A Response to the Commentary on Warrior Culture, Militarization, and Diplomatic Security


In late July, we posted an unsolicited commentary from a retired FS member and former COM, “Warrior Culture, Militarization, and Diplomatic Security”.  Below is a response we received which should add to the discussions happening outside this blog.
Sender B is part of the State Department community with many friends and family in both the FS and the Civil Service. Over the past 15 years, they worked extensively with the Department of Defense and the military services as well and built a good familiarity with the DS Bureau. He/She has also gone overseas, and interacted with all of the above organizations “in the years after our post 9/11 forever wars,” adding that “what I am about to say is, of course, colored by all of these factors.”
A Response to Warrior Culture, Militarization, and Diplomatic Security
I read Sender A’s note with interest, and like many of these ‘letters’ my reaction is a mixed bag – some scads of truth mixed with big dollops of generalization, stereotype, and the whooshing sound of one Missing the Larger Point. I don’t know who Sender A is, but yet I sort of do. I have met more than a few of these retired FSOs over the years. Most are political officers, most have at least 25 years under their belt, and most are at least a little wistful for the good old days before American Embassies were fortresses with 100 feet of setback around them and located a bit further away from the downtown business districts of world capitals.
I think it’s useful to start with some basic unspoken truths in the discussion of security culture and State – DS and the people who work there have always been looked at askance by the folks at HST and in the upper echelons of the generalist ranks. In particular the Mandarins of the POL cone who run the Department. DS agents, so the line of thought goes, are “knuckle draggers” and an impediment to the Really Important Valuable “substantive” Work of Diplomacy like attending interagency meetings, ribbon cuttings, and sending cables back to Washington.
Okay. I kid, but only a little.
Everything he says (and odds are, as long as he’s been out, it is a ‘he’ – but I could be wrong) in the first few paragraphs is completely true – post 9/11, security theater got ramped up a lot, not just at State but across the federal government. Look at the DHS and TSA as the biggest and most theatrical examples of that phenomenon. This was in part a reaction after 9/11 to the national mood – since the United States of America, love her as we all do, never does anything it can’t over do.
It was also a product of the new operating environment. Iraq and Afghanistan were different places once the shooting started, requiring different skill sets and new ways of doing business for the military services but also State and the interagency. The threat was, frankly, very high and very real in those places for Americans. I saw it firsthand from 2007 to 2011 during several visits to Iraq and Afghanistan. There were decisions made and policies implemented in the years after 9/11 that may or may not have successfully dealt with those threats, but to bemoan DS’s 20-story headquarters and the CT funds that built it is to somewhat miss the point. Nearly every security organization in the U.S. National Security Complex experienced some form of this same phenomenon, which is why today nearly every federal agency has specialized security arms/teams/offices and funding profiles very much unlike what they had just a few decades ago. US Customs and Border Patrol alone, for example, has an air arm that is as large as the Brazilian Air Force. If you visit the Pentagon, the police force that protects the Pentagon reservation has been thoroughly transformed into a kitted-up security force for a building that was already a fairly secure location. The USG was completely subsumed by the post 9/11 security swell, in retrospect, so to bemoan State’s slice of that trend is fine – but it was a much larger issue, and one that would inevitably affect the diplomatic arm of the American government.
There is also the swipe at DS performing duplicative roles. Yes, well … perhaps. Perhaps not. That’s a matter of perspective. Question: why is the Bureau of International Narcotic and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) not under DS? DS is the law enforcement arm of the State Department, the point organization for investigating visa fraud, and a host of other crimes related to international law enforcement and definitely narcotics. Why is it not aligned? What exactly does INL do at HST that is can’t do at DS HQ? Further complicating things, DS manages State’s law enforcement counterterrorism training assistance but main State retains INL? From an outsider’s perspective, that makes little sense. But I get it. Government fiefdoms are what they are and come to be for complex reasons. Little has changed because the people who run the Department don’t want it to, regardless of how much sense it makes.
The comment about the new training center also belies a bit more nuance. Yes, it is the product of some Congressional deal probably served up via a hand shake between the Georgia and Virginia Delegation. Why those two, you ask? It should be noted that prior to the new center’s opening, DS security training was already atomized and spread out to various locales far from Washington. Glynco, Georgia was where DS special agents, alongside other federal law enforcement agents, received their Basic Special Agents Course (BSAC) training. The ability to duplicate that kind of training facility anywhere near FSI inside the beltway is cost prohibitive, to say the least. The facilities alone would bankrupt the Department, as you would need a lot of real estate for activities such as driving courses, mock embassy compounds, firing ranges, and other aspects of admittedly security-oriented curriculums. In other words, not just classrooms.
The more substantive piece of the commentary, however, deserves a bit more attention. ‘Warrior culture’ as it is described is a long-remarked issue across the USG, not just at State. Why? A part of this is certainly a result of the US Government elevating what is known as “veteran’s status” in the application process for federal positions even higher than it was previously to 2001. This resulted in veterans receiving preferential treatment for hiring in positions across the government, but especially within the security apparatus and law enforcement agencies. Over the last ten years, I can’t tell you how many longtime managers and officials in government who have sought to hire candidates for their respective offices (at State and other agencies) have told me they can’t get the right candidates to an interview. In their telling, the culprit is primarily the reflexive application of veterans status points and their effect on the HR process. This results in the saturation of the application pool with candidates armed with a DD 214 (military discharge papers). Some of those positions require skill sets undoubtedly found in certain military career fields, to be sure. The criticism though, is that this policy has been applied with little nuance over time by HR officials.
What is the result? The skill sets/experiences of personnel who have excelled in environments where hard skills and Special Operations Forces mindsets migrate into the civilian bureaucracy over time, in law enforcement surely but also in tangentially related fields as well. We can debate the merits of that trend, but it is a result of a policy choice, approved of by both the Bush and Obama Administrations, and we are dealing with the result of it today in small and large ways. The Department and DS in particular are, of course, caught up in this. A massive demand for security following the advent of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, coupled with the need to bring former military members into the Department both by policy dictate and by the reality of the environment has resulted in this shift playing out. It would be inevitable to say the least there would be friction in these two cultures coming together. There is no easy solution for the imbalance, and you will continue to hear officials at all levels say something needs to be fixed. I’m not sure how exactly that is done, outside of some dedicated member of Congress deciding to champion the issue.
Overall, Sender A’s perspective read like a sort of historical snapshot. A return to the old days, when SY officials had time to do tours out of cone, and the G Men wore fedoras and carried six shooters. I kid, but not by much. This perspective is fun, but it is also a bit naïve, as if the 1980s, much less Nairobi/Tanzania and 9/11 didn’t happen.
We are all products of our experiences, and that goes for people as well as organizations. DS would not be the organization it is today if the Beirut bombings of the 1980s had not occurred, and the Inman Report that followed it had not happened. The 1990s accelerated the rise of a more robust security apparatus at State in this environment, because the threat of terrorism against U.S. interests had changed and was rapidly evolving. By the time 9/11 rolled around, this transformation was unstoppable in many ways.
There is much to lament about the end of the pre-9/11 era. The world was (in some ways) more open, more accessible, and diplomats more able to conduct the traditional business of diplomacy, in most contexts. But to pretend the changes of the last several decades have occurred in a vacuum is disingenuous. The Department may be risk averse today, and overly so in many areas. That deserves some scrutiny. But it is a fact that Americans have died because of choices made by Department officials who downplayed these threats. Policy choices over the decades have results. Once one peels the onion on how counterterrorism policy came to be, we might not like what we find.