WASHINGTON -- After Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1988, the State Department was widely excoriated for failing to warn the public of a possible terror attack.
Now the department appears to have gone overboard in the opposite direction, deluging the U.S. traveler and travel industry with so many warnings and cautionary notices on foreign countries that they seem to defy common sense and weaken the impact of the alerts.
The upshot is a major internal review to streamline the process and "make it more meaningful and efficient," a senior official said.
But it also means grappling anew with the State Department's sometimes conflicting roles: promoting U.S. foreign policy interests and protecting individual Americans traveling abroad.
Although routinely issued, travel advisories carry the potential of damaging or crippling a country's tourist industry and scaring away investors. As a result, they draw high-level scrutiny and heavy lobbying by diplomats and the travel industry.
During the Persian Gulf crisis, advisories for the Middle East were picked over carefully by the National Security Council staff to avoid sending the wrong political signal, a U.S. official said. Officials were reluctant to issue a warning against travel to Israel, for example, because that might have appeared to contradict U.S. assurances that it was doing everything possible to protect an ally.
When Sir Robin Renwick, the British ambassador, got wind recently of an upcoming advisory about Northern Ireland, he ran interference with Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger to get it squelched.
After a notice was issued about crime in the Jamaican capital of Kingston, Ambassador Richard Bernal took up the matter with Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson and with Mr. Eagleburger. A subsequent notice praised Jamaica's efforts to make tourists more secure.
The Northern Ireland advisory, one official said, "dramatizes the difficulty of the situation." Should advisories be used to protect the government, he said, "in case someone is blown up, or to provide useful advice to Americans?"
Sir Robin argued, apparently persuasively, that the vast majority of people in the British-ruled province were able to lead normal lives amid an improving investment climate and that lives lost to terror were few compared with crime victims in major U.S. cities.
If the British were worried about the economic impact, they had good reason. U.S. warnings about Greek airport security in the mid-1980s are said to have affected tourism markedly and to have helped prod improvements.
There are apparent anomalies.
No travel advisory cautions against travel to Syria, which the State Department lists as a sponsor of terrorism. "The security forces are so overbearing that [terror groups] would not engage in terrorism in Syria," one U.S. official said.
Advisories also can send an unintended political signal. A recent advisory covering the Israeli-occupied territories was sent out simply to drop a previous warning to Americans to stay out of East Jerusalem. Yet because it repeated previous warnings that Arab-Americans could be harassed and delayed by Israeli authorities, it was seen in Israel as yet another slap by the United States.
Changes sometimes are slow to percolate through the travel industry. A Washington travel agent said a recent advisory he looked up on Kuwait said the country was still in a state of war.
The current review was prompted in mid-March by a blitz of nearly identical travel warnings for the republics of the former Soviet Union at a time when the Bush administration was trying to get an aid package through Congress and spur investment there. The travel warnings brought derision at home and unwelcome press attention in Moscow.
"I said, 'This is ridiculous,' " recalls one high-level official, a key figure in the review process. Another called it "insane."
The job of protecting citizens is the one State Department function, along with the issuance of passports, that average Americans are likely to encounter directly.
Failure to perform it is politically perilous.
Investigation of the Lockerbie disaster revealed that U.S. Embassy personnel and other Americans in Moscow had been warned by the U.S. Embassy there of a possible terror attack on a Pan Am flight. No warning had been put out for the general public in the United States.
Compounding the damage was what victims' families saw as insensitive treatment by State Department officials and failure to take a leading role after the disaster.
Stung, the department reformed the Consular Affairs bureau. An inspection last year by the department's watchdog, Inspector General Sherman Funk, found "dramatic improvements" under the bureau's current chief, Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Tamposi.