Marine Guards Adapt to Deal With International Terrorism
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 10, 2002 International terrorism is forcing the U.S. State Department to put more emphasis on how it secures its overseas facilities and, in turn, causing DoD to re-evaluate how it trains Marine embassy guards.
In testimony this morning before the House Armed Services Committee's Special Oversight Panel on Terrorism, a senior State Department official explained how changes in the world are affecting U.S. missions outside the United States.
In the past, threats were more regional, with terrorism risks being more country-specific or based on local politics, said Ray Williams, deputy assistant secretary of state for countermeasures and information security. The State Department put considerable resources into improving physical security at such "high-threat" posts as Beirut, Lebanon, and Bogota, Colombia, he said.
"Transnational terrorism, which we're now seeing, reverses the entire matrix," Williams told the panel members. "Now, Calgary to Cairo, it's a level playing field." He said about 4,000 "significant threats" are made each year against American missions abroad.
U.S. Marines provide internal security at most overseas State Department posts. The shift in the threat to American assets overseas has forced them to shift their focus as well.
"The Marine Corps does recognize that U.S. embassies have and will be again the target of terrorist attacks," Marine Brig. Gen. Douglas O'Dell told the panel. O'Dell commands the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, Camp Lejeune, N.C.
A month and a half after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Marine reactivated O'Dell's unit as an anti-terrorism unit and made the Marine Security Guard Battalion a major subordinate element to the 4th MEB.
"In doing so, the Marine Corps fully affirmed that Marine security guards are on the front line of the war on terrorism every day," O'Dell said. He said the new unit's focus is to instill in the Marine guards that their sites may be targeted by terrorists "no matter how remote or how benign its locale."
Marines are one of four security layers protecting U.S. State Department overseas missions. Host-country security elements help identify threats and secure embassy compound perimeters, while local- national guards control access by screening vehicles and visitors, Williams explained.
In recent years, the State Department has added surveillance-detection teams as an additional layer of security. Williams said the plainclothes SD teams work unobtrusively beyond the walls of the embassy. He said they're charged to detect "pre-operational surveillance" directed at American personnel and facilities.
Marine security guards form the innermost ring of security, Williams said. They control access to sensitive areas of the embassy, safeguard classified information, and provide a last line of internal defense.
O'Dell pointed out that Marine guards have no authority outside the embassy compound.
"In countries where the Marine house is geographically separated from the embassy, foreign governments forbid Marines to carry weapons between the Marine house and the embassy when reacting to an emergency at the embassy compound," O'Dell said. "Reaction-force Marines access their weapons only after arriving at the chancellery."
He noted that in any new construction of State Department facilities, the Marine housing unit is part of the embassy compound "in order to mitigate the reaction-force problem."
Marine guards are divided into eight companies based on geographic location. They provide security for 131 diplomatic missions in 121 countries, O'Dell said.
He noted that when the Marine Corps formally established this relationship with the State Department in 1948, 300 Marines guarded locations overseas. Guard ranks have grown to 1,240 today, and O'Dell said he expects that number to grow to 1,500 over the next five years.
"The Department of State and U.S. Marine Corps have a long partnership based in trust and common mission goals," Williams said. "The demands brought on by the war on terrorism have only strengthened our resolve."