Benghazi: Where the hell were the Marines? Yo! Half our embassies have no Marines

There is a misconception out there shared by some Americans that when they get in trouble overseas, Uncle Sam will come get them. That’s wrong.  He won’t send a helicopter rescue nor the US Marines, not even if our countrymen are in a foreign jail.

Another misconception has to do with the US Marines. On Wednesday, Senator Rand Paul over in the Washington Times asks, “Where the hell were the Marines?”

Shortly after the Benghazi attack, Politico also reported it has learned that “The consulate where the American ambassador to Libya was killed on Tuesday is an “interim facility” not protected by the contingent of Marines that safeguards embassies.”

The State Department has 294 physical embassies, consulates, and diplomatic missions around the world.  Currently, about 1,200 Marine security guards are assigned to security detachments in 148 locations. For understandable reason the list of posts with no MSG is currently unavailable online, unless of course, Congress publishes the list in its search for da truth.

The Marine guards at US embassies are part of the Marine Corps Embassy Security Group  (MCESG) based in Quantico, Virginia.

Its mission according to

The primary mission of the Marine Security Guard is to provide internal security at designated U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in order to prevent the compromise of classified material vital to the national security of the United States.

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).

So where the hell were the Marines?

Is it just possible that there were no Marines in Benghazi because there were no classified material to protect?

Hell, ya … but does it matter? Nope.

Where the hell were the Marines, dammit?!

Here is a bit of the MSG program history:

The Marine Security Guard (MSG) Program, in its current form, has been in place since December 1948, but the Marine Corps has a long history of cooperation and distinction with the Department of State (DOS) going back to the early days of the Nation. From the raising of the United States flag at Derna, Tripoli, and the secret mission of Archibald Gillespie in California, to the 55-days at Peking, the United States Marines have served many times on special missions as couriers, guards for embassies and delegations, and to protect American officials in unsettled areas.

The origins of the modern MSG Program began with the Foreign Service Act of 1946 that stated the Secretary of Navy is authorized, upon the request of the Secretary of State, to assign enlisted Marines to serve as custodians under the supervision of the senior diplomatic officer at an embassy, legation, or consulate. Using this Act, the DOS and U.S. Marine Corps entered into negotiations to establish the governing provisions for assigning MSGs overseas. These negotiations culminated in the first joint Memorandum of Agreement signed on 15 December 1948. Trained at the DOS’s Foreign Service Institute, the first MSGs departed for Tangier and Bangkok on 28 January 1949. The authority granted in the Foreign Service Act of 1946 has since been replaced by Title 10, United States Code 5983, and the most recent Memorandum of Agreement was signed on 13 March 2008. The Marine Corps assumed the primary training responsibility of its MSGs during November 1954.

Following the 1983 US Embassy bombing in Beirut Admiral Ray Inman chaired the Secretary of State’s Advisory Panel on Overseas Security.   Part of that report concerns the Marine Security Group’s role in embassy security. While I have not seen the 2008 MOU between State and the Marine Corps, I suspect that role has not changed very much:

MSG’s are not normally posted near, on or outside of the premise perimeter. This is because the protection of the mission is primarily the responsibility of the host government. Further, many countries would object to the posting of military personnel on their soil.

The MSG’s carry out their primary mission by a) operating access controls and stationary and patrol coverage of classified facilities and operations, b) conducting inspections and patrols to ensure proper procedures for handling and storage of classified material within the premises, c) writing notices of security violations as Department of State security regulations direct, d) effecting and supervising destruction of classified waste, e) providing control of buildings and portions of buildings during construction or renovation of areas, f) providing special guard services for U.S. delegation offices for regional or international conferences at which classified information is kept, g) assisting in guarding the temporary overseas residences of the President, Vice President, Secretary of State, and other ranking dignitaries as required, and h) providing internal security guard coverage on a temporary basis of the Principal Officer’s residence when the life or safety of the protected official is in danger. The latter duty is rarely conducted by the Marines and it is subject to written orders and approval. Further, the assignment must be in response to a threat situation, and the MSG’s must be armed and in uniform. The MSG’s may also provide special guard services in the execution of interagency plans for dealing with emergency situations.

The MSG Detachments are operationally supervised by the Regional Security Officer (RSO) or the Post Security Officer (PSO). The RSO or PSO provides the guard orders, directions and instructions for the operations of the Marines at the post and ensures that they are properly housed and supported. The Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) is the senior member of the MSG Detachment and he supervises and administratively controls the Marines. He reports through the RSO or PSO to the Chief of Mission.

As described above, the MSG role is essentially defensive in nature. They serve as an in-house deterrent to limited acts of violence, as well as a defense mechanism to large scale riots. The Marines are expected to delay entry by hostile elements long enough to permit destruction of classified material and to assist in protecting lives of the mission staff until host government forces arrive. They are authorized, under the command of the senior Foreign Service officer present, to use weapons to protect their own lives or mission staff from direct and immediate danger. The specific use of force is outlined in the MSG post guard orders.

