By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Funds to beef up security at U.S. diplomatic posts would be slashed by an estimated $168 million this year under spending cuts due to kick in shortly, congressional Democrats said.
The funds would be axed from the State Department's budget for embassy and diplomatic security if the across-the-board cuts to the U.S. budget, known as "sequestration," go ahead on March 1, said Matt Dennis, spokesman for the Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee.
The cuts will take place unless lawmakers and President Barack Obama reach an agreement to stop them. The cuts would total about $85 billion this year across the entire U.S. budget. With a deal to avoid them looking less and less likely, lawmakers are trying to figure what this could mean to various programs.
The $168 million would come out of the State Department's "Worldwide Security Protection" and "Embassy Security, Construction and Maintenance" accounts, which together received a little over $2 billion in fiscal 2012, House Democrats said.
"This funding is used to enhance safety and security through construction upgrades and hiring trained and reliable local security personnel," Dennis told Reuters.
Armed militants attacked the U.S. mission in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi last September 11, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
An independent inquiry into the attack recommended the United States strengthen security in high-risk diplomatic posts such as Benghazi beyond the security traditionally provided by host governments.
A State Department official said the cuts would hit vital programs and force difficult trade-offs, but offered no details on particular embassies or facilities that might be affected.
"Such cuts would be detrimental to our comprehensive efforts to provide the best possible security for all of our diplomats and development experts in the field," the official said.
PRESSURE ON CONGRESS
The White House has warned the government spending cuts would have harsh consequences for ordinary Americans and the U.S. economy, and has sought to turn up the pressure on Congress to produce a plan to avoid them.
Cutting government spending remains a high priority for Republicans, who control the House of Representatives, and some Republicans have said they would have no qualms letting sequestration kick in.
A description of the affected accounts in the State Department's written justification backing up its budget request for this year says the funding supports local guard programs, security technology, armored vehicles, cyber security, facility protection and diplomatic couriers.
For example, "WSP (Worldwide Security Protection) funding supports a worldwide guard force of approximately 30,000 guards to protect 285 overseas diplomatic missions and residence and 125 domestic facilities," the department said.
An independent U.S. inquiry into the Benghazi attack found the response of local guards to be inadequate, noting that the guards were not outside just before the attack ensued and may have left the gate to the compound unlatched. Militants subsequently overran the mission compound.
Representative Nita Lowey, the ranking Democrat on the House appropriations panel, said the attacks in Benghazi as well as a more recent suicide bomb attack on the U.S. embassy in Turkey demonstrated the importance of securing diplomatic posts.
"The sequester could jeopardize the safety of diplomatic and development personnel and the ability of Americans to work and travel abroad safely by delaying embassy security upgrades and reducing funding available to hire trained and reliable local security forces," Lowey said in a statement.
(Reporting By Susan Cornwell; Editing by Todd Eastham and Christopher Wilson)