Is the State Department Prioritizing ‘Pretty Buildings’ Over Preventing the Next Benghazi?

Lawmakers question whether the department’s new embassy strategy puts U.S. personnel at risk.

This photo taken on September 11, 2012 shows a vehicle and surrounding buildings smoldering after they were set on fire inside the US mission compound in Benghazi.
National Journal
Jordain Carney
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Jordain Carney
July 10, 2014, 10:51 a.m.

Al­most two years after the Benghazi ter­ror­ist at­tack, law­makers are tak­ing their in­vest­ig­a­tion to a new front: ar­chi­tec­ture.

Law­makers sug­ges­ted Thursday that the State De­part­ment is trad­ing safety over­seas for, as Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Dar­rell Issa said, “pretty build­ings.”

The State De­part­ment rolled out the “design ex­cel­lence” plan for build­ing over­seas fa­cil­it­ies un­der Pres­id­ent Obama. The guidelines were aimed at design­ing build­ings that bet­ter rep­res­ent U.S. val­ues, but at a lower cost.

Law­makers have honed in on dip­lo­mat­ic se­cur­ity since the 2012 ter­ror­ist at­tack on the U.S. fa­cil­ity in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Amer­ic­ans: Am­bas­sad­or to Libya Chris Stevens, U.S. For­eign Ser­vice In­form­a­tion Of­ficer Sean Smith, and em­bassy se­cur­ity per­son­nel Glen Do­herty and Tyr­one Woods.

And the State De­part­ment has upped its budget re­quest, ask­ing Con­gress for $4.6 bil­lion to boost se­cur­ity at its em­bassies and con­su­lates as part of its fisc­al year 2015 budget re­quest. That’s roughly $600 mil­lion more than $4 mil­lion the ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ques­ted for se­cur­ity up­grades last year.

The money is be­ing used to fund ad­di­tion­al se­cur­ity staff, up­grades to in­fra­struc­ture, and fund­ing for new em­bassies or con­su­late com­pounds. The de­part­ment has star­ted con­struc­tion on em­bassies in the Neth­er­lands, Sur­i­n­ame, and Maur­it­ania, so far this year.

But with some pro­jects delayed and over budget, mem­bers of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee worry that the new design pro­cess en­dangers U.S. per­son­nel over­seas and eats up the de­part­ment’s budget.

“I think the con­sequence is that it will cost more. I think the oth­er con­sequence is we’re go­ing to have more people in harm’s way,” said Utah Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz.

Ly­dia Mu­n­iz, the dir­ect­or for the Bur­eau of Over­seas Build­ing Op­er­a­tions, said that by us­ing “design ex­cel­lence” guidelines, the de­part­ment will be able to shorten con­struc­tion times, po­ten­tially save money, and still meet se­cur­ity re­quire­ments.

“Every new design and con­struc­tion pro­ject that OBO un­der­takes both must and will meet the se­cur­ity and life-safety stand­ards re­quired by law,” she said. ” … We are ded­ic­ated to meet­ing all the se­cur­ity re­quire­ments that [dip­lo­mat­ic se­cur­ity] es­tab­lishes.”

But Chaf­fetz re­ferred to a re­port by Grant Green, who test­i­fied be­fore the com­mit­tee, which found that delays would leave “more per­son­nel ex­posed in in­ad­equate fa­cil­it­ies for longer peri­ods of time” without any cost be­ne­fit for us­ing the new design stand­ards.

“When we in­ter­viewed people who were wor­ried about se­cur­ity “¦ [they] felt very strongly that the pen­du­lum had shif­ted very strongly from se­cur­ity to design,” Green, the former un­der sec­ret­ary for man­age­ment at the State de­part­ment, told law­makers.

Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings, the com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mem­ber, said it was hard to fully un­der­stand any mer­its or draw­backs of the new design plan be­cause no fin­ished em­bassy has been com­pletely built us­ing the “design ex­cel­lence” plan. 

“As we eval­u­ate the mer­its and draw­backs of this new ef­fort, we must keep one goal at the top of our list — the se­cur­ity of our dip­lo­mat­ic of­fi­cials serving over­seas,” he said.

House mem­bers also ques­tioned if push­ing to build em­bassies in more urb­an loc­a­tions left U.S. per­son­nel more open to at­tack, versus build­ing in a re­mote loc­a­tion. 

The hear­ing comes after a re­port late last month raised ques­tions about gaps in se­cur­ity at U.S. em­bassies and con­su­lates.

“State lacks a pro­cess for re­as­sess­ing stand­ards against evolving threats and risks,” the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice found, in­clud­ing an in­ab­il­ity to in­cor­por­ate new in­form­a­tion when mak­ing de­cisions about the level of threats at a loc­a­tion.

Con­gres­sion­al re­ports have cri­ti­cized — if not out­right blamed — the de­part­ment for its lack of re­spons­ive­ness in the 2012 at­tack.

“The fail­ures of Benghazi can be summed up this way: The Amer­ic­ans serving in Libya were vul­ner­able; the State De­part­ment knew they were vul­ner­able; and no one in the ad­min­is­tra­tion really did any­thing about it,” ac­cord­ing to a 2014 re­port by the Sen­ate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

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