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Ambassador Gentry Smith | February 8, 2023

Event Summary by Ritika Saligram

On February 8, Professor Simon Miles hosted Ambassador Gentry Smith, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security. Ambassador Smith was the first Black diplomatic security special agent to serve as Assistant Secretary of State, and he also served as Director of the Office of Foreign Missions. He has had overseas assignments in Cairo, Egypt, Rangoon, Burma, and Tokyo, Japan.

Amb. Smith began his remarks by explaining the role of diplomatic security and the main tasking of his enterprise, which is to protect people, national security information, and facilities both domestically and internationally. The diplomatic security enterprise exists in 170 countries around the world with over 250 facilities. Diplomatic security considers threats ranging from political violence, crime, and terrorism to other entities trying to exfiltrate national security information from US facilities. Amb. Smith mentioned that a main challenge today for the diplomatic security apparatus is being nimble enough to function while addressing still-persistent counterterrorism threats and the new priorities. They are working to ensure that personnel remain safe while also trying to focus on new threats as they emerge.

Amb. Smith then spoke about the role of risk management in his work, stressing that risk management, not risk aversion, is their main tool for success and how they maintain support from the broader US government. A lot of diplomatic security work is intelligence-based – not just from Intelligence Community but from the collective national security apparatus. Amb. Smith’s enterprise is focused on calling out problem areas and challenges, then developing a process or mechanism to enable other personnel to have meetings, get the truth on the ground, and engage with the public and their counterparts as broadly as can be done safely to get a full enough picture to generate reports. Amb. Smith also mentioned that there are many partners involved in this process, including other US government entities, experienced professionals, businesses, educational institutions, and NGOs. The key takeaway from this part of the conversation was that diplomatic security personnel have to understand the risks involved in their job, but must also understand that they can’t sit behind a wall or wait for the message to come to them first.

Amb. Smith also spoke about how Benghazi and its aftermath shaped the enterprise’s approach and acceptance of risk in its overall culture. He mentioned that the findings from the accountability review board were helpful in terms of developing programs for functioning in the future, and that they have instituted several training modules for new foreign service officers to go through. Overall, there were many good outcomes from the review process that strengthened diplomatic security training.

During the Q&A, audience members posed questions about how to respond to public demands for better national security infrastructure, what standard operating procedures look like, and the importance of language acquisition to getting situated on the ground. Amb. Smith concluded his remarks with a reflection on leadership in government organizations, emphasizing the importance of listening and lifting people up to succeed and excel.