The Beirut embassy bombings have had a traumatic but perhaps ultimately beneficial impact on how U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities overseas will be protected in the future.
Strict new State Department security standards are being applied to all U.S. agencies overseas. Central to this undertaking is the wholesale relocation of U.S. embassies and other facilities.
There is a danger, however, in such an undertaking. It involves the United States Information Agency, the agency charged with carrying out U.S. information, cultural, and educational exchange programs overseas.
In the case of the USIA, the issue of "security" is not as clear-cut as it is for the Department of State. USIA, unlike State, is an agency whose efforts are directed primarily at foreign people, as opposed to foreign governments. USIA's programs reach not only government officials, but influential journalists, scholars, students, artists, political figures, business and labor leaders and other opinion-makers. Its audience goes beyond the elites to thousands of individuals who read in USIA libraries, apply for Fulbright grants or attend USIA- sponsored lectures and performing arts presentations.
To be effective, USIA's officers and facilities must be accessible. Its centers, libraries, and press offices must be convenient to those they are intended to serve. They must be open to the public. In almost all cases this means locating them in major urban areas, usually center-city locations -- the very locations, in fact, where the standards of physical security sought by State and others are most difficult to achieve.
U.S. embassies have a more passive role. They do not need to actively seek out foreign visa applicants, U.S. citizens in distress and other petitioners.
Consider a hypothetical U.S. mission in a typical South Asian capital. Almost all media, cultural, political, business, and educational activities are centered deep in this urban area. Buildings there are generally old, crowded, poorly constructed, overpriced, with an occupancy rate of nearly 100 percent. The idea of a 100-foot "setback" from the street is unheard of, as is being able to buy, lease, or build a modern free-standing structure with the kind of security features the State Department wants.
The U.S. Embassy in this country is being moved seven miles out of the city center to a new, secure diplomatic enclave the host government is developing. Hundred-foot setbacks are easily obtained, as are new, custom-designed structures with state-of-the-art security features. The embassy pressures USIA to join it in the move.
There is only one thing wrong with this. USIA's public affairs officer knows that by retreating to the suburban enclave, the agency will become inaccessible to most of the people it is trying to reach. The new, highly secure Information Section will have few local journalists visiting, because the capital's working journalists are downtown, close to their newsrooms in the center city, too pressed for time and too financially strapped to make the long trip out of town. The beautiful, new, secure USIA library wiil no longer have the readership of the thousands of eager students who cannot afford public transportation to the suburbs. The new, secure USIA cultural center will draw tiny audiences of diplomats, government officials and wealthy suburban dwellers, while the hundreds who once came to see USIA-sponsored films or to hear lectures will be miles away.
Based on my discussions with USIA officers around the world, I can say that this hypothetical situation is quite typical of what would happen at many overseas posts.
Washington's heightened attention to the funding and organizational requirements of ensuring the safety of diplomats is welcome and overdue. It is important, though, that equally wise policies appropriate to public diplomacy -- the mission of USIA -- also be adopted.
This can best be achieved by selective and flexible application, on a case-by-case basis, of State Department security standards. In many instances this will mean waivers for USIA's libraries and centers in countries where U.S. embassies are being relocated.
It also means taking every prudent precaution: informed threat assessments country by country; effective, architecturally appealing building controls; adequate security training; danger pay and other additional compensation for USIA's officers, commensurate with the risks taken. In fact, this is very similar to the policy USIA has followed for years, a policy that has worked well.
Terrorism is not new to USIA. It is something the agency has learned to deal with, even when it has meant closing centers (four in Latin America in the late 1960s and early 1970s) or curtailing their operations (Beirut in this decade). Wholesale retreat to safe, but inaccessible, enclaves is not the answer.
Personal contact with global opinion leaders is essential to the conduct of American foreign policy. USIA's outreach should not be limited to such safe but impersonal programs as the Voice of America and Worldnet television broadcasts.