Published Friday, September 13, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:01 pm
World-Herald editorial: Embassy security will get a boost

Americans disagree about a lot of issues, including spending priorities, but it’s commendable that Congress and the White House have found common ground on one thing this year. They’ve agreed that the federal government needs to strengthen the security of our embassies and consulates.

As a result, the State Department should soon receive an additional $1.4 billion for security improvements in its overseas facilities.

Events over the past year have demonstrated the need.

It was a year ago this week that a shocking lack of security at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, contributed to the deaths of our ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans at the hands of terrorists. A few months ago, the U.S. government temporarily closed overseas facilities in a number of countries after our intelligence services picked up word of possible terrorist attacks.

An independent review panel, whose findings and recommendations have recently become public, has faulted the State Department for its failures on this issue and explained the task ahead for security improvements.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, who represents Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District and is a past member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has traveled to numerous U.S. diplomatic facilities in developing countries, including the Middle East and Asia. He has seen some of the security challenges firsthand.

One embassy the five-term congressman visited is surrounded by high-rise apartments, a situation that made him wonder about the embassy’s possible vulnerability to sniper fire. In another politically unstable country he visited, getting to the embassy routinely requires getting stuck in urban traffic jams, creating a possible “sitting duck” problem for our diplomats. At another point on the route, vehicles must travel past a wooded area adjacent to the road, raising more security concerns.

A consulate Fortenberry visited had a particularly troubling security problem. As he was leaving, one of the facility’s security personnel said that Fortenberry’s stop needed to be the last visit by a member of Congress because the situation was too risky. Near the consulate, the host country had a government building that was sandbagged for security concerns. Shortly after his visit, Fortenberry said, the U.S. consulate was bombed and there was a failed attempt to kidnap a consular officer.

“We’re in a world of grave security challenges,” said Fortenberry, who has served as vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa and human rights. “The Benghazi issue really crystallized just how precarious this is.”

No one should minimize the difficulty of the task of trying to protect some 275 U.S. installations abroad. As Fortenberry’s experiences show, some of the security concerns (such as the location of embassies) can’t be fully remedied only through building renovations or by bolstering the number of security personnel.

The review panel report indicates it will take billions of dollars, over a period of years, to make needed progress on this issue.

Still, it’s encouraging that Congress and the White House worked constructively this year on the problem, a welcome contrast to the many other issues where the result has been stalemate.

Fortenberry serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which this year agreed to support the full amount — $1.4 billion — requested by the Obama administration for increased embassy and consulate security.

“I would say there’s a clear perception that protecting our personnel is of the highest priority,” Fortenberry told The World-Herald.

Regardless of the congressional budget wrangling that may occur later this year, Fortenberry said, “We’re likely to have full funding on the security of State Department facilities — it’s one area of agreement.”

It’s good to see sensible consensus on this issue. If there’s one thing the two sides in Washington ought to agree on, it’s doing our utmost to keep our diplomats as safe as possible in the world’s many trouble spots.

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