WASHINGTON -- The government's failure to improve security significantly at U.S. embassies around the globe offers a case study in how Washington tends to respond to a crisis: First come powerful pledges of change and a big initial response, followed by competing pressures for money, criticism, reduced spending and, finally, flagging interest.
Security at U.S embassies is in the spotlight as a result of the twin terrorist bombings Friday in Kenya and Tanzania. The deadly blasts underscored the perils faced by American representatives and employees, even in relatively tranquil capitals abroad.
In 1985, after terrorist car-bomb attacks against U.S. facilities in Beirut, Lebanon, a government commission headed by a former CIA deputy chief, Bobby Ray Inman, recommended $4 billion in security improvements over 10 years, including replacing or upgrading 134 U.S. embassies.
"The steam ran out for funding pretty early," Inman said Monday.
Even so, the department was unable to fulfill its own scaled-back plans. Of the 77 projects in the revised program, 26 were completed, 31 were deferred and 20 were canceled "for practical or economic reasons."
The Inman standards included a 100-foot setback from the street, 9-foot-tall walls, barriers, and first floors that are impregnable to bullets and forced entry.
Neither the Kenyan nor Tanzanian embassies met the new standards. Rather than being in the suburbs as recommended, the Nairobi embassy is on a busy city street.
Inman says his commission made a tactical mistake by neglecting to involve the powerful executive branch agency, the Office of Management and Budget, in preparing the recommendations.
He and others said that the budget office cast a skeptical eye on the State Department's budget requests for embassy security, suspecting that not all the money sought was intended for security.
As a result, the budget request was reduced before it was sent to Congress. The OMB declined to comment yesterday.
'Fortress embassies' feared
"There were critics inside State," recalled Inman, who resisted the idea of creating inaccessible "fortress embassies."
On Capitol Hill, the program ran into a fiscal vise created by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-cutting legislation. But even without the fiscal restraints, many members of Congress doubted the administration's ability to absorb and spend these large sums efficiently.
In the flush of political momentum after the Inman report, the State Department put together a "wish list" for new embassies, including places such as Kingston, Jamaica, where terrorism was improbable, a congressional aide recalled.
"Congress never objected to the goal, but always had serious questions about the State Department's management," said Douglas Olin, a lawyer who at the time was a senior staff member of the Senate Budget Committee.
A 1987 report to the committee cited "enormously inflated" property costs, costly delays on a new embassy project in Somalia, an embassy in Cairo, Egypt, that was over budget and behind schedule, apartment construction in New Delhi, India, that was abandoned after $1 million had been spent, and the refusal of Kuwait to provide suitable land for an embassy.
There were also allegations that the State Department "gold-plated" new embassy plans -- sometimes to make a building more comfortable for its occupants, at other times because the department opposed the project and sought to make the cost so prohibitive that the project never would be approved.
To take construction responsibility away from the State Department, the chairman of the Budget Committee at the time, Sen. Lawton Chiles, a Florida Democrat, recommended that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers be put in charge of embassy construction.
A major preoccupation for the State Department and Congress during this period was the discovery that the new U.S. chancery in Moscow, part of a new $200 million complex, was riddled with Soviet-installed bugs and required a drastic overhaul.
Indeed, some significant improvements were made at a number of U.S. embassies during the 1980s, though they fell short of the Inman standards.
These included fences, walls, gates, guardhouses, anti-ram barriers, posts designed to stop vehicles and concrete planters that serve as decorative barriers.
For whatever reason, starting in the mid- to late 1980s, major terrorist attacks against American facilities abroad subsided.
The State Department abandoned its pursuit of the complete Inman goals and decided to tailor new construction to regular assessments of the threat that a particular facility faced.
"I hate to sound jaded and cynical, but as we move further from a tragedy, people have fewer vivid recollections [of a terrorist act]," says Greg Bujac, who retired in February as director of the State Department's diplomatic security service.
This lack of urgency reduced the determination to complete the recommended security improvements, he said.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, another priority intruded: a desire to establish a diplomatic presence in all the new republics that emerged from the former empire. Over the next few years, the United States opened 14 new embassies, many of them relatively tiny. None met the Inman requirements.
It now costs about $70 million to build a new medium-sized embassy to meet Inman standards. Hardly anyone has considered replacing the downtown embassy chanceries in major world capitals -- London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo -- where land costs are deemed prohibitively expensive.
Even when they do occupy virtually impregnable buildings, U.S. officials can be vulnerable because they still must travel around the country.
"Ultimately, we're only as secure as the host government's ability to protect us," says John F. W. Rogers, undersecretary of state for management during the Bush administration.
Nevertheless, momentum is growing to build anew. According to Indiana Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, casualty rates for diplomats are "frightening."
"If we're going to ask these people to go to places where they risk injury and death, we're going to have to provide the best security we can," Hamilton said.
Pub Date: 8/12/98