When the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was overrun on Sept. 11, public outcry erupted over whether security at the installation was sufficient.
Much of the confusion surrounded the perceived role of Marine Embassy Security Guards, who it turned out were not present at the time of the attack. A quick-response force was sent to the consulate following the incident, but no Marines are currently stationed there, according to U.S. officials.
Had Marines been present, it is likely they could have minimized the damage and loss of life, security experts have said. The attack has been variously described as a protest-turned-violent-riot and a coordinated military-style assault. The troops chosen for embassy guard duty train for both scenarios, as well as everything else that could conceivably happen at the 285 such installations that span the globe.
Officials involved with the Marine Embassy Security Group said the confusion underscores a common misperception. Most Americans are aware that Marines are tasked with protecting U.S. diplomatic installations abroad, but few understand their duties in times of crisis.
“First of all, Marines do protect U.S. facilities abroad, but they are not at every embassy and consulate around the world,” a former Marine embassy guard, who asked not to be named because of the current controversy, said. “The State Department decides where to send them.”
While Marines could have provided an extra line of defense for personnel within the Benghazi consulate, that is not their primary objective.
They are under order first to protect sensitive information “in order to prevent the compromise of classified material vital to the national security of the United States,” reads a statement from the security group headquarters. “The secondary mission of the MSG is to provide protection for U.S. citizens and U.S government property located within designated U.S. diplomatic and consular premises during exigent circumstances (urgent temporary circumstances which require immediate aid or action).”
The host nation is responsible for security beyond the facility’s walls.
The Marine Embassy Security Group, overseeing Marines at 148 embassies out of the 285 U.S. diplomatic installations, is headquartered at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.
The group oversees more than 1,200 Marines stationed throughout the world at security detachments and regional headquarters. The headquarters in Quantico has a complement of about 150 Marines and civilians that provide support and oversight. There are detachments in more than 130 countries.
Capt. Greg Wolf, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the group has experienced a growth in the number of detachments since 2004. That growth is planned to continue for the next five to 10 years and is unrelated to the recent events in Libya and Egypt, he said. Even with the Marine Corps downsizing after the completion of the war in Afghanistan, “there are no plans to decrease the size of MCESG,” Wolf said.
It could, however, become more difficult for Marines who wish to become embassy guards to do so.
“Currently, being selected for MSG duty is highly competitive,” Wolf said. “It is only natural for this competitiveness to increase if a drawdown occurs.”
The consulate in Benghazi was a relatively new facility to which Marine guards had not been stationed. Discussions were reportedly underway to establish a detachment of Marines in Tripoli, Libya’s capital.
Plans are to grow the number of Marine guard detachments — ranging from five to 20 troops, generally — to 173.
Detachment staffing is determined through a joint Marine Corps-State Department survey taking into account the size of the facility and potential threats, Wolf said.
Strict requirements are established that determine eligibility for Marine Security Guard duty, one of a handful of special assignments available to enlisted Marines.
Marines with any occupational specialty are allowed to volunteer for a three-year tour as an embassy guard, but non-commissioned officers with dependents are not eligible, according to information from the guard school.
Offensive tattoos, legal trouble, financial entanglements or foreign and dual citizenship are disqualifiers.
Before becoming a “watch stander,” as the enlisted guards are called, or a detail commander, an applicant must complete a training program at the security group headquarters at Quantico.
Wolf said particulars of the training regimen are classified, but offered general information about the school and its structure.
Embassy Guard School can accommodate over 200 students per class. It takes six weeks for watch standers, who hold the rank of sergeant or below. Guard hopefuls who hold the rank of staff sergeant or higher must attend an eight-week program. Both courses consist of advanced courses in weapons handling, defensive training and interaction with the State Department. It is one of the few military posts where uniformed personnel are under the direct command of a civilian official.
Graduates are then assigned duty posts according to the needs of the Marine Corps and State Department.
The Marine guard school also provides training to units and government agencies with which the guards are likely to work in the field, Wolf said. The school currently provides orientation and emergency escape training to interagency partners from the FBI and State Department, he said.
