Embassies at Risk

September 1, 1998 Topic: Terrorism Tags: AcademiaBusinessCold WarEconomic Liberalism

Embassies at Risk

Mini Teaser: But beyond this business of walls, set-backs, and barbed wire lies a philosophical question: What kind of nation are we? Has America, like Rome, in its declining decades become a garrison state? What is the point of our diplomacy? While the safety

by Author(s): Smith Hempstone

The last crushed bodies had scarcely been extricated from the car-bombed carnage of the American embassies in Dar es-Salaam and Nairobi when the cry went up to harden security at 280 U.S. diplomatic posts around the world, turning them into isolated bomb-proof fortresses impervious to terrorist attack.

Leading the first wave of the rhetorical charge, before the bodies of the American dead had reached these shores, were Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, and Bobby R. Inman, a retired admiral who was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Ronald Reagan.

After the American embassy in Beirut was car-bombed in 1983, killing sixteen people, Reagan named Inman to head a panel to recommend construction changes that would make U.S. diplomatic posts safer. The Inman Report, published in 1985, called for the hardening of embassies at a cost of $3.5 billion. But between 1986 and 1990, the State Department requested only $2.7 billion to enhance the security of its buildings, and less than a third of that--$880 million--was appropriated by Congress.

Resuscitating the Inman Report, which is basically what the security mongers want, is a bad idea. It would be expensive--probably costing $5 billion today--ineffective, and, in some cases, counterproductive.

The East African blasts of August 7 were powerful enough to kill over two hundred and fifty people and injure about five thousand others. Although U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Prudence Bushnell was slightly injured by flying glass, the great majority of the dead, wounded, and missing were Kenyans crowding the sidewalks or working in adjacent office buildings. Only thirty-five of the dead were within the embassies. More to the point, perhaps, as Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering put it, "There is no such thing as a bomb-proof building." Its "proof" is directly related to the size of the bomb.

The embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were built before the Inman Report was issued, and neither meets its specifications. The two principal recommendations of the report were that embassies should be surrounded by nine-foot walls, creating a "Fort Apache" school of diplomatic architecture, and that the buildings should be set back from the walls by at least one hundred feet. The latter provision would mean in many cases moving chanceries from downtown to the remote suburbs.

While both East African embassies had nine-foot walls, the set-back in Nairobi was thirty feet and that in Dar es-Salaam (Arabic for "Haven of Peace") was only twenty-five. The Israelis, not the least security-minded of people, constructed the latter building in 1954 and considered it safe enough to use as their chancery until Tanzania broke relations with Israel after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

From 1996 through fiscal 1999, Congress has appropriated only $112 million to enhance embassy security, with only a few hundred thousand dollars earmarked for Dar es-Salaam and Nairobi, both of which had been classified as low-risk posts.

As ambassador to Kenya, I did not quarrel with that classification, and I do not do so now. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, did any of my predecessors or successors--with the exception of the current ambassador, Prudence Bushnell, who objected strongly to the security status of the building. In the thirty-five years since independence, neither East African post had suffered a terrorist attack, and attacks on individual Americans had been few and far between.

Most of the Inman money went, as it should have, to the far more dangerous embassies in the Islamic world, such as Kuwait. None of these state-of-the-art security measures, it should be noted, made the slightest difference when Somali gunmen came over the wall of the sprawling, brand-new, multimillion-dollar U.S. embassy in Mogadishu in 1990.

Given the paucity of the funds available and the dangerous situation elsewhere in the world, our security measures with respect to the Nairobi embassy were reasonable, if not in retrospect adequate. The building, on the busy corner of Moi and Haile Selassie Avenues, had only two entrances (good, because we had only ten Marines to guard them on a 24-hour basis). The back door, near which the car-bomb exploded, led to the garage, was of steel, and had "tank traps" to prevent an unauthorized vehicle from entering. To gain admittance by the front door, visitors had to produce identification to two armed Marines shielded by bullet-proof glass, go through a metal detector, and submit to a body search if required. Within the embassy, which had five floors above ground, visitors wore a pass and were accompanied at all times by an embassy officer. The system worked, as an irate ambassador from a friendly Arab country (Morocco) discovered in 1990 when he tried to call on me with a pistol in his coat pocket.

