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Ambassador: Marine embassy guards should protect people, not paper

May. 31, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Retired U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, seen here during a ceremony in Afghanistan recognizing him as an Honorary Marine, says the State Department and Marine Corps must reprioritize the mission of Marine embassy guards.
Retired U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, seen here during a ceremony in Afghanistan recognizing him as an Honorary Marine, says the State Department and Marine Corps must reprioritize the mission of Marine embassy guards. (State Department)
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An influential diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq is calling on the State Department and Marine Corps to revise the primary mission of Marine Security Guards so they may better respond to threats.

Retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker told Marine Corps Times that the rules of engagement for Marine Security Guards must be updated to reflect new realities in the age of terrorism. Citing September’s deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, he said that even if a Marine detachment had been present, it is doubtful it could have prevented the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the three other Americans because of the restrictive rules under which the Marines operate.

It’s possible, he added, that had Marines been there they may not have been able to save themselves.

“The only thing sadder than the loss of someone like Ambassador Stevens would be the loss of someone like Ambassador Stevens if there were Marines in the area who said, ‘Sorry, we can’t go there. We can’t do that,’ ” Crocker said.

Crocker served four decades in the Foreign Service, retiring in 2012 as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Before that, from 2007 to 2009, he served as the Ambassador to Iraq. In 2002, just months after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, Crocker was instrumental in reopening the American Embassy in Kabul, which had been shuttered for more than a decade.

Before Crocker retired, he was named an Honorary Marine in recognition to his service alongside Marines throughout his career. Crocker was in Beruit, Lebanon, when the embassy there was attacked in April 1983. More than 200 Marines were killed there that October when their barracks was bombed.

This fall’s deadly attack in Benghazi left many confused about the role Marine Security Guards fill when they’re based at diplomatic posts around the world. In that case, the State Department had not required a Marine Security Guard detachment to be based there.

Still, though, their primary duty is to protect classified material. And that, Crocker said, needs to change.

“I think people come before paper,” Crocker said. “I just don’t think it makes sense any longer that the primary duty be to protect classified documents. It’s to protect lives.”

The Marine Corps’ Embassy Security Group, based in Quantico, Va., is the service’s only unit to be operationally controlled by a non-Defense Department organization. Its agreement with the State Department was signed in 1948 but is updated regularly, said Col. Michael Robinson, the group’s commanding officer.

With Congress calling on the Corps to boost its number of Marine Security Guards by 1,000, the service is building a new Security Augmentation Unit that can dispatch reinforcement teams the moment an ambassador signals trouble. The Corps also has deployed a special purpose Marine air-ground task force, based near Africa, that specialize in crisis response in that region. There are plans to base similar units in the Middle East and Central and South America.

These units can work with existing Marine Corps entities to shore up security reinforcement in the event of a diplomatic crisis. Crocker said seeing the Corps respond to embassy threats with these level of capabilities shows a need for the role of Marine Security Guards to change.

“I really do think it’s time that the Marine Corps and the State Department relook at the memorandum of agreement and rules of engagement because that was written effectively in the pre-terror days,” Crocker said.

Marines will be most effective responding to diplomatic emergencies if, once deployed to assist, they take their direction and orders from the ambassador instead of a commander who might be on the other side of the world, Crocker said.

He cited the capabilities he was able to request of the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, an anti-terrorism unit that since disbanded, with which he worked with when reopening the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

“Their ROE was basically the fleet Marine ROE,” Crocker said. “They could do whatever I told them to do, including engage targets off the compound if they threatened the compound and they had the weaponry to do it.

“I hope very much that these special units have a broader set of rules of engagement.”

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