general’s report in February.
The large private security firms that have protected US diplomats in Iraq and Afghanistan sought State Department contracts in Libya, and at least one made a personal pitch to Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed in the militants’ attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11, according to a senior official at one firm.
But given the Libyan edict banning the contractors, the Obama administration was eager to reduce the US footprint there. After initially soliciting bids from major security companies for work in Libya, State Department officials never followed through.
“We went in to make a pitch, and nothing happened,’’ said the security firm official.
He said he believed the State Department could have found a way around the Libyan objections if it had wanted to.
Instead, the department relied on a small British firm to provide several unarmed Libyan guards for security at the mission in Benghazi. For the personal protection of the diplomats, the department largely depended on its Diplomatic Security Service.
The wrangling over protection is part of a larger debate that has been underway for years within the State Department over how to balance security with the need of US diplomats to move freely.
Many diplomats rankle at the constraints imposed on them by security officials, who demand that they travel around foreign capitals in heavily armored convoys that local civilians find insulting and that make it nearly impossible for the envoys to meet discreetly with foreign officials. Many US diplomats have also grown deeply frustrated by the constraints imposed on them by working in the new, highly secure embassies that have been constructed around the world over the past decade.
Often located in remote suburban areas far from crowded streets, the buildings are designed to withstand truck bombs, but they also require heavily armed guards to resist the type of attack the militants staged in Benghazi.