In 1983, less than one-half or only 126 of our foreign posts were protected internally by the U.S. Marines. The MCESG says that the Marine guards are currently in 148 locations which is about half the number of our current overseas posts (Marine spokesman at the Pentagon put the number at 130 locations).  In the last 29 years since the Beirut embassy bombing, the Marine security detachments at our overseas posts grew by 22.

Part of the Inman report recommendation also states that “At those very small posts with few Americans, and where it is not practical to supplement the post with at least six Marines, the Panel recommends that the Department reduce or eliminate the amount of classified or sensitive equipment and material at these posts.”

Note that the commission did not say reduce the staff but to reduce or eliminate the amount of classified information. Logic dictates that the Marines will be present where there is classified material to protect, but will not be present if there is none (note: specific types of classified material cannot be present without Marine guards).

As in 1983, there will be calls to provide Marine security guards at all our overseas posts. And of course, despite all the noise and stuff, that will not happen.

The Benghazi attack has now become a feeding frenzy with all sorts of sharkies. Some of the stories out there are informed by nuttiness and ignorance that it doesn’t even make sense to write about it. Check this one out.  And a smoking gun one day is not smoking the next day.  So I’m going to stop hyperventilating (same recommendation for the Hill) and wait for the congressionally mandated accountability review board’s report.

And perhaps while waiting we can have a useful conversation about our Marines and the appropriate use of force in our diplomatic posts.  The MSG’s role is defensive in nature. The protesters, no doubt are aware of that. They knew that since Tehran.  Is it time to rethink that and allow aggressive resistance within embassy grounds using non lethal and lethal force that corresponds to the escalation of the attack?

If I’m missing anything on the Marine guards, please feel free to add in the comments.

10 responses

  1. Marine guards were the off-duty big brothers of my three children when I was stationed at three Cold War-era Eastern European embassies and Consulates General, two embassies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and two embassies in Western Europe.

    They were typically smart, tough, disciplined, well-trained, extraordinary teenagers. They functioned honorably, efficiently, and dependably, when assigned to fulfill a clearly defined mission within clearly delineated diplomatic premises.

    I attended the Arlington funeral of one who died delaying the capture of an embassy.

    They are not supermen or magicians. They are our young American adults who have volunteered for rigorous duty that little resembles the responsibilities of their comrades in more customary Marine units. In fluid, temporay, evolving and poorly-defined situations and circumstances in which foreign national commitments to the local physical defense of diplomatic premises are unlikely to be honored, their assignment would be pointless, if not criminal. That’s why they aren’t.

    Such circumstances call for highly irregular security arrangements and forces, when and where possible, which have absolutely nothing to do with Marine Security Guards.

    Such circumstances call for tough decisions whether or not career diplomats need to continue operating at varying degrees of serious risk, and if not, for how long we can afford to forgo anything remotely resembling operations within “normal” security parameters. Only those who have never served in such special circumstances talk in naive terms of maintaining “absolute” security, or even “adequate” security. We are not there to be secure. We are there to do a necessary job.

    Tripoli is where there was and is an embassy. Benghazi was not a consulate, much less an embassy. It was barely a mission. It was important. It was a place where brave Americans did their job, and some died, honorably. It is still important.

    Either we need to be there, and are, or not.


  2. Well, if it is so small it does have any section needing access to classified info/comms, I would say it would not be a candidate in any event.

  3. The problem with congress is that like, Americans, they watch too many TV/Movies.

    I can name movie after movie that doesn’t even come close to getting it right. Most recently I saw Taken 2. The “embassy” in Istanbul (off by a few hundred miles) had about a dozen marines outside the gate milling about complete with 50 cal machine gun that they use.

    Calls from stranded Americans in areas we tell them not to go to in travel advisories asking for us to send the marines are not uncommon.

    Most detachments have just enough MSGs to cover one post (post one) 24/7 which equates to one detachment commander and five watch standers.

  4. I was told that the trigger is usually Top Secret info. Posts with Secret info will not have MSGs, usually. That may or may not be true, but is what I’ve been told.

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  6. SF writer Larry Niven has many Laws. One of them goes like this: “Any damn fool can predict the past.”

    There’s a lot of damn foolery going around on this topic.

  7. Well, unless you know something very different than me, the lack of an MSG presence does not mean there is no classified material present. I am aware of at least three diplomatic locations where there was not an MSG, yet they did have a CAA and stored classified materials. There may have been a recent policy change I am not aware of. “Logic dictates that the Marines will be present where there is classified material to protect, but will not be present if there is none.” No. Logic dictates, that given a limited number of bodies, Marines will be present where it is most necessary and efficient to have them, and classified material will be present where it is needed, and the two are not necessarily congruent.

      • Marines are only present if there is classified processing at a post but as LS points out, we do have “lock and leave” facilities that have classified space/materials.