More U.S. Embassy Attacks Under Bush and Reagan than Obama?

We investigate the claim that more U.S. embassy attacks, with more fatalities, occurred under George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan than during the Obama administration.

  • Published 19 October 2016
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Claim

More attacks on U.S. embassies, with more people killed, occurred during the G.W. Bush and Reagan administrations than under Obama.

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Collected via e-mail, March 2016

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Origin

The coordinated Islamist militia attacks on the U.S. Embassy and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012 left four Americans dead (including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens) and cast a lingering shadow over the Obama administration, particularly Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on whose watch the attacks took place. The issue of who was to blame for security deficiencies that made it possible for the attacks to occur dogged Democratic presidential nominee Clinton all throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

One way in which Clinton’s defenders responded to accusations of fault on her part was by circulating statistics about comparable attacks that allegedly occurred during previous administrations. One such list cites incidents from the presidencies of Republicans George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan:

DURING BUSH ADMINISTRATION
13 Embassy attacks
66 deaths
3 American diplomats killed
22 Embassy employees killed
Number of investigations 0

DURING REAGAN ADMINISTRATION
10 Embassy attacks
318 deaths
1 US ambassador killed
18 CiA officers
254 Marines
Number of investigations 1

DURING CURRENT ADMINISTRATION
2 Embassy attacks
4 American deaths
Number of Investigations 13

Cost to taxpayers for partisan witch hunt 14 million. This is what Republicans think is more important than serving the American people.

The not-so-subtle implication is that Clinton’s partisan accusers are hypocritical for heaping condemnation (and investigations) on her, but not on her Republican counterparts.

But how valid are the facts and figures? Carefully considered, they’re not as straightforward and pat as they might seem at first glance. For starters, what were the criteria used to make the comparisons? Does “embassy attack” mean one that literally occurs on embassy grounds, near embassy grounds, or includes assaults on U.S. diplomatic personnel regardless of location? Are we only considering attacks that resulted in fatalities? If so, must as least some of those fatalities be Americans? The parameters are adjustable. The statistics vary accordingly.

Bush Administration

 
Basing an examination on the somewhat inconsistent information compiled by various sources (see references below), and restricting our criteria to attacks resulting in fatalities, we found around 20 attacks that targeted U.S. embassies and diplomatic personnel over the course of the George W. Bush administration. By narrowing the criteria further to exclude offsite attacks on vehicles, motorcades, and the like, we boiled that number down to 13:

  • On 15 December 2001, gunmen killed a Nepalese security guard at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu.
  • On 22 January 2002, an attack on the American Center in Calcutta killed five policemen.
  • On 20 March 2002, a car bomb exploded across the street from the U.S. Consulate General in Lima, Peru killed nine Peruvians.
  • On 14 June 2002, a truck bomb exploded outside the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi, Pakistan killed 12 people (one U.S. Marine was injured).
  • On 28 February 2003, a gunman killed two policemen at the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi, Pakistan.
  • On 30 June 2004, a suicide bomber killed two people (including himself) at the U.S. Embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
  • On 6 December 2004, Islamist militants attacked the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, killing nine security guards and staff.
  • On 29 January 2005, a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad killed two Americans working there.
  • On 2 March 2006, a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi, killing at least four, including a U.S. diplomat and his driver.
  • On 12 September 2006, Islamic militants attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria, killing a Syrian security guard.
  • On 9 July 2008, gunmen attacked the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, killing three policemen.
  • On 17 September 2008, members of al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen with vehicle bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, killing 12 Yemeni guards and civilians (including one U.S. civilian).
  • On 27 November 2008, a car bomb went off about 200 yards from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, killing at least four.

At 65, our tally of the deaths resulting from embassy attacks during the Bush administration is one short of that provided in the Internet list (as we mentioned above, the available information on these attacks tends to be slightly inconsistent). Four of those deaths were Americans, three of whom were diplomatic personnel. One can argue that the comparison between these 13 incidents and Benghazi is strained, however, in that four U.S. personnel were killed in the Benghazi attack alone. One might further object that only attacks in which Americans were killed ought to be counted in the first place, in which case the number of pertinent attacks under George W. Bush would total three rather than thirteen.

In any case, Congress did not see fit to investigate any of those incidents.

Reagan Administration

 
We can’t figure out how the author of the image came up with 10 embassy attacks under Ronald Reagan (we only count four that involved fatalities). It’s clear from the stated number of U.S. citizens killed, however, that at least one of the incidents included under this heading doesn’t belong there, and we’re guessing it’s the 1983 truck bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon (not a diplomatic facility), which killed 241 Marines — and, for the record, was the subject of an official investigation.

The most notable attack on a diplomatic target that did occur during the Reagan presidency was the truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut on 18 April 1983. Some 63 people were killed in that attack, including 17 U.S. citizens, some of whom worked for the CIA. That incident, too, was investigated, according to a report from The New York Times:

The House Select Committee on Intelligence said today that officials responsible for security at the United States Embassy in Lebanon paid insufficient attention to warnings of potential terrorist attacks before the building was bombed.

The committee, in a report about the bombing that was approved by Republican and Democratic members, concluded that “the probability of another vehicular bomb attack” against United States installations in Lebanon was “so unambiguous that there is no logical explanation for the lack of effective security at the embassy.

In the end, it seems to be the Beirut embassy incident that’s most fittingly compared to Benghazi. At 17, the number of U.S. citizens killed in that single Beirut attack is greater than that of all the embassy attacks occurring during the Bush and Obama administrations combined. But though it was similarly criticized and investigated — and for similar reasons — its aftermath lacked the partisan zeal brought to bear on Benghazi.