Center for Strategic Communication

Justin Kolbeck, a State Department political adviser, at work in eastern Afghanistan, June 2011. State wants to equip diplomats like him with location trackers for added security. Photo: Flickr/ISAF

Among the horrors of the September assault on the Benghazi consulate was that security personnel at the diplomatic compound lost track of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens for hours. They next saw him when Libyans returned his corpse. A new program by the State Department’s security branch seeks to ensure diplomats in conflict zones can’t go missing anymore.

A recent solicitation revealed that State wants to upgrade its security to a Personnel Tracking and Locating system that could allow diplomats to check in with security personnel through their phones or other handheld devices. The “device agnostic” system would work similarly to the Blue Force Trackers that soldiers use to keep track of one another on the battlefield: a signal emanates from the device over a satellite network and apears as an icon on a digitized map monitored by State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Devices networked together that host the tracking software need to be able to call up a map on a web browser that shows the relative position of each user, layered over a GoogleEarth baseline.

The new system has to “display live/historical tracks with the following device information for all ingested devices: device ID, alias/call-sign, last reported latitude/longitude, last reported track receive time, and emergency status,” reads the solicitation for the system’s software. For additional security, State wants diplomats to be able to create geo-fences using the system, with automatic alerts going out to authorized users once the devices’ signal leaves (or, conceivably, enters) a perimeter.

It will never be known whether a tracker could have saved Stevens’ life. But his death provides a grim reminder of what can happen when diplomats disappear.

According to the U.S. government’s official timeline of the Benghazi assault, when militants began firing rocket-propelled grenades into the compound, a consular official responsible for security quickly lost track of Stevens in a cloud of thick, dark smoke. He and others inside the main building had to flee to a nearby annex without the ambassador. At some undetermined point, Libyans outside the gates brought Stevens out through the melee and got him to Benghazi’s central hospital. It is unknown whether he was alive at the time, or how long it took anyone to find him after the attack began.

The State Department wants some functionality that military systems like Blue Force Tracker or the Army’s reconfigured Nett Warrior communications suite don’t have. In an “emergency,” it wants the software to “to remotely activate the microphone of audio-capable trackers” — which could allow security officials to gather intelligence on a hypothetical hostage situation.

To be very clear, there’s no way that tracking devices like these could have stopped the Libya assault from happening. They don’t substitute for understanding the dangers that lurk outside diplomatic gates or having available, competent security personnel prepared to deal with them. But the acrimony over the Benghazi debacle threatens to compel diplomats worldwide into retreating behind hardened embassy walls, rather than accepting the risks of travelling to far-flung areas where diplomacy sometimes needs to be conducted. LoJacking diplomats like they’re cars is one small way the department can mitigate those risks while still conducting vital foreign policy.