WASHINGTON -- By late this summer, the U.S. State Department plans to send dozens of additional diplomatic security agents to high-threat embassies, install millions of dollars of advanced fire-survival gear and surveillance cameras in those diplomatic posts, and improve training for employees headed to the riskiest missions.
The price tag for the security improvements put in place after the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 has reached $1.4 billion to meet the most urgent needs, including additional personnel. But diplomats and lawmakers say it will take years and billions more dollars to fully carry out the changes called for by the independent review panel that investigated the assault, which killed four Americans and touched off a highly charged political debate about the Obama administration's ability to ensure the security of overseas outposts.
The State Department is racing to fulfill the 29 recommendations made by the panel as threats against U.S. embassies in Egypt, Yemen and other hazardous places have increased sharply in recent months. But even as it does, the department's ability to correct the security flaws, the financing to do it and the review panel itself, led by the veteran diplomat Thomas R. Pickering, have all come under attack from House Republicans who have seized on the Benghazi issue.
"It remains to be seen how well the State Department implements the board's recommendations," said House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif.. "But for any changes to succeed, they must embrace responsibility and accountability at senior levels, which hasn't happened in this case."
Democrats who have criticized Republicans for what they say is the Benghazi episode's politicization have also vowed to scrutinize the government's response. "We need to make sure they're following through," said Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the Foreign Affairs panel's ranking Democrat. "We have to make sure there are no future Benghazis."
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday outlined the recommendations from the department panel -- officially known as the Accountability Review Board -- that have been put in place. He said the department had increased training and security personnel, adding Marines to diplomatic posts that face the highest threats. "And we're making sure that their first responsibility is protecting our people, not just classified materials," he said.
Mr. Kerry said the department was working with the Pentagon to link embassies and consulates more closely to the military's regional commands.
President Barack Obama, seeking to regain his footing amid repeated questions over the attack and his administration's handling of it, sought last week to put the onus on Congress to appropriate enough money for carrying out the board's recommendations, five of which deal with classified information and were not made public. "We also need Congress to work with us to provide the resources and new authorities, so we can fully implement all of the recommendations of the Accountability Review Board," he told reporters at a White House news conference.
Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said financing for the improvements, which Congress shifted away from the department's operations in Iraq, "addresses expeditiously" the investigative panel's recommendations.
The White House, however, has also requested $4.4 billion for diplomatic security measures and construction as part of its annual budget submission to Congress.
As part of the $1.4 billion Congress approved this year, $553 million will go to recruiting, training and deploying about 350 Marine security guards to two dozen high-risk embassies in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Kenya. The first 90 additional Marine guards are expected to arrive by year's end, State Department officials said. There are now about 1,200 Marine guards in more than 130 nations.
In addition to more Marines, who are mainly responsible for securing classified material in the diplomatic posts, the State Department also created 151 new diplomatic security positions; 113 are expected to be hired by the end of September. The remainder will be hired in fiscal 2014.
In addition, the department has improved and expanded efforts to upgrade language capacity, especially Arabic, among U.S. employees, including diplomatic security agents. The department is seeking $2 million from Congress to expand a two-year training course. In the meantime, a 12-week introductory class for diplomatic security agents begins Oct. 1.
Beyond the recommendations outlined in the panel's report, the administration is taking other steps to address shortcomings in security.
The Pentagon is revamping its quick-response forces around the globe to respond faster to crises such as the one in Benghazi. The independent investigation determined that military intervention would not have prevented the deaths of the Americans there, but lawmakers from both parties have expressed anger that the military was caught flat-footed. As the first part of this overall plan, the Marines are sending a special 500-member combat team to Spain that will be ready to deploy on six hours' notice to hot spots in Africa and the Mediterranean.
The corps is also creating a group of 120 Marines based in Quantico, Va., which by summer's end will be able to send teams of 10 to 12 Marines on short notice to embassies and consulates to reinforce the Marines stationed there.