By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Charles E. Williams, the controversial chief of the State Department's embassy-building program, announced his retirement yesterday, effective at the end of the month.
Williams, a retired major general in the Army Corps of Engineers, is leaving before work is completed on the massive $730 million embassy compound being constructed in Baghdad. Though Williams promised the project would be finished in September, delays and construction problems have repeatedly pushed back the date when workers will be able to move in. Now, State Department officials do not expect to occupy the space until spring.
Williams's upbeat pronouncements on the embassy project, only to be undercut by the realities on the ground, were said to have angered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, according to State Department sources. He is the third senior official to depart State under an Iraq-related cloud in the past three months.
Richard Griffin, head of diplomatic security, left in October after a deadly shooting by the security contractor Blackwater exposed problems in State's oversight of private security firms. Then, Inspector General Howard Krongard quit this month after he was accused of thwarting separate probes into Blackwater and the embassy project.
Williams oversaw the building of the Dulles Greenway, completed in 1995, but he resigned from two other high-profile jobs -- head of the $4 billion New York City School Construction Authority and then chief operating officer of the D.C. public schools -- after being heavily criticized for poor management. He left the New York job after an audit found that he had given misleading information on the progress of projects he was overseeing. He left the D.C. job after an audit said he authorized shoddy contracting procedures and left the school system vulnerable to waste and fraud.
He was brought to the State Department in 2001 by then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to be chief operating officer of overseas building operations. Williams received wide authority to overhaul the embassy-building program just as many embassies needed to be updated to protect against terrorist attacks.
Williams won praise for speeding up construction by insisting on a few basic designs for all embassy projects, but he has also run the buildings office as a virtual fiefdom, broking little dissent. In a series of cables sent to Washington this summer, U.S. diplomats complained of building delays and shoddy workmanship, complaining that Williams's one-size-fits-all-approach was not working.
"Under his leadership, the Department has built 56 new embassies and consulates, providing over 15,000 employees with safer, modern facilities," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said in a statement. He said that when Rice became secretary in 2005, she asked him to "stay for two additional years to complete a number of ongoing projects. Three years later he has now decided the time is right to retire. We salute General Williams for his service to our country and wish him all the best in the future."