The American diplomatic presence abroad is nearing a "state of crisis," beset by shabby and outdated facilities, slipshod administrative practices and information systems so backward that many U.S. employees overseas cannot even send e-mail to colleagues across the hall, according to a new report slated for release today.
The report by the Overseas Presence Advisory Council--a bipartisan panel of former diplomats, military officers and corporate chiefs, such as General Electric Chairman John F. Welch--also describes security measures at American diplomatic missions as woefully inadequate.
"The condition of U.S. posts and missions is unacceptable," says a draft of the report The Washington Post obtained. "Since the end of the Cold War, the world's political, economic and technological landscape has changed dramatically, but our country's overseas presence has not adequately adjusted to this new reality."
As a result, the report says, "our overseas presence is perilously close to the point of system failure."
Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who established the panel following last year's bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is scheduled to hold a news briefing on its conclusions today. From the administration's perspective, the timing could hardly be more opportune: Congress and the White House are locked in a bitter struggle over Republican efforts to slash the Clinton administration's spending request for foreign aid and operations.
People associated with the study denied any political motive in releasing the report now. "I think it's an unfortunate coincidence [because] it runs the risk of detracting from the importance of the message," said one person who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This is not part of this month's issue. This is a problem that's been building for many decades."
Although the report calls for spending $500 million to $600 million per year beyond the administration's budget request, its authors claim the extra costs could be offset by such measures as reducing the size of diplomatic missions in countries that no longer require a large American presence.
"Right-sizing will match staff with mission priorities and can achieve significant overall budget savings," the report says, although it added, "additional posts may be needed to enhance our presence in some countries where the bilateral relationship has become more important."
Other recommendations include improving the lives of foreign service officers by taking more account of "family issues," providing all overseas staff with "Internet access, e-mail [and] a secure unclassified Internet Web site," and choosing ambassadors more carefully.
Members of the panel, who visited 23 U.S. diplomatic facilities on five continents, said they were "shocked" by what they found. "Approximately 25 percent of all posts suffer from serious overcrowding," the report says, noting that embassy employees in Kiev call their post the "folding-chair embassy" because "staff must fold chairs in order to get into their work spaces."
In Moscow, "the consular section built a shed on the sidewalk next to the embassy in order to give visa applicants, who could not be accommodated within the embassy, shelter from winter snows." In addition, the report notes, "approximately 12 posts use trailers or freight containers as office space."
Administration officials have sharply criticized Congress for not providing sufficient funds to protect U.S. interests overseas, but the report makes clear that lawmakers are not entirely to blame. It faults the administration for failing to adequately fund security measures, noting that the administration's budget plan falls well short of the estimated $14 billion required for security upgrades over the next 10 years.
Panelists emphasize the bipartisan nature of their effort, noting that they regularly consulted with Republican and Democratic lawmakers in preparing the study.
Besides Welch, members of the 25-person panel included retired Adm. William J. Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; former senator Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.); Donald F. McHenry, former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations; and Felix Rohatyn, ambassador to France. Lewis B. Kaden, a corporate lawyer, chaired the panel.
CAPTION: Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright established the bipartisan panel after U.S. embassies in Kenya, pictured, and Tanzania were bombed in 1998.