Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that killed him and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, Ambassador Chris Stevens documented his concerns about safety there. He made two separate requests for increased security that weren’t fulfilled—one to local Libyan authorities and one to the State Department in Washington. Both were similar to requests I made last year as a U.S. ambassador serving abroad, and both reflected a far too common frustration among American diplomats.

During my tenure as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from February 2011 to January 2012, our embassy continuously faced serious terror threats. As the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick reported on May 28, terrorists planned to murder Israeli and U.S. diplomats and their families—including, I feared, my own—in the capital of Baku. When the threats reached alarming levels during my first week on the job, it immediately became clear how vulnerable we would be to an attack by determined terrorists should they breach our embassy walls.

The key to keeping American personnel safe lay with Azerbaijan’s security forces, who worked with the U.S. to keep potential attackers away from the embassy’s perimeter. Azerbaijani operatives ultimately apprehended the terrorists before they struck. The preventive effort required an unusual level of collaboration between U.S. and Azerbaijani officials beyond the routine requirements under the Geneva Convention for host governments to protect foreign diplomatic facilities.

The Libyan government’s security personnel didn’t provide such extraordinary protection to Ambassador Stevens and his team.

In my experience, even as Azerbaijan’s security forces went the extra mile, the U.S. government bureaucracy nearly failed us. At a particularly tense moment, I learned that for budgetary reasons the State Department planned to cut resources for a security procedure I had identified as crucial to preventing terrorists from approaching our embassy facilities. In response, I immediately instructed the head of diplomatic security at our embassy to inform her colleagues in Washington that Embassy Baku needed an increase in this capability and that a decrease under such circumstances was absurd.

I was appalled to learn weeks later that midlevel bureaucrats in Washington had implemented the cutback for Baku. My immediate and angry response got the capability restored. But for approximately two weeks, our embassy personnel—and all their family members—were left unnecessarily vulnerable because of budget decisions taken deep within the bureaucracy and against the assessment of the U.S. president’s personal representative in Azerbaijan, his ambassador.

I saw a similar lack of urgency when I returned to Washington. As I thanked diplomatic security officials for restoring the key capability that had been cut without my approval, I expected them to acknowledge that their subordinates had made a mistake. I also expected them to emphasize the need to do anything required to protect an embassy facing a serious terror threat. Instead I sensed reluctance—bred apparently by budgetary pressures, as fortress embassies like those in Baghdad and Kabul swallowed the lion’s share of the State Department’s diplomatic-security budget.

This budgetary stinginess is dangerous and self-defeating for U.S. diplomats. And it contrasts starkly with what I witnessed in a 2001 episode, when the State Department mounted an all-out campaign to beef up information security after the disappearance of a single laptop computer from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. It is ridiculous that the State Department can find financial resources to protect classified data but not to protect the people who produce that information.

Surely every senior department official agrees that the security of our personnel is job No. 1. But top leaders must dig deeper and set the tone required to prevent midlevel subordinates from denying ambassadors’ urgent requests for augmented security. If money really is so scarce, the department must do a better job rebalancing some of its resources away from fortress embassies or making a better case to Congress for more money to protect U.S. diplomats, their families and local national colleagues.

Anything less would be an insult to the memory of Ambassador Stevens and his three murdered comrades, and contrary to the expectations of our government’s top political leaders.

Mr. Bryza served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2011-12 and as a deputy assistant secretary of state from 2005-09. He is now director of the International Centre for Defence Studies in Tallinn, Estonia.

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