Sunday, September 27, 2009

Fortress Embassies, Round 2,649

Consumer Notice: This post is certified 100% free of Matters of Official Concern that are not referenced from publicly available sources of information.

Outgoing Ambassador Victor Ashe departed the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw last week, and he took the occasion to make some farewell remarks on the well-worn subject of Fortress Embassies:

I will now share some personal observations which reflect only my own views which were shaped by 16 years as a Mayor who took the City Design Institute course led by Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.

In the course of my five years as Ambassador, I have observed American embassies being built around the world at a rapid pace with new post – September 11, 2001 security requirements. While some locations certainly require substantially enhanced security provisions (such as a four-sided 100 foot setbacks), others do not have such needs.

The cost to the taxpayers if these standards are implemented worldwide will be huge. The design of many of these buildings quite often create a fortress-like atmosphere and the impression given to host nations can be less than friendly; not the warm, welcoming impression we should offer as Americans. Many of these new embassies and consulates are located far outside the hub of activity in the center of the city, making it difficult for employees and visitors to the Embassy to get there due to lack of public transportation.

In the early 1960s, the American government demolished a beautiful historic Residence here in Warsaw to build our current structure, which many regard as an eyesore. On either side of our current building stand the truly historic structures occupied by the Swiss Embassy to the south and the Bulgarian Embassy to the North. Our architecture has not set a good example in the historic neighborhood where we are.

Given different security situations in virtually every nation, wide flexibility in construction design and location is needed as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. As such, different sites and designs can be adopted at less cost and with greater architectural warmth. Where possible and when consistent with the security environment, we should avoid locating American residences in gated communities, as it reduces interaction with citizens of the host nation.

We need to review our current building policy from the standpoint of cost, security, location and architectural design.


Ambassador Ashe is only the latest in a long line of concerned observers to complain about the physical security requirements for new U.S. embassies, and about the current State Department practice of standardized embassy design (which are two different things). An excellent compendium of complaints can be found here in the testimony of Dr. Jane Loeffler, our most distinguished critic of Fortress Embassies. No one has hated them longer or better.

With all due respect for Ambassador Ashe, however, he is ill-informed about those security requirements.

First, they were not significantly altered after September 11, 2001, but are basically unchanged from when they were created way back in 1985. It was the Standard Embassy Design (SED) approach to construction that was newly created in 2001, and not in reaction to 9/11 but rather to the East Africa embassy bombings of 1999. It is the SED approach, and not necessarily the security requirements, that drives the State Department to do many of those things Ambassador Ashe criticizes.

Second, the rising threat of transnational terrorism means that some of those security requirements, such as the requirement that new embassies resist bomb blast, logically must be applied equally to every new embassy regardless of its location. There are no locations that do not "require substantially enhanced security provisions," at least in so far as transnational terrorism threats go. That lesson was driven in by the East Africa bombings.

And third, some of those security requirements are not merely dictates of Diplomatic Security, or even State Department regulations, but are public law. This includes the requirement for 30 meters of setback distance between office buildings and surrounding streets. Those requirements cannot be changed by a policy review, but only by persuading Congress to change the law.

As for the one-size-fits-all criticism of new embassies, well, there actually are a few different sizes of SEDs - large, medium, small, and so forth - but that criticism is fair enough. To the extent that standardized architectural design conflicts with rational risk management, I share the criticism. The person who hired me for my first job at the State Department said it best; as he handed me a thick binder of the security requirements that were starting to be codified during the first year of the Inman program, he said "these are the standards, but, of course, standards must be applied by reasoning human beings."

I always took it for granted that security standards have an invisible stamp on them that says: "nothing in this document requires you to do anything stupid." My personal test of reasonableness is that I should be able to make a convincing case for whatever security measure I'm supporting without having to even refer to the standards. On the (pretty rare) occasion when I can't do that, then I figure the standards might not be fully applicable to that situation.

Moreover, a considerable amount of risk management takes place before the SED process begins. Ambassador Ashe need not worry that SEDs will be implemented without any regard for local conditions, because, as I can see from this publicly available source of information, Congress has mandated that the State Department continuously assess local threats and vulnerabilities and pick only the highest-risk embassies for replacement:

By law, the department is authorized to spend security capital appropriations only among the top 80 [most vulnerable] posts. Congress requires an annual report by February first, showing all posts requiring replacement for security reasons. That report, consisting of approximately 150 posts, includes the top 80 posts. These top 80 posts form the universe of posts included in the Security Capital portion of the [Long Range Office Building Plan].

Each summer, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) reviews the vulnerability of all chancery and consulate buildings, considering security factors such as perimeter protection, setback, and parking; structural and safety factors such as seismic and façade construction; and the assigned threat levels. The result of the review is a rank ordering of the posts, which is provided to the regional bureaus ... The new list of 80 is sent to the Secretary for approval and, in turn, to the Congress as required by law.


Finally, the SEDs did not come down from a mountaintop carved on a tablet, and they can be changed much more easily than any of the key security standards. Recently, the American Institute of Architects published a report recommending all sorts of changes to current U.S. embassy construction practices with the intention of reversing some of the present standardization. I wish them good luck with that, particularly with the recommendations about replacing prescriptive standards with performance-based ones.

The more our standards and standardized designs are applied by reasoning human beings, the better.

1 comment:

diplopundit said...

Thanks for an enlightening post. I've linked to you here:
http://diplopundit.blogspot.com/2009/09/fortress-embassies-tanka-or-two.html