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Amidst the evacuation of citizens and embassy staff from Libya last week, CNN World ran a very brief interview with the acting Chief of Mission, Joan Polaschik, in which she made a few remarks about the poor state of physical security at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
Moments after a plane took off from Tripoli on Friday carrying the last American diplomats out of Libya, the White House announced it was suspending its embassy operations and imposing sanctions on the Ghadafi regime.
The news came after American officials caught in an increasingly perilous position completed an elaborate evacuation from Tripoli.
"We had not the best security," said Joan Polaschik, the embassy's acting head of mission. She spoke to CNN Friday night, shortly after a U.S.-chartered flight landed with evacuated American diplomatic personnel in Istanbul, Turkey
We don't have the typical fortress America embassy compound (in Tripoli). In fact we have a group of residential villas," Polaschik added.
Unlike most American diplomatic posts around the world, the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had no Marine guard presence. Instead, it relied on security guards provided by the Libyan government.
And while other American embassies and consulates have been substantially reinforced in recent years to protect against bomb and mob attacks, the embassy in Tripoli consisted of six villas in a poorly protected compound.
"The Libyans did not give the U.S. permission to build an embassy," said another recently evacuated American diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Read it here.
I can find no fault with the statement that U.S. Embassy Tripoli had "not the best" physical security. But it is evidently far from the only one in that situation. In fact, it seems the typical embassy is not a fortress.
According to this publicly available source of information, the United States has roughly 260 embassies, consulates, and other missions around the world. But how many of the 260 are so-called Fortress Embassies? Only 30 percent.
Here's how I know that. According to this very informative publicly available source provided by the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, OBO has to date completed about 70 construction projects under a new construction program that began in 2001. However, as the source shows, many of those projects were housing compounds, or annexes, or something other than embassy office buildings. This second, and equally unimpeachable, source of publicly available information from the General Accountability Office says that exactly 52 new embassies and consulates were completed between 2001 and July of 2010. Let's round that number up to 60, to account for those that have been completed since then.
So, only 60 out of our 260 diplomatic missions, or 23 percent, are Fortress Embassies. If we include the 20 or so fortresses that were built in the 1980s and early 90s during the Inman building program, we can get to 30 percent. The fortresses remain distinctly atypical.
What about Marine Security Guards? Do "most" embassies have Marine Security Guards? The answer is yes, but not by much. According to DipNote, Marines currently serve in 150 diplomatic posts in 138 countries. That's more than half of our 260 posts, or 56 percent. In the movies every U.S. embassy has Marine Security Guards, but in real life the odds are barely 50/50.
Incidentally, in the movies every embassy seems to not only have Marines, but to have about an entire company of them. For example, the large crew that chased Jason Bourne:
Lastly, was the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli really housed in a few poorly protected villas inside a haphazard compound? You can't expect to find that sort of thing described in publicly available sources of information that were put on the internet by official U.S. government agencies. Except for this one from the Office of the Inspector General:
From 2004 until May 2008, the U.S. Liaison Office and then Embassy Tripoli operated from the Corinthia Bab Africa Hotel in downtown Tripoli and at an annex, the Villas compound, in a commercial-residential neighborhood.
-- snip --
The main chancery is now located at a complex of eight villas and three vacant lots, known as the Villas compound. One villa will house the consular, FCS, and PD sections, and three others will house the management office and its subsections. Another villa will house the executive office, political/economic section, regional security office, and the Defense attaché office.
So that's confirmed. There were no heavy security upgrades at the embassy's interim location in the Villas. When we go back to Tripoli, which with any luck will be in a post-Qaddafi era, maybe we'll finally get the permission of the new host government to built a big old forbidding fortress.