Security Theater in American Diplomatic Missions

I noticed this in an article about how increased security and a general risk aversion is harming US diplomatic missions:

“Barbara Bodine, who was the U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the Qaeda bombing of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, told me she believes that much of the security American diplomats are forced to travel with is counterproductive. “There’s this idea that if we just throw more security guys at the problem, it will go away,” she said. “These huge convoys they force you to travel in, with a bristling personal security detail, give you the illusion of security, not real security. They just draw a lot of attention and make you a target. It’s better to fly under the radar.”

It’s a good article overall.

Posted on November 19, 2012 at 5:41 AM30 Comments


Tom November 19, 2012 7:08 AM

The experience of living in a city where the US president comes to visit is quite something. I was living in Adelaide when George W Bush visited; a large section of the central business district was locked down for weeks, effectively becoming a little American fortress. Did you have a business in that area? Sorry.

The contrast with when our own head of state, Elizabeth II, visits is striking. She goes for a walk in the city, talks to people, shakes their hands. I once saw her walking in St James’ park in London. She had some police officers with her, sure, but nobody felt the need to close the park and lock down part of the city.

I don’t think the USA wins any friends like this. In fact I’m pretty sure you lose them. Why would we want to be your friends? Being your friends means we’re not allowed into half our city whenever you decide to come to visit.

Obviously the president doesn’t want to be killed. Natural. But I think you as a country need to stand up to him and say, “Tough. If you want to be president, that’s the risk you run.” It’s not that long ago that our kings led troops into war. Sometimes they got killed. But it wasn’t the end of the world, or our country, or our way of life. Just the same, if the president did get killed, what would be the result? You’d get a new president.

Part of the point of the modern bureaucracy is to keep government going even when politicians change. I’m sure many in Whitehall think the point of bureaucracy is to keep politicians out of the business of government, often without them realising it. So if you lose a president by assassination, rather than election, how much difference will it really make?

I’d point out, as well, that the people who have successfully killed American presidents have all been American. The vast majority of failed attempts have been by Americans. Maybe you should refocus your security efforts?

Bob Duckles November 19, 2012 8:10 AM

A couple of years ago I had to visit the American Embassy in Mexico City to make arrangements surrounding my mother’s death in that country. Just getting through the entrance took nearly an hour of questioning, metal detectors, and security questioning. The purpose of the visit was asked repeatedly. I finally received a pass that permitted me to be handed off from one security person to another up a staircase (like the bucket in a bucket brigade), to an office which was the only place I was cleared to be.

I eavesdropped, in the waiting area on a conversation between a diplomat and a representative of a NGO. The diplomat repeated dozens of times that security measures made it impossible to get anything done in the Embassy. The diplomat finally used a telephone behind the counter (no one could have cell phones in the Embassy he explained) to call several offices to get clearance for the NGO rep to meet some other Embassy personnel. This took close to a half hour. A half dozen people had to be involved. It culminated in the NGO rep having to exit the Embassy (recovering his cell phone) and re-entering (surrendering his cell phone once again and going through all the same screening). The one difference was that he had a badge authorizing the diplomat (who again met him in the same waiting room) to escort him to a single office and no where else.

My matter was treated with faultless politeness and sympathy. It was, however, inefficient enough for me to witness this other event.

I can’t say this experience made me particularly proud to be an American.

paul November 19, 2012 8:13 AM

One of the problems here is a confusion about the sense of “diplomat”. There are Diplomats such as ambassadors, whose job is to meet with other Diplomats and with officials of other governments. And then there are diplomats such as consuls and attaches, whose job is to meet with ordinary mortals either expatriate or local, and to actually see useful things and get stuff done on a day-to-day basis. Big noisy security for the former is part of the required pomp and circumstance; for the latter it’s at best a distraction.

(Oddly enough I happen to know that when my grandfather was a consular official, even in nominally friendly countries he carried a personal firearm. Back in the days when a passport wasn’t a standardized printed document but rather an actual letter from the secretary of state.)

onearmedspartan November 19, 2012 8:17 AM

As you said, the threat comes with the territory. American Presidents have close friends. But unfortunately, closer enemies. I see your point but as we’ve come to see it: If someone successfully attacks our president, its considered an attack to all of us (whether we hate the guy or not). Thus, we take it very personal. Is it smart or the ‘right thing to do’? I don’t know. There are very proud and very skilled Americans guarding the pres & his family. Any attack on our nations leaders is a black eye for everyone here.

Clive Robinson November 19, 2012 9:36 AM

@ Tom, Mike Martin, onearmedspartan,

A not so silly question for you…

Does the US need a President?

