Let's talk Fortress Embassies. First, how many U.S. Embassies are fortresses?
Judging by most of the news stories about the attack in Benghazi, and all of the congressional questions about presumed waivers of security standards, anyone would get the impression that every place except Benghazi is a big ol' fortress.
However, if you read the 2010 GAO Report on New Embassy Compounds, you will learn otherwise:
State has located nearly one-quarter of overseas staff in NECs [New Embassy Complexes], which posts said are an improvement over older facilities.
What about the other three-quarters of our overseas staff? Evidently, they occupy something other than fortresses, for better or worse. Many fans of architecture and open diplomacy would say it's for the better. Whichever it is, it is a reflection of the unchanging reality that we have more needs than resources.
The best commentary I have seen recently on this subject came in a newsletter from the business intelligence firm Stratfor - Diplomatic Security in Light of Benghazi:
So while it is understandable that the U.S. government would want to base diplomats and intelligence personnel in Benghazi [due to having important national interests there], it encountered a problem: It simply did not have a facility in the city that met security standards. Instead, the personnel had to occupy a temporary facility until a suitable building could be funded and then constructed. While the U.S. State Department has adopted a modular design program that has made this process a little easier, the construction of a new office building is nonetheless an expensive undertaking and something that the department cannot do under its current operating budget without the U.S. Congress allocating funds to pay for the construction project. Anyone who has dealt with the U.S. government should not be surprised, then, that the 11 months since the fall of the Gadhafi regime were not enough for Congress to fund, and the State Department to build, a new secure facility to house the consulate in Benghazi.
-- snip --
But the issue of temporary facilities is not just confined to Tripoli and Benghazi. It comes up frequently when there is a rapid change in a nation, or even in the case of a natural disaster. For example, the U.S. recognition of the new nation of South Sudan in July 2011 necessitated the rapid establishment of an embassy in the country's capital, Juba. If the environment continues to improve in Somalia, it is possible that the United States will increase its presence in Mogadishu, and establishing an embassy in Mogadishu will also pose a problem until a secure facility can be constructed. ["Diplomatic Security in Light of Benghazi" is republished with permission of Stratfor.]
In a world of limited resources, not even the U.S. government can have everything it wants and it must make choices. Such as, should it build a new embassy in Juba before one in Mogadishu? And if it builds them both, which other two posts won't get new embassies because the money for them was spent on urgent unscheduled needs elsewhere? Someone in authority must decide. No business or government can afford to fully meet all of its needs, much less meet all of them at the same time, so priorities must be set.
The Department's Congressional budget justification for 2013 has this statement about prioritization in the section on "Effective and Efficient Risk-Based Security:"
DS is challenged more now than ever to provide security in environments where threats are increasing and implement the most cost-effective solutions within its current budget constraints. The locations require a more agile approach to provide resources beyond those outlined by the Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards when necessary, and quickly provide common-sense waiver and exception relief in situations that other OSPB standards cannot reasonably be met due to exigent circumstances in these locales. The Bureau will act on recommendations in the Secretary’s QDDR report to reassess the global standard for risk management. DS will assess its collective resources to formalize and house individual security programs developed to address the ever-changing threat. DS will make a concerted effort to call on the skills of its partner agencies in the design and implementation of joint security efforts. [Worldwide Security Protection, page 64]
That brings me to my next question about Fortress Embassies. How many more of them is the Department planning to build?
The above-linked budget justification for 2013 contains a section on "Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance" that addresses the Capital Security Construction program, which is the source of money for Fortresses. That program is the result of a recommendation in the report of the Accountability Review Board that convened after the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998 (here) whose key sentences read:
We must undertake a comprehensive and long-term strategy for protecting American officials overseas, including sustained funding for enhanced security measures, for long-term costs for increased security personnel, and for a capital building program based on an assessment of requirements to meet the new range of global terrorist threats. This must include substantial budgetary appropriations of approximately $1.4 billion per year maintained over an approximate ten-year period ... Additional funds for security must be obtained without diverting funds from our major foreign affairs programs.
It is now more than ten years later, and I see that the Department still has a capital building program based on security needs, so I have to hand it to Congress. They did indeed provide that sustained stream of new embassy construction money, as recommended.
According to the figures for "Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance" the Department has built 88 new overseas diplomatic facilities since 2001. From that, we may assume that the usual pace of construction has been around nine projects a year. The Department has 260-some embassies and consulates, so it will be quite some time before it gets around to them all at the present pace.
Moreover, the pace of new embassy construction seems to be slowing. Again according to the 2013 budget justification, the Department anticipated awarding six more contracts for new facilities in Fiscal Year 2012, and only three more in FY-2013.
Let's see ... if an average of nine projects per year have been awarded for the past ten years, but only six were awarded in the current year, and three are projected for next year ... Is it just me, or do you get the sense of a program winding down?
This will be something to watch when the Benghazi ARB makes its report. Will it recommend continuing the Capital Security Construction program as it is, or doubling down on its budget, or even ending it?
One last question about Fortress Embassies. How many more ought there to be?
It would be easy to say that Congress should increase funding beyond the 1.4 billion per year that was recommended in 1998. It would be easy, but overly optimistic.
The new construction recommendation made by the East Africa ARB in 1998 has been carried out. Maybe 88 or so new facilities is enough to meet the emergency needs that existed then, and it is now time to return the construction program to the non-emergency practices under which it operated before 2001.
Maybe it would be more useful to redirect that capital funding to hasty security upgrades for our many non-fortressy overseas facilities, the ones that three-quarters of our overseas staff currently occupy, rather than apply it to a handful of future new construction projects. There is a utilitarian argument that the best course of action is to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and that argument would seem to favor security upgrades over new construction.
It's just as well that Ambassador Pickering will not be asking for my advice, since I'm not sure how I would respond.