The Pickering-Mullen Accountability Review Board finished its investigation on the Benghazi, Libya, attack that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Its report and Thursday's congressional hearings reflect the tug-of-war between the need for security and the willingness to accept risks in dangerous places around the world.
In the end, the Pickering-Mullen report comes down on the side of expanded security at U.S. diplomatic posts in high-threat places but the conversation should continue about how to ensure effectiveness without working from bunkers.
It is clear from the report that Ambassador Stevens erred on the side of taking risks in a country that had just toppled a dictator. As the report states, Benghazi "remained a lawless town" run by militias with "ever-shifting alliances and loyalties."
As chief of mission, Stevens bore full responsibility for security. Of an old breed of diplomats, he spoke Arabic fluently and made a point of local outreach. No American knew Libya better.
He was well aware of the lack of effective government, ready availability of weapons and a series of attacks on Western diplomats and international organizations.
Yet, as the report notes, the ambassador "chose to travel to Benghazi that week, independent of Washington" with "minimal close protection security support" (three U.S. diplomatic security officers in Benghazi, plus two he brought with him from Tripoli).
That said, the report strongly condemns the State Department for a "security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place."
The report leaves open the question of what would have been adequate: If the Benghazi post had a full complement of five diplomatic security officers (instead of three), as the embassy had requested, would that have changed the outcome?
To put things in perspective, 900 diplomatic security officers protect 275 U.S. posts worldwide averaging four per site.
As Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides told Congress on Thursday, for more than 200 years the United States like every other country has relied primarily on host nations to provide security. But what to do in countries unable to provide adequate security?
The report recommends looking beyond traditional reliance on host government security in high-threat posts such as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
The State Department agrees and will be requesting funding for 225 U.S. Marines to "serve as visible deterrents to hostile acts" ($553 million) and 150 more diplomatic security officers ($130 million). The State Department also wants to upgrade physical security ($376 million).
So now the issue is posed in stark terms: Do we want more fortress-like embassies with armies of security officers, plus Marines, as the price of operating in dangerous places?
In the end, the report puts the onus on Congress to act. It is one thing to condemn the State Department for failing to take action to protect our diplomats. It is another to provide dollars for security. We know that since 2010 House Republicans have rejected $450 million in administration requests for increased diplomatic security.
For the United States to have influence overseas, it needs a strong diplomatic corps, one that is both connected and protected in the countries where diplomats operate.
The Pickering-Mullen report, erring more on the side of security than old-school diplomats like Stevens, provides a much-needed starting point for Congress to explore U.S. tolerance for risk at its diplomatic posts abroad.
It also puts Congress on the spot to get beyond the mantra of security to real action.