Improved embassy security falls short

U.S. diplomatic posts are still vulnerable to terrorists, experts say

August 05, 1999|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- U.S. embassies have hired thousands of additional guards, closed nearby streets and installed concrete barriers and metal detectors since terrorists bombed two U.S. posts in Africa a year ago, government officials said yesterday, but the measures fall far short of what many specialists say is adequate.

More than 80 percent of U.S. overseas missions are still vulnerable to vehicle bombs, which killed 224 people at embassies in Kenya and Tanzania last year, State Department officials acknowledged.

Money to strengthen or move exposed embassies is only starting to trickle out of Congress, even as threats against U.S. diplomatic facilities have escalated.

"There have been thousands and thousands of threats that we have had to filter through over the course of the last year -- over a 100 percent increase," said Peter Bergin, director of diplomatic security for the State Department.

"It's been almost an avalanche."

Threats have multiplied especially in the past few weeks, with the approach of the first anniversaries of the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and the Aug. 20 U.S. retaliatory attack on a chemical plant in Sudan.

That plant was thought to be associated with the exiled Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden, identified by U.S. authorities as the mastermind of the Africa bombings.

Over the past year, about 70 U.S. diplomatic facilities have had to shut down for at least 24 hours because of local unrest or terrorist threats, officials said.

Often Muslim extremists in Africa and Asia are the source of the danger, officials said, but they added that embassies elsewhere are at risk, too.

Worldwide improvements

In the aftermath of the Africa attacks, the United States has hired 4,000 additional guards to protect U.S. diplomatic posts, deployed more than 200 security agents overseas on special tasks, changed traffic patterns at many buildings, required inspections of all vehicles, increased crisis training for embassy staffers and bought neighboring property as buffer zones at more than 30 locations.

"In one location in the Far East, the State Department bought a convenience store and a gas station," said Patrick Kennedy, assistant secretary for administration for the department. "Why? Because they were on the border of one of our facilities."

Buying the parcels put the U.S. building at least 100 feet away from the street -- the gold standard of embassy security established in 1985 by a panel headed by retired Adm. Bobby Inman.

Inman's group recommended that high-risk facilities have 100-foot buffers. A commission appointed after the Africa bombings, and presided over by retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., urged buffers for all 265 U.S. diplomatic missions.

The State Department is billions of dollars and many years away from reaching that goal. Fewer than 45 of the facilities are at least 100 feet away from the street and potential attackers. Many, such as two consulates in Brazil, are only a few feet from major thoroughfares, Bergin said.

Congress supplied almost $1.5 billion to strengthen embassy security after the Africa bombings. But most of that money has been spent on guards, equipment and buffer parcels for existing embassies and consulates.

Maximum security won't come until dozens of facilities are simply replaced, security experts said. The Crowe report said that will take $14 billion over 10 years.

Yet the Clinton administration has requested only $300 million for new diplomatic facilities next year.

"That's a drop in the bucket if you're talking about completely replacing embassies," said Clark L. Staten, director of the Emergency Response and Research Institute, a security think tank in Chicago.

"Is it sufficient? I would think probably not. If we were to assure security throughout the world for our embassy buildings, I would think more money will have to be allocated to do that."

Staten credited the Clinton administration with "some progress" and stressed that security can often be improved significantly with little expense.

"A lot of it is in mind-set -- convincing those that work at a facility to be security-aware," he said. "And I think that problem has been resolved by Mr. bin Laden and his buddies."

`Criminal negligence'

But another counterterrorism specialist harshly criticized embassy security in recent years and predicted more attacks.

"I would almost call it criminal negligence," said Larry C. Johnson, a partner in BERG Associates, a security consultancy in Washington. "Embassies need to be built with a 100-foot setback.

"What have we done? We've only agreed to spend part of the money. We've only agreed to go for a partial fix. The State Department only requested part of the money, which is typical State Department."

Getting the money and "hardening" the embassies, responded the State Department's Bergin, "is a work in progress."

"The administration and Congress both understand the problem," he said. "There are a bunch of realities out there. Our challenge is to keep it on the front burner."

Meanwhile, he said "we have made improvements at every single post around the world. Every post. The threat is global. We take it very, very seriously."

Bin Laden, believed to be behind the Africa attacks and under indictment in the United States, is being sheltered by the Taliban movement in Afghanistan. Yesterday, State Department officials played down recent reports that he is planning to change his address.

"We don't take much stock in those," said Michael Sheehan, the department's counterterrorism coordinator. "We know that he's in Afghanistan; we know he's within the area of the Taliban's control, and we hold them responsible."

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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