WASHINGTON -- An independent review panel has concluded that with American embassies and consulates facing an increasing threat of terrorist attacks, the State Department office overseeing diplomatic security is mired in the agency's sprawling bureaucracy and must be elevated in importance.
A separate, broader inquiry last December into the attack on the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans last Sept. 11 blamed the diplomatic security bureau and another State Department office as failing to coordinate and plan adequate security. That inquiry also found that several diplomatic security officials showed poor leadership, and recommended the creation of the latest panel to examine these and other department flaws.
Diplomatic security is one of 11 functions overseen by an under secretary for management, Patrick F. Kennedy, which include budget, personnel, procurement and medical services. Mr. Kennedy is one of six under secretaries, effectively the department's third-ranking officials.
The panel's new findings, which have not yet been publicly released, do not specifically address the department's handling of the Benghazi attacks. But they implicitly criticize Mr. Kennedy's office as not paying enough attention to the bureau that oversees security at 275 installations, and recommends "as a matter of urgency" establishing a new under secretary job to give security matters more clout within the department's highest policy-making circles.
"The department's present direction of expeditionary diplomacy, operating with an increasing number of temporary and permanent posts in complex, high-risk environments, requires an organizational paradigm change," the panel said in its 31-page report.
"The threats Foreign Service personnel face requires the Department's security function not to be relegated to the same status as other important but distinctly different, support functions," the report added.
With the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attacks next week and the department still recovering from the temporary closing of 19 embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa because of a terrorist threat, the security of American diplomatic posts remains a major concern as well as the source of a highly charged debate about the Obama administration's ability to ensure the security of overseas outposts.
By this fall, the State Department plans to have sent dozens of additional diplomatic security agents to high-threat embassies, installed millions of dollars of advanced fire-survival gear and surveillance cameras in those diplomatic posts, and improved training for employees headed to the riskiest missions.
But diplomats and lawmakers have warned it will take years and billions more dollars to fully carry out the changes called for by the broader independent inquiry conducted last December by Thomas F. Pickering, a former senior ambassador.
Creating the latest review panel, which was led by Mark Sullivan, a former Secret Service director, was one of 29 recommendations proposed by Mr. Pickering's inquiry, called the Accountability Review Board. Mr. Sullivan's five-member panel was charged with identifying "best practices" used in the public and private sectors to address security, intelligence, accountability and risk management, all problems at the State Department.
The panel provided its report to the department late last week. A copy was given to The New York Times by someone who felt it was important to publicize the panel's findings on diplomatic security.
A department spokesman, Alec Gerlach, declined to comment on the report until it is formally submitted.
The State Department late last year appointed for the first time a senior official -- a deputy assistant secretary of state -- to ensure that embassies and consulates in dangerous places got sufficient attention. But this review found that step insufficient, noting that in Washington, clear lines of authority and responsibility for diplomatic security were lacking. The report said a new under secretary would be responsible for "conducting threat and vulnerability assessments to identify risk" and recommending safeguards.
Congress created the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in 1986 as part of legislation to strengthen diplomatic posts after the bombing of the United States Embassy and Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983. The bureau's 2,000 special agents and a network of engineers and other staff members protect about 150,000 employees and family members.
But the Benghazi attacks cast a harsh spotlight on the bureau. Three of the four State Department officials removed from their posts and placed on administrative leave last December after Mr. Pickering's report were diplomatic security personnel. Secretary of State John Kerry last month reinstated the officials, who were reassigned to jobs with less responsibility, according to a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel issues.
Elevating diplomatic security is not a new idea. A similar recommendation was made after embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were attacked in 1998.
The latest recommendation has received a skeptical reception from some lawmakers. "I won't endorse a new undersecretary position until the State Department provides the committee with a compelling rationale," Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said. "More bureaucracy is not synonymous with effective security."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.