After Benghazi: Exclusive look inside the training program to keep U.S. diplomats safe

Power Players

On the Radar

Nearly two years after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the world has become no less dangerous for diplomats working abroad. And the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security is now trying to do even more to protect its own.

Since 1998 there have been nearly 300 significant attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel, according to the State Department. Hard lessons have been learned from those violent encounters.

Those lessons are being put into action, and ABC News was given a rare, exclusive look into what the State Department is now doing about it.

Most notably, the department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security has expanded its hostile environment training – doubling it from 5 weeks to 10 weeks to prepare their special agents for assignments in some of the world's most unstable and inhospitable places. The additional instruction agents receive will save lives, according to Mark Hipp, Diplomatic Security Assistant Director for Training.

“Hesitation kills in an attack, so their actions need to be crisp and this training brings it all together because the realism it creates,” he said.

Diplomatic Security has one key mission: to provide a safe and secure environment for U.S. diplomacy. With its access inside the bureau’s hostile environment training, ABC News saw first-hand how they are preparing for when – not if – the next attack comes.

The training is challenging -- physically and mentally. During the ten weeks, each agent must prove themselves capable in 160 mission essential tasks -- from the hard skills, like shooting and evasive driving; to the soft skills, including communications, planning, and preparing for every possible threat scenario.

Planning is absolutely critical, DS High Threat Operations Chief Paul Ellis said.

“We want the students to think about not what’s going on right then and there, but future plans and how they prepare themselves in case what they are planning now isn't going to work or doesn't work,” according to Ellis.

The final week of the course is something of a final exam, bringing together all these elements in a realistic exercise that takes place in the fictional country of Erehwon.

Erehwon -- that's “nowhere” spelled backward -- is located at a secret site, and for the agents training there, it could be anywhere in the world. The U.S. government created it to simulate conditions agents might encounter during their deployments.

The imaginary nation has many of the trappings of a real country, complete with diplomatic outposts, shops, a train station, a thriving religious community with a church and a mosque.

More than 100 actors bring the country to life, playing diverse roles such as shop keepers, demonstrators, political figures and diplomats. Agents must learn quickly which locals are friendly and which are potential foes.

Erehwon also has a more menacing side, with car bombs, violent demonstrations, political unrest and armed insurgents.

“The more we can challenge the students and simulate real world environments, the easier it is for them to overcome that in the real world,” DS Program Manager for High Threat Training Richard Fritz told ABC News. “It's going to allow them to succeed in the real world.”

Agents must work together to navigate through an escalating crisis. Attacks on convoys, a bomb attack at the consulate, mortar fire, even a frontal assault by U.S. Marines playing the role of armed insurgents are all part of the exercise. Some agents are designated as wounded or injured in the simulated attacks, further complicating how agents respond.

While mastering physical skills is important, DS Special Agent and instructor Lance Bailey says the course was designed with an emphasis is on building problem-solving skills. “Weapons firing, the driving is very exciting. It gets a lot of attention, but one of the things we try to focus on here, really the primary reason of the training exercise, is to teach the agents to think. Not what to think, but how to think,” Bailey said.

The agents going through the exercise say what they learned in Erehwon could help them save lives in future deployments.

“It’s something that hopefully none of us will ever have to experience, but it’s something that we have to be prepared for,” one agents in the training class told ABC News. “Everything that we do we try to plan for [the] worst-case scenario. … That’s ultimately the goal of it all, it’s to be successful, to keep everybody safe so that we can continue our mission of diplomacy abroad.”

Citing security reasons, Diplomatic Security officials asked ABC News to withhold the names of agents going through the exercise. When the training is complete, many of the agents will head to their next assignments overseas, a little more prepared for a dangerous world. But the preparation never really stops. As another agent in the training exercise put it, “There are always threats out there and that’s why we train and that’s why we try to get better every day.”

ABC News’ Gary Westphalen, Steve Cocklin and Anne Cocklin contributed to this episode.