In many places the “head of state” is actually little more than a mobile clothes hanger on which the “uniform of State” is hung. In fact there are a number of countries that for various reasons don’t actually have a set of politicos nominaly in charge. One such is European and due to the electorate not realy wanting any of them, the poltical parties had not been able to form a government for eighteen months. During which time their Civil Service were quietly getting on with the job and judging by how the Political “Euro Crisis” is passing them by they were not doing as bad a job of running the countery as the current govenment which is coming up for a year of troubled life. There are also european countries that are not “European” and have government by the people for the people in that a couple of times a year in their Canton they get together in the town square and decide on how they are going to do things for the next six months or so (sadly this anomaly or “real democracy” appears to have become an endangered species).

Any way the point is do we actually need a political head of state and a bunch of cronies getting paid off by large commercial intrests much to the detriment of the people?

Michael Brady November 19, 2012 10:52 AM

Years ago the President Clinton and Vice-President Gore visited our company. They were half-way through their visit before the half mile long motorcade finished arriving.

Alan November 19, 2012 10:54 AM


I like your idea insofar as getting rid of politicians. But politicians have to at least nominally be accountable to get re-elected.

Bureaucrats are worse than politicians because they are unaccountable and challenging bureacracies is kafkaesque. A law can successfully be challenged in court; regulations more difficult.

I agree that US Embassy security is ridiculous. The Embassy in the country I currently work in is open only 2 hours each week for American Citizen visits/business! What do they exist for then? I suspect the majority of their work is processing and mostly denying visa requests. Still, that seems a bit ridiculous.

NobodySpecial November 19, 2012 10:56 AM

@Clive Robinson. As the ancient sage Douglas Adams pointed out – the purpose of the president is to distract attention from who is actually running things.

It sounded like a joke until Boris .

Bob T November 19, 2012 11:20 AM

What we really need to do for security is show our power by kicking the crap out of some small country populated by brown people.

Gyre November 19, 2012 11:40 AM

I did enjoy the article and it sure sounds like excessive security measures are hampering diplomatic work. But I think we need a term other than “security theatre” in this case — something more like “policy creep” maybe, since I bet the problem here is basically the government trying to deal with every possible contingency by developing a new policy/procedure/SOP, to the point where it’s difficult to do anything. This is pretty typical government. “Security theatre” I think of more as conspicuous low-value security measures just for the sake of bluffing and/or winning cheap political points.

Figureitout November 19, 2012 11:43 AM

@Clive Robinson
Does the US need a President?
–No, many powers need to be stripped and decisions made more local; bribes would be spread out too. Does England need a Queen? I will point out that creating a fair method of making decisions is deceptively hard; there will always be someone to mess it up, not b/c of policy differences, b/c of high school cliqueness mentalities.

Run! The black helicopters are coming!
–Silly Tom, don’tcha know? Clive’s house folds open upon receiving a warning signal revealing a Starstreak missile battery. And that’s only what we know about.

Josh November 19, 2012 12:36 PM

Oh. I was hoping for something about avoiding the pitfall of too much security, even the proper, effective kind. Ultimately security is still in aid of getting things done, after all, and even good measures tend to slow things down in the short term, with the benefit of improving the longer term prospects of progress.

I know a good way to think about how to make that compromise is economics, but it remains a standing problem in my workplace to point out to people that some measures may cost more than they are worth, even if they are generally the effective, efficient kind.

BTurley November 19, 2012 12:36 PM

@ ‘Isn’t she effectively advocating security by obscurity?’

The strength of encryption strikes me as being largely predicated on obscurity. You can make the algorithm public all you want, but in the end you are left ‘hiding’ the damn key. Similarly, for the most part don’t access controls amount to “can you keep a secret?”
Go ahead, respond with something about security being 1) something you have 2) something you know 3) something you are. Then I’ll ask you why this is not security by obscurity.
Are you really suggesting there is more and better personal security in a large heavily fortified entourage that advertises itself everywhere it goes? That somehow, because it’s not ‘security by obscurity’, it’s better?

John David Galt November 19, 2012 1:14 PM

It astounds me that the US can still fill the jobs of either ambassador or embassy guard, now that it’s been revealed that the guards were out there with unloaded weapons. That should NEVER happen. An unloaded weapon is always worse than none at all.

Morris November 19, 2012 1:57 PM

I live and work in New York City, in Manhattan, where the President of the United States does visit regularly. I would say that when he is coming, the security officials (the secret service) has a major presence in every building where he will be for several days, perhaps a week. The route where he will be driven is closed to all other traffic for a couple of hours, and when the motorcade is parked the street is closed completely.