Those programs will expand to include Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams when a new training facility at Quantico is completed in 2014, Wolf said.
One so-called FAST platoon was deployed to Tripoli on Sept. 12 to provide security there. The units are tasked with swift entry to hostile environments to provide temporary security for vital national assets. The teams are stationed at various Navy facilities around the globe as prepositioned forces that can rapidly respond to unforeseen threats. But unlike other rapidly deployable forces, FAST platoons are trained to focus on defensive operations and military security in response to requests for support from regional State Department and military officials.
When deployed in support of an embassy, they work in tandem with Marine embassy guards to establish a layered defense of the facility.
The embassy guard group is building a new headquarters at Quantico based on the State Department’s standard embassy design, Wolf said. The headquarters building will be constructed to look like a U.S. embassy within a compound to replicate where Marines will work overseas.
“This will enhance not only [Marine guard] training, but will be an opportunity for realistic training for FAST and any Marine unit that may have the mission to reinforce an embassy,” Wolf said. “It will also be there for other government agencies” to use if necessary.
Once Marines reach their posts, they perform reaction drills simulating their response to a number of potential emergency scenarios, including fires, bomb threats, riots and demonstrations.
“Uniformly, training and duties change with the global political and security situation,” a former Marine guard said. “The rules of engagement and the things these Marines are likely to encounter change almost immediately.”
Wolf said the Marine embassy guard “mission is the same at every location worldwide.”
Guard “training is the same no matter where the Marine will be assigned,” he added.
But lessons have been teased from the heavily scrutinized military and diplomatic reaction to the events in Benghazi. Technology, social media and other tools could have provided warning for personnel on the ground, if not prevented the attacks altogether, analysts said.
A week after the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, William Young, a senior policy analyst with Rand Corp., published suggestions on how to improve embassy security.
“Going forward, it’s clear the security plan for the U.S. diplomatic presence abroad must include well-developed strategies to both detect and prevent an assault like the one in Libya before it occurs,” Young wrote. “This will require responding to unforeseen events. This latest attack points to the need to review both decisions about where to post Marine guards and the protocol governing what they are allowed to do in the event of an attack.”
Marines were not on hand to respond to the riots that turned deadly in Libya, though there were security details in Cairo and Yemen where embassies also were assaulted. That the destruction and loss of life in Benghazi was far greater than the other two locations highlights the guards’ effectiveness, Young suggested. The comparison also should spark a reassessment of how and where Marine embassy guards are deployed, he wrote.
“Their purpose in an attack is to secure the embassy and its classified paper and electronic storage systems,” Young wrote. “The Marines do not have the mandate to engage with attackers and are limited to designated areas on the embassy or consulate grounds.”
The Marine Corps’ rules of engagement are classified. Officials with the embassy guard group declined to comment on how Marines are authorized to respond to various contingencies because doing so would expose tactics, techniques and procedures and compromise operational security.
Usually there is some indication or buildup prior to an emergency situation that allows the Marine guards to prepare and call in backup, said the former guard.
Young suggested that embassies and their Marine guard details lean more heavily on commercially available nonlethal weapons. Many of those technologies, which would give troops more options in using force against unarmed crowds and other lower-intensity threats, are being tested at a dedicated office at Quantico.
They include devices like long-range acoustic hailing systems, laser dazzlers that disorient a person’s vision without permanent damage, rubber bullets and Tasers.
But after thorough testing of such equipment, the Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate has fielded few products because of reliability and performance issues.
“Another option is to employ a comprehensive network of rolling patrols (which some embassies already do) that provide daily reports and feedback,” Young wrote. “These patrols — and embassy security units in general — can aid in detecting early signs of unrest by building stronger ties with neighboring communities.”
Analysis of social media may also provide vital intelligence on where and when attacks might occur. Many of the Arab Spring offensives and protests that have toppled entrenched rulers in the region have been organized using Facebook and Twitter.
Embassy personnel and their Marine guards could monitor these websites and use an enemy’s organizational tools against them, Young said.
Photo Credit: iStockphoto, Marines