Sunday, May 30, 2010

Fortress Embassies, Yet Again

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If you ask me, the Fortress Embassy trope has been explored ad nauseum for over twenty years. Nevertheless, it seems to have become a matter of great interest to official Washington once again. So, once again, I am moved to discuss inside baseball stuff like setback distances and fenestration limits. Please read no further unless you are tremendously excited by such things.

Last September, as he was departing from Warsaw, Ambassador Victor Ashe made some remarks about diplomatic architecture and security in which he recycled old arguments that others have made before and better. I thought Ambassador Ashe was partly misguided, and I made some comments about why.

Now, the Council of American Ambassadors has put Ashe's old remarks into its current (Spring 2010) publication. Since they are recycling old complaints, I'll recycle some of the my old reactions.

All the kvetching by former Ambassador Ashe and others comes down to a few core points. Here's what they are and why I think they are mistaken, in whole or in part:

Chronic Complaint #1 - These onerous embassy security requirements are something new. As Ashe says, "After the tragic bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania followed by the attack on the World Trade Center, new security requirements were imposed on embassy and consulate constructions. Diplomatic security became involved in the design process." Actually, the physical security standards for new overseas diplomatic facilities have changed hardly at all since they were first established in 1986, and Diplomatic Security is no more or less involved in design matters today than it was then. Only one thing changed after the attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and that was the new willingness of Congress to provide a steady stream of multi year funding for new embassy construction.

Chronic Complaint #2 - Setback distance, the most prominent attribute of Fortress Embassies. "The requirement of a 100 foot setback on all four sides of an embassy makes it impossible in many cases to build an embassy in the central part of most capital cities" and causes new embassies to be located in remote and inaccessible places, as happened with U.S. Embassy Zagreb. Actually, a 100-foot requirement is not so great that it alone could drive new embassy locations to remote sites. Even the huge building that will be needed to house the new U.S. Embassy in London will get all the required setback from a plot of only 5 acres, and a plot of that size certainly could have been found reasonably near Zagreb's city center. The real culprit here is the Standard Embassy Design (SED), since it requires a lot of room, usually in a rectangular plot of 10 to 15 acres, to house an entire consolidated embassy space plan consisting of offices, COM and MSGQ residences, warehouses, shops, utility buildings, and sometimes recreation facilities. The 100-foot setback standard contributes to the site selection problem, but is only a minor factor. There is no security standard that calls for new embassy sites to be of any minimum size or to be located in remote areas, as anyone with access to 12 FAH-6 can verify for himself.

Chronic Complaint #3 - New embassies are designed without regard for local security conditions. "[S]ome countries, due to a high-risk threat, require these fortress-like facilities (regrettable but true). But this is not the case in every nation ... the law needs to be changed to allow flexibility by the State Department to construct embassies consistent with the security threat in a given nation." The reality of transnational terrorism is that all nations have some threats in common, particularly the threat of large vehicle-borne bombs, and therefore certain security measures must be applied equally to every new embassy. To do otherwise would create soft targets for groups like al Qaeda to exploit. I believe that was the lesson we learned by the East Africa embassy bombings, which occurred at purportedly low threat posts.

Chronic Complaint #4 - Fortress Embassies are unfriendly. "The approach of emphasizing security over design also causes American personnel difficulty in interacting with citizens of the host nation. Citizens do not enjoy coming to the embassy where they are searched numerous times and must cross the concrete barriers which surround the embassy." We are often told that foreign clients who wish to visit U.S. embassies are deterred by the hassle and perceived insult of having to be screened and searched. I believe it; everybody hates being screened and searched. But I do not see the alternative, especially not when body-borne explosives are an established tactic that has been used by terrorists who wish to attack U.S. targets. Shall we have less entry control for U.S. embassies than we do for U.S. airlines? I have yet to hear anyone even attempt to make the case that we should.

Chronic Complaint #5 - All those Fortress Embassies look like prisons. "These embassy designs invariably connote a fortress (or even a prison) with narrow windows. Often, these buildings are just plain ugly and stick out like sore thumbs." It is often said that there is some security standard that requires new embassies to have small or narrow windows. That was true once upon a time, back in the dim mists of history, during the first year or two of the Inman program. Back then, it was impossible to obtain windows that could stay intact under large bomb blasts, so in order to minimize harm to the people inside new embassies the State Department limited fenestration - principally windows - to 15% of the building's facade. The limit was quickly raised to 30%, and I believe even that wasn't followed in every Inman building. When Congress started funding new embassies again after the East Africa bombings, there was no longer any need to limit fenestration and no such security standard or criteria exists. In fact, there seems to be nothing but windows in this new embassy that was completed in 2008. As for new embassies often being ugly, I suppose that is in the eye of the beholder, so see for yourself at this publicly available source of information which has photos of completed projects.

None of these complaints will be dispelled any time soon, I know. They will be rehashed over and over again as OBO develops its design excellence program and the accompanying strategic plan.

The phrase "déjà vu" refers to something "already seen." I need another French phrase for the topic of Fortress Embassies, something that means "I've seen it before and I know I'm going to see it again, and again." Until the French come up with that one I shall just say, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose."

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