Things are back to normal pretty quickly (an hour or so) after he leaves. I would say that anyone on that block is inconvenienced a lot, and a huge number of other people are inconvenienced a little. The intention is to prevent something like what happened at the Washington Hilton when Reagan was attacked as he was getting into a car.

Clive Robinson November 19, 2012 5:09 PM

@ Tom,

Perhaps it sounds silly to you but in the UK we have just had a number of elections where ins some places less than 1 person out of six people registered to vote actually voted and the average was something like 1 person in five. We also know that a steadily increasing number of people in the UK are disapearing off of electrol registers and Census reply forms and it may be as high as 20% of the aadult population. This means that in quite a few places less than 13% of adults actually voted….

Now the politicos have argued that as it was a new election then it was down to people not understanding etc etc. The reality is less and less people in the UK vote and the figures have decliined fairly steadily since the time of Maggie Thatcher and the poll tax, and importantly the younger you are the less likely you are to vote.

What has been the politicos solution to the pronlem, well to make it easier to vote by “new and exciting means” the result has actually been that the average person has not thought it simpler, the only people who have found it simpler are those trying to rif elections…

So in the UK few if any politicos have any kind of mandate because with rare exceptions none of them have actually hhad 50% of eligable voters in their area vote for them…

Sadly as NobbodySpecial is probably aware one of the few to get a mandate is Mayor for London Boris “blow dry job” Johnston, who it appears has actually got more votes than the accumulated total of votes for all the Conservative cabinet members. Which is why he probably scares the current PM David Cameron a lot.

That aside though with so few actually voting for politicos in the UK you have to ask a couple of questions such as,

Do the UK electorate see anything worthwhile in politicos?

And if the answer is realy no (which a number of sources suggest is the case),

What are we going to replace politico’s with?

That is are UK electors agreeing with Winston Churchill’s observation about representational democracy of, “It’s the worst form of political system except for all the rest” and giving up on it. Or are we simply outgrowing representational democracy and need to replace it with something we trust more such as some form of real democracy where we vote on substantive issues not vague political policies that the politicos have no real intention of following once elected…

The one thing that is clear is the younger you are in the UK the more disenfranchised you feel with the politicos. And one thing history tells us, is that revolutions usually start with disenfranchised people who feel they have nothing to lose by fighting the encumbrant system.

signalsnatcher November 19, 2012 8:10 PM

@ B
When Britain was building its empire their embassies had guards – usually two Royal Marines. From about 1800 to 1945 there were a few incidents where angry protesters (usually in Latin America) stormed the embassy but none in which a diplomat suffered any more than insults or being roughly handled. Only the Boxer Rebellion in China resulted in an actual threat to life.

Reading over the whole article it seems to me that the Benghazzi attack might have been motivated by Stevens very active contacts with political forces during the revolution. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US ambassador takes on many of the roles of a colonial govenor – motive enough for local patriots to mount deadly attacks.

Darryl Daugherty November 20, 2012 2:54 AM

Tom, the American president doesn’t “decide to visit”; he’s invited. And the country inviting him shoulders the blame for any inconvenience.

Bangkok hardly came to a standstill the other day. As with any location though YMMV.

Also if “our kings” means British monarchs, the last such to lead troops on the battlefield was George II more than two centuries ago.

Tom November 20, 2012 3:48 AM

@Clive Robinson:

I’m one of those 4 in 5 on average who is registered but didn’t vote. I’m not sure how elected police commissioners affect my life, but maybe that’s part of the effect you’re describing.


Correct. You get a gold start for George II. Not that long ago. It wasn’t the end of the world.

British troops didn’t “decide to visit” in the 18th c – they were invited to help deal with Indian attacks. The people that invited them shoulder the blame for any inconvenience, like billeting the troops or paying for their upkeep. Oh, what? It doesn’t work like that? Sorry. My mistake. But don’t be surprised when we throw all your Starbucks coffee into the harbour.

Whatever your view as an American might be of presidential visits overseas, I’m trying to tell you that, as one of those visited, it’s damnably inconvenient, terrifically expensive and faintly ridiculous. Not to the people who invited him, but to the everyday person in the street. That you refuse to listen to that message is pretty typical of what is wrong with American foreign policy (and diplomacy). The message it conveys is, “I’m coming to visit and that’s a big favour to you. Not you personally, of course, I wouldn’t let you nearer than three blocks because you’re a damn foreigner and are just as likely to have a rocket propelled grenade hidden in your umbrella, but you should bask in the reflected glory all the same. We’re American, and we’re better than you, we’re special, we need special protection, so deal with it.” That’s the message your president conveys to 99.9% of the people in the countries he visits.

officerX November 20, 2012 5:01 AM


The public algorithm is where, or better the fact that they are going with the entourage.

