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Benghazi and the reality of embassies

Benghazi and the reality of embassies

Everyone agrees that the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff members in Benghazi, Libya, was a tragedy. That includes both political parties and virtually everyone else who knows anything about the attack on our embassy that fateful night in 2012. History tells us that being an ambassador in a foreign embassy is a dangerous responsibility.

Seven ambassadors have been killed while on duty since 1968. Their names and dates of death are: John Gordon Mein, Guatemala, 1968; Cleo Noel Jr., Sudan, 1973; Rodger Davies, Cyprus, 1974; Francis Mallory, Lebanon, 1976; Adolph Dubs, Afghanistan, 1979; Laurence Foley, Jordan, 2002; Christopher Stevens, Libya, 2012.

Multiple other attacks have occurred on American embassies around the globe where people were killed, just not the ambassador. Assigning blame for Ambassador Stevens’ death was the obvious subject of the Benghazi hearings held on Capitol Hill in Washington in October. (To my knowledge this is the first hearing by a Congressional group related to any of the tragic deaths of an ambassador.) In order to understand what happened and why, let’s have a look at history and international law. Virtually every country in the world has embassies in other countries.

The United States alone has more than 250 such embassies. These international efforts at relationships between countries are coordinated by the United Nations. There are several “constants” with all such embassies. 1. Embassies can be established when both countries desire to make such arrangements.

2. Security of the outside of an embassy is the responsibility of the host nation.

3. Security of the inside of an embassy is the responsibility of the visiting nation.

4. The grounds and buildings of an embassy are judged by international law to be the property of the visiting nation and are considered to be a part of that nation. 5. Construction of such compounds is the responsibility of the host nation. (When a recent U.S. Embassy facility in Moscow was created, we found so many listening devices hidden in the walls that we judged the facility to be unusable.) 6. The diplomats assigned to embassies by the visiting nation are under the laws of their own country and have diplomatic immunity from arrest in the host country.

In past years I have visited many U.S. Embassies in Asia.

When I was at our facility in Beijing, I was struck by the number of soldiers on hand. At each corner of the compound there was a guard building and there was an almost constant marching of Chinese troops around the outside of the facility. I counted 48 guards on duty just outside of the walls providing security for our people inside.

In virtually every instance in the past when we lost diplomatic personnel to embassy attacks, the external security of the facility, the responsibility or the host nation, was lacking. That was certainly true in Benghazi, where reports reveal that the external defense force disappeared prior to the attack and five Marines were left to defend the compound against, literally, hundreds of heavily armed attackers. Security is the issue.

But how much security personnel is enough when the embassy compound is to be defended by the host nation?

Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Cyrus Vance, Henry Kissinger, Dean Rusk and Hillary Clinton were all in the role of secretary of state when we lost ambassadors to terrorist attacks. Should all be held accountable for those deaths? Who were the presidents during those other tragedies and what was their responsibility? What about Congress who is in control of financing those Embassies and providing the money to pay for their security? The Benghazi hearings may have provided more questions than answers. At the very least we should have an added incentive to reassess our policies and practices regarding security for our personnel when they are on assignment out of the country doing our business.

Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. Contact him at

Mark L.



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