The State Department issued a global travel alert to the American public on Friday, warning about the "continued potential for terrorist attacks" in the Middle East and North Africa by al Qaeda and its affiliates. While further details on the threat were not given, the chairman of the House's terrorism and nonproliferation panel tells The Cable the department appears to be covering itself in the event of another Benghazi-style attack.
"I do think it appears that the State Department doesn't want to get in a situation like it did in Benghazi where the consulate was not secure despite requests for more security months in advance," said Rep. Ted Poe. "Part of the problem though is a public notice like this ... The public knows so the bad guys know too."
Today's travel warning comes almost a year after the September 11 Benghazi attack, which subjected the department to wave after wave of criticisms from Congress and government investigators that it didn't do enough to protect the consulate -- and the people inside.
Poe insisted Congress is committed to giving the State Department the security it needs around the world. But he's worried that the decision to close nearly all U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia through the weekend sends the wrong signal. "Terrorism works -- because we're closing all of our embassies and consulates on one day," he said. "We'd rather be safe than have somebody hurt but the long term answer is every time someone gets information, we can't shut them all down all over the world."
When the embassy closures were announced on Thursday, a State Department spokesperson said the decision was made "out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting our installations." The Friday bulletin did not advise against travel in specific countries, but warned U.S. citizens to exercise caution, particularly in tourist areas, and recommended registering their itineraries with the State Department.
"Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests," the U.S. advisory said. "U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services."
Britain, by contrast, opted only to close its embassy in Yemen ,"due to increased security concerns" -- a move that follows an uptick in U.S. drone strikes in east Yemen this week, a hub for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Earlier in the day, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the advisory was connected to an al Qaeda threat in the Middle East and Central Asia. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MA), the ranking member of the intelligence committee, said the threat was not based on "the regular chit-chat."
"When you have a threat and you think it's serious, you have to put it out," he added. "You get chit chat all the time, but this got to another level."
But Poe cautioned against over-reaction. "Our embassies can not operate with a bunker mentality in foreign countries," he said. "Our embassies are there to interact with the people of that country. I hope we don't get into this bunker mentality mode."
Meanwhile, the debate over security failures ahead of the attack on a diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year that killed four Americans continues to play out in various congressional committees. On Thursday, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa issued two more subpoenas relevant to his lengthy investigation into the attack. On the same day, House and Senate panels approved bills to improve embassy security. While Poe supports those efforts, he cautioned against public advisories, saying it tells terrorists, "We're ready on this day, but maybe not another day. We need to be ready every day."