A year after Benghazi, State Department hopes to expand security training

McClatchy Washington BureauSeptember 10, 2013 

— Out past rows of cornfields in the country, bullets and explosions rip through the air and cars fly into hairpin turns.

In the opinion of the State Department, there aren’t enough.

The Diplomatic Security Training Center, set back a few miles from the Virginia border, trains all diplomatic security agents, as well as foreign service officers heading to high-threat posts. But the Summit Point facility is only an interim one, built in 2007 to augment previous training sites that the Government Accountability Office called “inadequate” and said posed a “critical challenge” to training.

Today, the State Department says the temporary facility decreases productivity, interrupts scheduling and increases costs. That’s why the department hopes the site won’t be its permanent home.

As Gregory Starr, the acting assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, told Congress in July: “The capacity of the current facility that we are leasing in West Virginia cannot meet our training needs . . . doesn’t even meet our highest threat-level requirements and is a leased facility that at some point may not be available to us.”

Starr said the site couldn’t train as many people as State wanted. While the department’s goal is to train more than 8,000 students per year, the facility’s limitations mean that only about 4,900 will receive training over the next fiscal year. Starr testified that in some cases, officials sent to high-threat posts took only a four-hour online course instead of the intensive in-person course they should receive.

Looming over the discussions of embassy security is the attack last Sept. 11 on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans. In the wake of the attack, State’s Accountability Review Board questioned the “grossly inadequate” security at the mission and recommended that all staff at the more than a dozen high-threat posts take the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat course, which State offers at Summit Point.

The Diplomatic Security Training Center in West Virginia meshes a 25-acre dedicated site with negotiated access to facilities at the nearby Bill Scott Raceway, a private site at a larger motorsports park that provides driver and security training on shared racetracks. On Tuesdays, diplomatic security agents may be practicing how to evade an attack on a motorcade, but on weekends, it’s common to see racers flying across the tracks in their Mazda Miatas.

On a recent trip to the site, McClatchy saw agents from Secretary of State John Kerry’s protective detail learn marksmanship with pistols, shotguns and automatic weapons; react to staged attacks; and study the techniques and strategy used to keep Americans safe at diplomatic posts. When it was time for a bomb demonstration, raceway staff had to clear the surrounding public go-kart track before green-lighting the explosions.

The State Department has long recognized its training program deficiencies and has been looking for a dedicated site since 2009.

After nixing plans for a spot in Queen Anne’s County, Md., the General Services Administration, the agency that’s in charge of federal properties, picked a site near Virginia’s Fort Pickett, an Army National Guard base southwest of Richmond. The new site, which could meet the training goal of more than 8,000 new students each year, would include indoor and outdoor firing and explosives ranges, driving tracks, staging grounds for live training exercises and other facilities to allow students and staff to work and live on site.

But progress on the facility has stalled. The final environmental impact study – the next step in the process – missed its deadline. When she was asked about the department’s plans, State Department Senior Management Analyst Christina Maier said in an email that budget sequestration had forced the administration to re-evaluate the plans.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in an interview that the delay of the Fort Pickett plan seemed counterintuitive, especially in light of concerns about embassy security.

“If it was the best thing to do before Benghazi, the Accountability Review Board in the light of Benghazi demonstrates even more that it’s important that we get it done,” he said. “While I think that budget issues are very serious, embassy security isn’t a place where we need to do a half-version.”

Given the size of the U.S. budget deficit, the idea of spending hundreds of millions of dollars isn’t palatable to everyone, however.

In May, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., proposed a bill that would grant State all “necessary” funds for the center, but it was amended to immediately authorize $100 million for security training needs and allow an additional $350 million to build a center if the president deems it necessary.

To Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who questioned the initial request for a blank check, the compromise is suitable, as it doesn’t force spending on a new site.

“There is language in here that doesn’t necessarily stipulate a facility would even be built,” he said when the bill was amended in August. Passed out of committee, the bill awaits its turn on the Senate floor. Currently, there isn’t a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

However, a dedicated training center remains in the State Department's sights. When Starr was asked in July whether he still thought the Fort Pickett site was the most consistent with department goals, he doubled down.

“The answer is simple: Yes, sir,” he said. “We still believe that the site that we chose at Fort Pickett gives us the best ability to train the numbers of personnel that we need to train, to incorporate our partners in the various other U.S. government agencies that are critical to that training, to build the synergies that we have with our own Foreign Service Institute and our own training regimens up here.”

Twitter: @bkamisar

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