After truck bombs devastated two U.S. embassies in Africa last August, Congress clamored for more secure facilities, and the Clinton administration drew up plans to spend billions of dollars to protect U.S. personnel abroad. But one year later, the process of replacing vulnerable embassies has barely begun.
In the meantime, fear of a terrorist attack has caused the State Department to close 68 different embassies and consulates temporarily, for periods ranging from a few hours to a week or more. Some have shut down several times. The embassy in Dushanbe, capital of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, has been abandoned as indefensible.
All 256 U.S. embassies and consulates around the world have been told to pay heightened attention to security this week, in the run-up to the first anniversary of the bombings, which is Saturday. The State Department is scheduled today to outline the extra security measures that it has taken in the past year.
One reason for the slow progress in "hardening" U.S. diplomatic posts is simply that it takes time to buy land, design buildings and seek bids from contractors. But the process also is mired in wrangling between Congress and the Clinton administration.
Other than replacements for the shattered facilities in Kenya and Tanzania, only one new embassy, in the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, is now under contract for construction, State Department officials said.
Senior officials said they expect to issue contracts for several more buildings next year, but the State Department's list of cities to get new embassies or consulates does not match the priorities of congressional appropriators who must provide the funds.
The State Department has told Congress that after replacing the blown-up embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and building a new facility in Qatar, its top priorities for replacement are the embassies or consulates in Istanbul, Turkey; Tunis, Tunisia; Kampala, Uganda; Zagreb, Croatia; and Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Congressional Republicans say they agree with some of those choices but not others, and they are seeking to put Albania and Uzbekistan on the list. Funds originally earmarked for the embassy in Tirana, Albania, have been diverted to Pristina, Kosovo, where the growing number of U.S. personnel in a violent environment requires urgent construction of a secure consulate, officials said.
After the bombings in Africa killed 224 people on Aug. 7, 1998, President Clinton asked Congress to approve $3 billion over five years for embassy replacements and security upgrades. But key members of Congress and retired Adm. William J. Crowe, who headed the twin panels that investigated the bombings, denounced that plan as inadequate. The Clinton administration then revised its proposed budget, seeking $11.4 billion over 10 years.
That is almost exactly the amount Crowe recommended. Yet the administration sought only $300 million for fiscal 2000, because it is just starting the process of identifying sites, obtaining land, designing buildings and negotiating with contractors.
"Finding 10 acres of land in a place where you would want to locate an embassy is not the easiest activity in the world," one senior official said. Large lots are needed because State Department standards adopted after a report by retired Adm. Bobby Inman in 1985--but rarely implemented before the Africa bombings--call for embassies to be set back at least 100 feet from the nearest street.
Construction of a new embassy in Berlin, for example, has been delayed because the site, on Pariserplatz in the center of the city, cannot meet the setback standard.
While such logistical problems abound, some critics say the U.S. government has been lackadaisical. "If the United States had done what Inman had recommended in 1985, you wouldn't have had this loss of life [in the embassy bombings]. And now we're not even doing what Crowe recommended," said Larry C. Johnson, a private security consultant and former State Department counterterrorism specialist.
Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on international operations, agrees. He sponsored a bill authorizing the full $1.4 billion recommended by Crowe in fiscal 2000, saying, "Nobody needs another wake-up call like the embassy bombings in Africa." But the House Appropriations Committee cut the amount to $568 million, accepting the administration's argument that larger amounts cannot be spent until sites have been acquired. The Senate, meanwhile, has approved the $300 million requested by the State Department.
"Not every place in the world do we feel it's absolutely essential to get them a new embassy immediately," said Patrick Kennedy, assistant secretary of state for administration.
Ten days ago, the State Department's top counterterrorism official, Michael Sheehan, told a Senate committee that the worldwide threat level is "between yellow and red, and all too frequently, in different parts of the world, clearly in the red."
The main source of concern, he said, is the terror network allegedly run by Osama bin Laden, the renegade Saudi indicted on charges of plotting the embassy bombings. But the bombings have exposed a broad range of vulnerability in many countries: shortages of security personnel, indifference or incompetence of host governments, and buildings with sheets of exposed glass that sit on busy streets.
Officials said vehicle barriers, bomb-screening equipment and security improvements not visible to the public have "raised the bar," as one put it, against terrorism. In exposed facilities that are unlikely to be replaced for several years, such as the embassy in Hanoi, staff members will be regrouped in internal offices, away from windows, a senior security official said.
In some capitals, the State Department is trying to acquire property adjacent to existing facilities to expand their buffer areas and avoid the cost of new construction. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for example, the State Department bought a gas station and convenience store next to the embassy and is planning to tear them down.
But State Department officials said mob attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Damascus and Beijing--tolerated if not fomented by local authorities--have shown that even with reinforcements, security can be overwhelmed if a host government is unwilling or unable to control the streets.
"It's important to have strong embassies, and we're going to need to build embassies and stronger defenses," Sheehan said. "But in order to have better security, we're going to have to get outside the outer ring of [our] security. And that means working with countries, bucking up their will to deter terrorism, providing them with assistance."
Even after the hiring of 200 new diplomatic security agents, another official said, "We are still stretched pretty thin. There are just not enough qualified people on board." According to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, those 200 new agents will be offset by the same number of mandatory retirements in the next five years.
Moreover, a shortage of military personnel blocked plans to station U.S. Marine security guards at 11 additional embassies this year, a State Department official said.
Officials at several U.S. embassies overseas said the events of the past year have raised security awareness throughout the Foreign Service, but attention still ebbs and flows with events. In Moscow, where the embassy fronts on a busy boulevard, adjacent streets were closed during protests over the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia but have since reopened. A new, less exposed chancellery, which is finally being rebuilt after a major bugging scandal more than a decade ago, is scheduled to open in Moscow next spring.