Embassies Can Never Be Fully Protected
By Thomas W. Lippman
The bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania fell into a long, bloody pattern of terrorist attacks on American diplomats and diplomatic installations that have led to increased security at U.S. facilities worldwide.
But many embassies and consulates are still housed in old buildings on crowded streets and can probably never be fully protected from determined terrorists, specialists said. Attacks on U.S. diplomats may never be totally preventable, they pointed out, because effective diplomacy requires contact with the people and organizations of the host country.
Embassies flying the stars and stripes in Lebanon, Kuwait, Iran and other countries, along with U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, have been attacked or targeted in recent years. In the 1970s, U.S. ambassadors were assassinated in Afghanistan, Sudan and Lebanon. Other diplomats have been attacked or targeted in Rome, Karachi and Khartoum.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the State Department pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into tightening security at U.S. diplomatic facilities abroad and set tight security standards for construction of future embassies. But most facilities including the two bombed yesterday were never upgraded because the cost was prohibitive, government officials and independent analysts said.
Where security has been tightened, some Foreign Service officers have chafed at security requirements that restricted their ability to mingle with the very people they are assigned to get to know.
"I would be the first to sympathize with the need to protect Americans and foreign nationals working for us, to the hilt, but it's also hugely important to have an embassy be a welcoming place," said Jane C. Loeffler, author of a recently published book, "The Architecture of Diplomacy."
She said the U.S. embassies in Rome, Paris and Prague centrally located and architecturally distinguished would have to be abandoned if security standards imposed in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries were applied to them. Diplomats in fortress-like new embassies in Amman, Jordan, and Sanaa, Yemen, have complained of a "bunker mentality" that inhibits their work, she added.
But retired admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who chaired a panel on diplomatic security in the mid-1980s, said his committee rejected the idea that secure buildings are incompatible with effective diplomacy. A welcoming appearance in an embassy "may make us feel good," he said, but the "real key is, do Americans from the embassy get around the country, speak the language, meet people?"
Inman's panel was set up by then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz to examine the security of U.S. embassies and their diplomats after a wave of terrorism in the 1970s and early 1980s, mostly in the Middle East.
Cleo A. Noel, the U.S. ambassador to Sudan, and an embassy colleague were murdered in 1973 by terrorists from the Black September Palestinian group who took over the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum. Ambassador Francis E. Meloy Jr., another U.S. diplomat and their driver were kidnapped and shot to death in Beirut in 1976. Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was killed in an exchange of gunfire between Islamic extremists who kidnapped him and Afghan security forces.
Then came the 1979 takeover by Islamic militants of the U.S. Embassy in Iran, the 1982 attack on the Beirut Embassy, and the 1983 truck bomb blast on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 servicemen. Also in 1983, six people were killed when an explosives-laden truck crashed into the U.S. Embassy compound in Kuwait.
Film clips of those incidents reappeared on TV screens years later, as reminders, when terrorists attacked two U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia. In November 1995, five Americans died when two bombs exploded outside a U.S. military training center in Riyadh for which the Saudis later publicly beheaded four suspects and 19 died the next year in a suicide truck bomb attack on an Air Force housing compound in Dhahran.
Several members of Congress called yesterday for a new review of embassy security measures around the globe, saying the time may have arrived to spend the money needed to bring all U.S. diplomatic missions up to the highest levels of security. There is speculation that terrorists may have targeted the Kenyan and Tanzanian missions simply because they had lower-level security, and officials are already fretting about the next weak link.
"There's always a tension between how much money do you want to spend and how many embassies do you want to turn into fortresses," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a member of the Foreign Relations subcommittee that covers terrorism.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on technology, terrorism and government information, agreed that another security review is necessary, but said he is equally concerned about U.S. intelligence on potential terrorists.
"I suspect these embassies may have been chosen because their security wasn't as hard, and that's a real concern," Kyl said. "But you can never harden security beyond the possibility of attack. That's why you need the human intelligence, and we don't have enough of it."
Staff writer Michael Grunwald contributed to this report.
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