Sunday, May 10, 2015

Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Goes Back to the Future of New Coke

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Hey, look, a picture of a U.S. embassy with a fence right in front of the entrance! What do you think when you see that?

It makes me think "that's a really screwed-up situation since that building must have no setback distance at all, which makes it totally vulnerable to terrorist attacks and politically motivated violence, and we ought to replace it with a safe, secure, and functional Fortress Embassy." But that's just me.

Turns out I'm wrong, because the photo is on the cover of the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy's new report about how Fortress Embassies are actually ruining everything, also known as Public Diplomacy at Risk: Protecting Open Access for American Centers. Read the full report here.

Briefly, this is what the ACPD wants to warn us about:

ACPD is concerned about the potential closure of 21 (of 32) American Centers in the next 10 years due to the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA), which requires all U.S. agencies in country be co-located on the embassy, consular and annex compounds. The hardening of our posts through SECCA was a logical and pragmatic response to a host of devastating attacks against U.S. embassy spaces in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet we are concerned that SECCA may be automatically and asymmetrically applied to U.S.-controlled public diplomacy platforms, American Centers and Information Resource Centers (IRCs), regardless of the characteristics of individual cases.

--snip --

The space for maximum engagement is the free-standing, U.S.-controlled American Center. Once the American Centers move to these [new embassy and consulate] compounds, they transform into less accessible Information Resource Centers (IRCs). IRCs are located in more remote locations, present more restrictive environments, and attract six times fewer visitors than American Centers.

-- snip --

ACPD believes it is imperative that we reconsider how the relocation of free-standing American Centers to U.S. embassy, consulate and annex compounds can complicate the essential goals of public diplomacy to understand, inform and engage foreign audiences to advance U.S. foreign policy ... We are concerned that the closing of American Centers is now accelerating and we emphasize the need for the selective and flexible application, on a case-by-case basis, of security standards.

The report is new but the contents are thirty years old. "This white paper is a follow up to the 1985 ACPD report, 'Terrorism and Security: The Challenge for Public Diplomacy,' which was submitted in reaction to the Inman Standards [sic] and their possible effect on the U.S. Information Agency (USIA)." Indeed, it follows the earlier report so closely that all the arguments it makes are recycled from 1985. If you've had any experience with public diplomacy matters since the year Back to the Future came out, since New Coke was launched, since the internet has existed over the years, then reading this report might be like experiencing an 80s nostalgia band.

The 1985 report was a plea to retain independent, stand-alone, and reasonably security-free American Centers outside of U.S. diplomatic facilities, but that idea lost out to the security recommendations made by the Inman Panel in 1985 and later codified into law by SECCA. New physical security standards were created which impeded the free operation of public diplomacy programs, the U.S. Information Agency lost its independence and was folded into the State Department, and around 140 new 'safe, secure, and functional' embassies have been built since then with only a few of them retaining a separate, stand-alone, American Center.

Having lost the argument in 1985, the ACPD waited thirty years and is now making the same arguments all over again. Good luck to them, but I don't think their case has gotten any better over time. For one thing, they still blame the Inman Commission Report for all the troubles in the public diplomacy world ever since 1985, and rehash old myths:

The Advisory Panel on Overseas Security at the State Department, or the “Inman Panel” (as it was known in honor of its Chairman, Admiral Bobby Ray Inman) created the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and proposed the Inman Standards, which stated that all embassies should be set back at least 100 feet from the street and be located on plots of 15 acres or more, and preferably outside of city centers. It was also recommended that U.S. Information Agency (USIA) libraries also relocate from city centers to the fortified embassy compounds.

That's wrong on all counts. The Inman Panel proposed no security standards at all - rather, it proposed that an interagency body ought to create mandatory minimum standards - and it said nothing about what size plots of land should be acquired for new embassy construction or where those plots should be located. The ACPD has had thirty years to read the Inman Panel report; where do they find any of that stuff in it?

To be sure, most of the Fortress Embassies that have been built since Congress began funding new embassy construction do have 100 feet of setback from their property lines, and they are on plots of land large enough to collocate all mission functions, and large plots of land do tend to be available and affordable only outside of city centers. However, don't blame the Inman Panel too directly. Those are all inevitable consequences of embarking on a strategic program to replace most of our old embassy facilities, as mandated by public law. See this publicly available source of information for an impeccable summary of that new embassy construction program, starting on page 8. Blame or credit Congress for that, not Inman.