The secret key is how in detail security works (including route planning and other counter-attack precautions).

The option is dressing as a tourist and taking public transport. Secure enough for the ambassador and embassy staff? I don’t think so.

Harry November 20, 2012 10:09 AM

I would not use Ambassador Bodine as a reference who understands how security works. Her decisions as ambassador to Yemen during the the USS Cole and 9/11 investigations needlessly restricted the effectiveness of the investigating teams.

Further, what works in Australia would not work in Yemen. Foreigners can’t “fly under the radar” in Yemen. Even moderately wealthy Yemenis can’t do that. So unless she’s recommending we hire as local to be our honorary consul, we need to be teamed up and therefore on the radar.

@Clive – the US president is head of goverment as well as head of state. Even if it’s legally possible to eliminate the role of head of state that still wouldn’t eliminate the US president.

Dirk Praet November 21, 2012 4:30 AM

I’d say it’s the inevitable consequence of paranoia becoming the dominant state of mind and an entire industry stepping in to capitalise on it.

@ Tom

Part of the point of the modern bureaucracy is to keep government going even when politicians change.

Hardly something new. It goes back to the Roman empire and even the Egyptians, when yet another nitwit emperor or pharaoh rose to power and decided he had better things to do than actually get involved in managing the realm. It has been observed through history that well-organised administrations and bureaucracies can go on for years keeping things together before ultimately falling apart too.

As Clive pointed out, Belgium in 2010-2011 with 541 days set a new world record in government coalition forming. During this time, it was for all practical purposes the incumbent administration that rather successfully ran the country, maintaining the rather fragile status quo one particular party was trying to put an end to by pushing a confederate agenda that would have left the disenfranchised south in ruins. If nothing else, it clearly demonstrated the gross incompetence and miserable failure of an entire political generation, which to date the country is paying a heavy price for in being considered unstable by many foreign investors.

@ Figureitout

Clive’s house folds open upon receiving a warning signal revealing a Starstreak missile battery

I have it on good authority that Gene Hackman’s character Edward ‘Brill’ Lyle in the 1998 film “Enemy of the State” was actually based on Clive.

Figureitout November 21, 2012 12:47 PM

That you refuse to listen to that message is pretty typical…
–Average American’s opinions don’t matter to ‘ear-piece suits’ (that have a taste for Columbian prostitutes); and any decisions reaching the POTOS desk are likely sanitized. Meaning that is not representative of many Americans; I can tell you in my very limited time in the UK I had utmost respect (and expect it likewise) for your culture/country and you would only notice me if I asked for directions b/c I can imitate well. Foreigners don’t scare me either, they’re quite fun to talk to actually (if you can breach the language barrier).

@Dirk Praet
–Ha, I hope Clive’s protocols are near flawless as he makes an attractive stalk target. North/South Belgium is night and day difference (north much better, at least economically/crime-wise). I remember talking w/ my voetbal team parents and there was high tension b/c muslim immigrants wanted to make Arabic the 4th national language; which they felt was inappropriate.

Clive Robinson November 21, 2012 1:21 PM

@ Figureitout,

–Ha, I hope Clive’s protocols are near flawless as he makes an attractive stalk target.

Why do people want to track me down?..

@ Dirk Praet,

I have it on good authority that Gene Hackman’s character Edward ‘Brill’ Lyle in the 1998 film”Enemy of the State” was actually based on Clive

That role was originaly designed for “Mr Scotland” and “do my own stunts” all round action hero Sean Connery who would be a slightly better fit to me than Gene Hackman (though at the moment I’ve got the beard and hair style from his Highlander role but with the MacCloud charecter colouring 😉

Nick P November 22, 2012 12:29 AM

Re: Tracking Elusive Prey [I’m not interested in]

“–Ha, I hope Clive’s protocols are near flawless as he makes an attractive stalk target.”

“Why do people want to track me down?..”

Beat’s me. Thought would have never crossed my mind. I estimate that it would take me, with my skills, a few grand to track you down. Probably less since you’re often in a public place. Way too much money to spend on idle curiosity, imho.

Of course, an especially evil nemesis might just convince some guys at Anonymous that you’re part of (insert current opponents), claim to be untraceable, post lots of information about your past online, & think Anon has no talent. Thought about doing that to a few people, but with age comes wisdom. 😉

Figureitout November 22, 2012 12:48 AM

@Clive Robinson
Apologies Mod, wanted to squeeze tiny joke & will quit OT convo You’ve made it clear to the world of some interesting info you possess. I’d also speculate that “random” karate kick to the back of the head wasn’t all that random. I’ve had my share of “random” coincidences and familiar words that make you go hmm a little later…That is all.

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