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  Ambassador Twice Sought Safer Embassy

By Thomas W. Lippman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 1998; Page A01

Security weaknesses at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi so concerned Ambassador Prudence Bushnell that she twice asked for a new building -- last December and again in May -- but was rebuffed both times, a senior State Department official said yesterday.

After repeated analyses, the State Department concluded that the Nairobi embassy, while not up to current security standards, was "in compliance [with] the standards for the threat level [perceived] for that post," Assistant Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy said.

Given the urgent need for embassy construction elsewhere, in the former Soviet Union and in countries that have recently moved their capitals, such as Germany and Nigeria, replacement of the Nairobi building could not be put at the top of the list, Kennedy said.

"I've been a foreign service officer for 25 years," said Kennedy, his voice breaking with emotion as he briefed reporters. "The fact is, we did the very best we could, given what we had. We set priorities. . . . No one has all the money to meet all the needs all at the same time."

Even if the department had approved Bushnell's recommendation, the decision would not have prevented the lethal bombing last Friday that killed 12 Americans and 235 Kenyans because it would have taken several years to find a site, obtain funding from Congress and design and build a new embassy, administration officials said.

According to Kennedy, who until Tuesday was acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security in addition to his duties as assistant secretary for administration, the department has been analyzing security problems at the Nairobi embassy since 1994 and making what improvements it could afford.

Additional improvements had been scheduled for later this year, he said, but he added that it is unlikely these changes would have prevented or mitigated the effects of the devastating truck bomb that ripped the embassy apart last week.

He said Bushnell, a career foreign service officer, was apparently not motivated by any specific threat or incident when she submitted a request for a replacement building, first through regular channels and then, in May, directly to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright -- an appeal that Albright did not mention when she was asked about the bombing in a televised interview on Sunday.

Kennedy said the department agreed with Bushnell that simply by virtue of being situated directly along a major street, at a busy intersection, the embassy fell short of current security standards, which call for 100-foot setbacks. "We have setback problems all over the world," he said, noting that embassies in several capitals, from Rome to Hanoi, are on major thoroughfares.

When Bushnell recommended the construction of a new building, Kennedy said, her request was taken up in the department's annual review of embassy and consulate construction priorities. That review, he said, considers such issues as the level of protection compared to the perceived threat, the ability of embassy employees to do their jobs in the existing building, "foreign policy concerns" and the availability of money.

In May, Bushnell "communicated with the secretary and with Undersecretary [for management Bonnie] Cohen," Kennedy said. "She indicated that constraints were endangering embassy personnel" and renewed her appeal for a new embassy.

But Cohen responded that Nairobi remained "ranked low in relative priority compared to the needs of other embassies," Kennedy said. Bushnell, who has remained in Nairobi, has not discussed publicly her campaign for a more secure embassy. She could not be reached for comment last night.

Earlier yesterday, President Clinton directed his senior national security and law enforcement advisers to draft a package of embassy security improvements, building modifications and possible revisions of U.S. law that can be presented to Congress with an emergency funding request next month, administration officials said. The president said he was committed to replacing the embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which were both rendered unusable by the concurrent bombing attacks on Friday.

Key members of Congress have signaled the White House that they would be receptive to such a request.

"We've made a very strong commitment in this area . . . to increase security and embassy construction funding," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that sets State Department spending levels.

After an overnight flight from California, the president met at the White House with national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, Attorney General Janet Reno, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, CIA Director George J. Tenet, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and senior military officials to begin crafting the package of security improvements, White House spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Earlier, Clinton conferred by telephone with Albright, who left early yesterday for Germany, from where she accompanied the bodies of 10 of the 12 Americans killed in Nairobi on their return to the United States. She is to arrive in Washington with the victims this morning and to be met by Clinton for a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base.

Yesterday, seven of those injured in the blasts arrived at the base, six for treatment at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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