And, there is the straight-out-of-1985 argument that new embassy locations will not be served by public transportation, leaving public diplomacy clients with no way to get there. That one wasn't supportable even in 1985, and since then we've had much experience to the contrary. The ACPD cites U.S. Consulate Mumbai, India, as an example of a PD program that suffered after it lost its stand-alone American Center and "moved into [a New Consulate Complex] that is remote from the city center and far from major transportation lines." Actually, U.S. Consulate Mumbai was relocated to the city's new Bandra Kurla Complex where it is served by an abundance of public transportation. The public can get a ride there if it wants, and the same is true of other new embassy locations.

If the public isn't visiting our American Centers as often as it did back in the 80s and before, maybe there are reasons for that apart from our modern-day security measures. Like the fact that, even in the developing world, people can find air-conditioned buildings and internet access almost anywhere these days. Surely the ACPD must have statistics on this matter.

Here's something I'd like to see the ACPD report on: did the number of visitors to the stand-alone American Center in New Delhi remain steady during the same period when visitors declined in Mumbai, or did the numbers decline in both places? Two PD programs in the same country, one located in a legacy stand-alone building that was built for USIA in the 1960s, and the other absorbed into a new Fortress Embassy about five years ago. That's practically a controlled experiment. If the numbers support ACPD's case against Fortress Embassies, then they should make them public.

One thing in the current ACPD report is new, and that's a request for PD clients to use their smart phones and iPads and such inside U.S. diplomatic office buildings:

A worldwide policy for open access to [Information Resource Centers, i.e., the libraries which have been absorbed into new embassies and consulates] that applies to all posts is necessary. This would lift "by appointment only" restrictions where they exist, create a separate security screening from the main chancery, permit unescorted access, and allow use of personal electronic devices and wireless internet access.

Okaaay ... so we should let our foreign visitors drop in on our diplomatic facilities whenever, and walk around by themselves using their own electronic devices as they see fit? What could possibly go wrong? Other than what has already gone wrong, I mean. But, do we need more computer intrusion problems?

Ironically, ACPD could have made a security-based argument that "open access" is both necessary for its programs and cannot be done inside a diplomatic facility without creating unacceptable risk to computer networks. That was a lost opportunity to get aboard the security bandwagon.

Of course, the ACPD makes a bold proposal for ending all the security nuttiness that effects its programs. Since Congress caused a lot of the problem when it passed a law that requires all new diplomatic facilities to have at least 100 feet of setback distance, and to collocate all offices and agencies in one big compound, then it could just pass a Sense of the Congress resolution saying it doesn't really intend for that law to apply to American Centers, and encourage the Secretary of State to freely use his authority to grant waivers letting them stay outside of Fortress Embassies.

Great idea, but it has already been done. In 2009, the Senate passed a Sense of the Senate Resolution, reported out of committee by one Senator Kerry, which resolved that:

the Secretary of State should initiate a reexamination of the public diplomacy platform strategy of the United States with a goal of reestablishing publicly accessible American Centers;


after taking into account relevant security considerations, the Secretary of State should consider placing United States public diplomacy facilities at locations conducive to maximizing their use, consistent with the authority given to the Secretary under section 606(a)(2)(B) of the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 (22 U.S.C. 4865(a)(2)(B)) to waive certain requirements of that Act.

That same Senator Kerry is now the Secretary of State. The ACPD therefore must already have the most receptive audience possible for requests to waive the law whenever new construction threatens one of the remaining autonomous American Centers. So, why hasn't that solved the problem? A waiver process exists; isn't anyone using it, or are they using it but getting denied? In the case of Consulate Mumbai, for instance, did the post even request a waiver? We might want to look into that before calling on Congress for another resolution the same as the last resolution.    

Despite it all, I really like American Centers and hope they can remain a viable platform. That's why it annoys me to see the ACPD rerunning half-baked arguments that didn't work for them thirty years ago. Have they learned nothing and forgotten nothing?

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