Here’s a tale of two cities — or at least how the State Department tries to cope with employee security in two cities: Beirut and Oslo.
A State Department inspector general’s report in May noted: “The Department’s threat rating for Beirut is critical for terrorism and political violence, but the embassy is not included in the Department’s recent list of high-threat missions.”
It continued: “Physical security vulnerabilities at mission facilities, which include office buildings and residences, place employees at risk.”
And finally: Compliance with State’s security standards “is not possible at the current location.”
Now, it seems land has been found for a new facility. That’s 30 years after the first bombing of the old embassy and at least one false start on replacing the current one.
“It looks like we’re going to . . . actually replace the facility in Beirut that we’ve been trying to replace for many, many years,” Gregory Starr, acting assistant secretary for diplomatic security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.
The IG noted that start of construction is only listed as an alternative mission for 2016 in State’s Capital Security Construction Program.
The picture looks different in Oslo. At a groundbreaking on May 14, 2012, for a $228 million 10-acre embassy compound, U.S. Ambassador Barry B. White said security would be “our number-one priority.” The multi-building complex, set to be completed in 2015, “will include a chancery, an underground support annex, three entry pavilions and Marine security guard quarters.”
Oslo, while not a high-threat mission, has had its problems. In November 2010, there was a minor political uproar when a Norwegian television station disclosed that the embassy had a “Surveillance Detection Unit” in an upper floor of a nearby building. And on July 31, the embassy announced that it found a “suspicious device” in an embassy car. It turned out to be “a non-threatening training device previously used in an exercise,” the embassy reported later.
On Tuesday, in describing why the new Oslo embassy was being built, Starr referred to the threat of “global terrorism.”
“The facility in Oslo does not have any setback [from main avenues],” Starr said. “It has no blast resistance. It is not bullet-resistant. It provides a very low level of safety for our personnel. I hope to be able to replace even facilities in countries like that as we go along for the future.”
Starr said surveying U.S. diplomatic facilities for replacement has been underway since 2000 as a result of the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, and found that “we needed approximately 175 new facilities . . . to be brought up to the highest level of security standards.” Since then, about 110 of the 175 have been completed or are underway, he said.
After the attacks in September on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, State established a new position, deputy assistant secretary for high-threat posts. The job went to Bill Miller, a senior Diplomatic Security official. He told senators Tuesday that 27 high-threat posts are under his jurisdiction.
“I’m responsible for evaluating, managing and mitigating the security threats as well as directing resource requirements at high-threat diplomatic missions,” Miller said.
Of the 27 high-threat posts, about 15 are without the proper security level, Starr said.
The State Department is seeking $2.2 billion next year to pay for continued facility construction. Of that amount, $1.4 billion is State money; the remaining $800 million would come from contributions from other U.S. government agencies that have office space or facilities in embassy complexes.
State’s Overseas Buildings Office has control over buying real estate and constructing facilities, Starr said, but “the primary driver is security.”
“In those places where we can’t get new facilities, we’re doing security upgrades and working with our host governments to the best that we can,” he said.
The IG report on the Beirut facility underscores the pressures at the high-risk post.
Sitting on an 18-acre, high-security compound 20 minutes from downtown, the embassy offices are cramped. The report said the health unit is on a steep hill “in a prefabricated modular unit that is accessible only by climbing outside stairs, making the unit inaccessible to disabled personnel or personnel being transported by stretcher or gurney.”
Any travel outside the compound requires “extensive security support.” After the fall 2012 demonstrations, travel was further restricted.
At one point, a 2012 IG report suggested that embassy officials needed a legal decision “regarding use of government-owned vehicles to transport non-American, unofficial personnel accompanying authorized American employees in Beirut’s high-threat environment.”
I’m sure none of those Beirut issues have come up in Oslo.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.