U.S. relations with the government of Kenya were cool but correct, and the people of Kenya were very much on our side. I could and did wander through Nairobi's slums without a bodyguard or fear of violence. Coordinating efforts to guard against Arab or Muslim terrorism was no problem either--President Daniel arap Moi nurtured an almost pathological dislike and fear of Arabs.

On the deficit side of the equation Kenya's (and Tanzania's) borders were porous, there were Arab embassies in Nairobi that might be prepared to put their sacrosanct diplomatic pouches at the service of terrorists, and corruption was so prevalent that it might not be too difficult to bribe a customs officer to turn a blind eye to bomb parts. The local Muslim population was sufficiently disaffected by Moi's heavy-handed rule to harbor at least a handful of Islamic fundamentalists willing to give Arab terrorists aid and comfort.

But beyond this business of walls, set-backs, and barbed wire lies a philosophical question: What kind of nation are we? Has America like Rome in its declining decades become a garrison state? What is the point of our diplomacy? While the safety of U.S. personnel is an obvious concern for us, is it our primary consideration?

The answers to these questions are, it seems to me, obvious. Neither blue jeans nor Coca-Cola are our principal exports. What we are selling are democracy and freedom, transparency and decency, self-help and self-respect. These are our core values, what we have to offer, and we cannot hope to promote them by hunkering down in suburban bunkers far from the common people of the land.
The objectives of U.S. missions abroad have to be to promote close and cordial relations with the people, to shore up democratic institutions, to encourage the constituency for democracy where one exists, to strengthen our ties with host governments, to protect American investors, and to promote trade with the United States. If any truth is self-evident, it is that we were called to be witnesses for freedom.

Clearly we have an obligation to look to the security of our people, but if we create a bunker mentality, locking ourselves away behind high walls in the suburbs, we would be safe but would soon become irrelevant. We have to show courage and staying power if we are to remain players in the game. If there is to be one, the American raj has to be one of free men and democratic nations.
When I was ambassador, I regarded my State Department officers in Nairobi as my Jesuits, just as much soldiers in the cause of democracy as my Marines. I think most young State Department officers understood, accepted, and gloried in that. Those who did not were at liberty to ask for a transfer from Nairobi during my watch; few did.

There are a number of small and relatively inexpensive steps that can and should be taken to make our embassies safer. Window glass could be hardened with plastic coating to inhibit sharding. More Marines would help. On-street parking should be prohibited near our diplomatic post. Better surveillance by local police and counterintelligence operatives should be sought.

Most importantly, terrorism has to be attacked at its source, made more costly for the killers involved in it. President Clinton has pledged to pursue and bring to justice those involved in the East African bombings "no matter what or how long it takes." But the record shows that it takes a very long time and almost never happens. Those terrorists arrested, tried, and convicted over the past fifteen years, during which time hundreds of Americans have lost their lives, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. To improve on this sorry record will not be easy--most terrorist organizations have friends in high government positions where these acts are committed--but it must be done. The August 20 attacks on terrorist camps and facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan were a good, if belated, start.
We need better information from the CIA on the identities, movements, and intentions of terrorists. This sort of information can be obtained, but it costs money and lives. Both are going to have to be spent.

Americans are and will remain the targets of choice for terrorists. This is because America is the one remaining superpower and the last best hope of the world. As President Clinton said while the moans of those still trapped in the debris of our East African embassies could be heard, "To pull back our diplomats and troops from the world's trouble spots, to turn our backs on those taking risks for peace . . . would give terrorism a victory it must not and will not have." Amen to that.

Essay Types: Essay