The bogus claim that Obama is ‘closing’ the Vatican embassy

“Why would our President close our Embassy to the Vatican? Hopefully, it is not retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare”

– tweet by former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), Nov. 27, 2013

“The media is reporting that President Obama plans to close the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican. This is just the latest anti-religion pursuit of this administration, a slap in the face to Catholic-Americans around the country that weakens America’s position as a global leader. Sign the Petition telling President Obama to leave the American Embassy at the Vatican.”

petition campaign by the National Republican Senatorial Committee

Jeb Bush’s tweet and a petition campaign by the NRSC (under the headline “Obama Closes Vatican Embassy”) suggest that the Obama administration is taking a dramatic diplomatic step because of some sort of animus or bias against Catholics. Bush is Catholic — but so is Secretary of State John R. Kerry.

What’s actually going on here?

The Facts

The Holy See, which is located on 110 acres in the center of Rome, has diplomatic relations with more than 175 countries and generally prefers countries to maintain separate embassies so as to signal its independence from the Italian government. But in recent years, some countries have consolidated their operations in single locations, but with separate buildings, primarily for security reasons.

Israel, for instance, locates its embassy to the Holy See right next to its embassy to Italy; one building is at Via Michele Mercati 12 and the other building is at Via Michele Mercati 14. After a 2003 terrorist attack on its consulate in Istanbul, Britain also decided to move its embassy to the Holy See to the same address — Via XX Settembre 80A — as its Rome embassy. But the British ambassador to the Vatican works out of a separate building on the property with its own entrance.

Last year, the ancient Catholic country of Ireland actually closed its embassy to the Vatican, citing cost reasons as it struggled with the legacy of a financial crisis. (Some news reports also blamed anger at the Vatican’s handling of a priest sex abuse scandal.)

Currently, the U.S. Embassy to the Vatican is housed in a building about 1.88 miles from Vatican City. According to a 2010 Inspector General’s report, it has a staff of 19 (seven State Department direct hires) and an annual cost of $3.4 million. But now State Department officials say both security concerns and budget woes require a change.

In March, Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy signed an action memo that would move the embassy to the same diplomatic compound as the embassy to Italy, which is slightly closer to the Vatican. The transfer would follow the British model: The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and the embassy staff would be housed in a separate building, with a different entrance and address: Via Sallustiana 49. (The embassy to Italy, around the corner, is at Vittorio Veneto 121.) The U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Rome is already on the same property, with its own building, entrance and address (Via Boncompagni 2), having moved there last year.

A Google satellite map gives a pretty good sense of the location, next to an Italian ministry, and the different entrances on the three streets that surround the compound. (Zoom in.)

State Department officials say Kennedy made a routine notice to the White House about his decision, but this was strictly an internal State Department matter. Kennedy was following the recommendations of a 2008 IG report, released during the Bush administration, which urged moving the embassy for both cost and security reasons — as well as practicality. The report said the Vatican embassy structure (known as a chancery), which at the time cost nearly $1 million a year to lease and provide security, was poorly designed to work as an office building.

“The main meeting room is open to the lobby, the only staircase is spiral and narrow, and the office space for most of the American officers is small and affords no privacy,” the report said. It called on State to “develop and implement a plan to relocate to the Embassy Rome compound, as soon as possible, with an eye towards cost savings, improved security, and maintaining as much as possible its separate identity to include a separate street address.”

After the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that left the ambassador and three other Americans dead, “as soon as possible” became more of an imperative. The cost savings now amounts to $1.4 million a year, officials say. The ambassador’s private residence would remain unchanged.

The 2008 IG report is embedded below:

State Dept IG report on US Embassy to Holy See (2008) by Glenn Kessler

 

Okay, so this sounds like a pretty routine bureaucratic shuffling, with little apparent involvement of the White House. How did this get spun up into an anti-Catholic crusade?

It all started with a Nov. 20 report by John L. Allen Jr., the well-sourced Rome correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, who wrote that the move was “drawing fire from five former American envoys despite the tacit consent of the Vatican itself.” Allen’s account is thorough and balanced, quoting a number of former U.S. ambassadors, Republican and Democrat, who said they feared that being perceived as an adjunct of the Rome embassy threatened to degrade the importance of the Vatican embassy.

In diplomacy, perception can become reality, so such appearances are important. The 2008 IG report noted that a similar effort in 2005 to relocate the embassy was thwarted by the ambassador at the time, who “opposed the move, citing ‘policy grounds’ that included anticipated strong objection by the host government and congressional support for physically separate missions to Italy and the Holy See.”

That argument still might have resonance if other countries, such as the United Kingdom, had not since consolidated facilities, passing muster with the Vatican by maintaining different entrances. CNN quoted Vatican officials as saying that they understood the security concerns and had accepted the shift, as long as the address and entrance remain different. (One unidentified official was quoted as saying the move was “an exception, not the ideal, but not the end of the world.”)

Allen’s sober report, meanwhile, was picked up by CatholicVote.org, a conservative political advocacy group, which headlined that the Obama administration had “snubbed” the Vatican with an “embassy downgrade.” An “unmistakable slap in the face,” said one subhed, though no one quoted in the blog post actually said that.

Then the Washington Times ran an article on Nov. 26, calling it an embassy closing and putting the blog subhead into its headline:  “Obama’s call to close Vatican embassy is ‘slap in the face’ to Roman Catholics.” 

Thus the underpinnings of the NRSC petition were in place — the “closing” of the embassy, the “slap in the face” to Catholics and so forth.

The NRSC petition has been taken down, but in a lengthy back-and-forth via e-mail, spokesman Brad Dayspring defended the wording, including the claim that the embassy would be “closed.” He noted that the petition cited media “reporting,” such as the Washington Times account.

“The United States is a global superpower with an obligation to ensure we have a strong relationship with the Vatican. The fact remains that five former U.S. representatives to the Vatican (from both parties) are deeply concerned about the move, as are tens of thousands of Catholics,” Dayspring  said. As for the claim that the administration had an anti-religion agenda, he added:  “We don’t expect everyone to agree with the statement, but it is something that people believe and feel. It is a commentary on administration policy, not a statement of fact.”

Asked to comment, Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Bush, responded: “The Vatican itself said closing this location is not ideal. Governor Bush does not believe this move reflects appropriate respect for the U.S. relationship with the Holy See.”

The Pinocchio Test

The concerns of five former ambassadors about a possible downgrading of embassy status might carry some weight, but Jeb Bush’s tweet and the NRSC petition go much too far.

Both claim the embassy is “closing,” which suggests the ambassador is being withdrawn. Instead, the embassy building is simply moving — for both post-Benghazi security reasons and for budget savings, two issues that Republicans often have highlighted as important.

Meanwhile, both the tweet and the petition immediately jump to the conclusion that this is an anti-religious act by President Obama. In fact, this was an internal State Department decision that was first advocated during the George W. Bush administration. The hyperbole is entirely misplaced, and thus these comments fall into the “whopper” category.

Four Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler | December 3, 2013