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Embassy security remains a concern

Nearly a year after terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, the government says its facilities are still vulnerable.

After truck bombs devastated two U.S. embassies in Africa last August, killing 224 people, Congress clamored for more secure facilities, and the Clinton administration drew up plans to spend billions of dollars to protect U.S. personnel abroad. But one year later, the process of replacing vulnerable embassies has barely begun.

In the meantime, fears of terrorist attack have caused the State Department to close 68 different embassies and consulates temporarily, for periods ranging from a few hours to a week or more. Some have shut down several times. The embassy in Dushanbe, capital of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, has been abandoned as indefensible.

All 256 U.S. embassies and consulates worldwide have been told to increase security in the run-up to the first anniversary of the bombings, which is Saturday. The State Department this week was to outline the extra security measures it has taken in the past year.

"We will fight terrorism every day," declared Michael Sheehan, U.S. counterterrorism coordinator, speaking at the newly fortified State Department where ceremonies Saturday will honor the dead and the more than 5,000 injured in the Africa bombings.

"We've made improvements at every single post around the world," said Peter Bergin, director of the diplomatic security service. The State Department itself is ringed by concrete and steel barriers, with circular driveways no longer used. The street on one side is closed to non-government traffic.

Despite tough measures against terrorists, including bombing raids and arrest of eight associates of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden in the Africa bombings, American interests still are vulnerable to attack, Sheehan said.

One reason for the slow progress in "hardening" U.S. diplomatic posts is simply that it takes time to buy land, design buildings and seek bids from contractors. But the process also is mired in wrangling between Congress and the Clinton administration.

Other than replacements for the shattered facilities in Kenya and Tanzania, only one new embassy, in the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, is under contract for construction, State Department officials said.

Senior officials said they expect to issue contracts for several more buildings next year, but the State Department's list of cities to get new embassies or consulates does not match the priorities of congressional appropriators who must provide the funds.

The State Department has told Congress that its top priorities for replacement are the embassies or consulates in Istanbul, Turkey; Tunis, Tunisia; Kampala, Uganda; Zagreb, Croatia; and Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Congressional Republicans say they agree with some choices but not others, and seek to add Albania and Uzbekistan. Funds originally earmarked for the embassy in Tirana, Albania, were diverted to Pristina, Kosovo, where the growing number of U.S. personnel in a violent environment requires urgent construction of a secure consulate, officials said.

After the Aug. 7, 1998, bombings in Africa, President Clinton asked Congress to approve $3-billion over five years for embassy replacements and security upgrades. But key members of Congress and retired Adm. William J. Crowe, who led the twin panels that investigated the bombings, denounced that plan as inadequate. The Clinton administration then revised its proposed budget, seeking $11.4-billion over 10 years.

That's almost exactly the amount Crowe recommended. Yet the administration sought only $300-million for fiscal 2000, because it's just starting the process of identifying sites, obtaining land, designing buildings and negotiating with contractors.

"Finding 10 acres of land in a place where you would want to locate an embassy is not the easiest activity in the world," one senior official said, according to the Washington Post.

Large lots are needed because State Department standards adopted after a 1985 report by retired Adm. Bobby Inman _ but rarely implemented before the Africa bombings _ call for embassies to be at least 100 feet from the nearest street.

Construction of a new embassy in Berlin, for example, has been delayed because the site, on Pariserplatz in the city center, can't meet the setback standard.

But some critics say the U.S. government has been lackadaisical.

"If the United States had done what Inman had recommended in 1985, you wouldn't have had this loss of life (in Africa). And now we're not even doing what Crowe recommended," said Larry C. Johnson, a private security consultant and former State Department counterterrorism specialist.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House International Relations subcommittee on international operations, agrees. He sponsored a bill authorizing the full $1.4-billion recommended by Crowe in fiscal 2000, saying, "Nobody needs another wake-up call like the embassy bombings in Africa." But the House Appropriations Committee cut the amount to $568-million, accepting the administration's argument that larger amounts can't be spent until sites have been acquired. The Senate, meanwhile, has approved the State Department's $300-million request.

"Not every place in the world do we feel it's absolutely essential to get them a new embassy immediately," said Patrick Kennedy, assistant secretary of state for administration.

Kennedy released a summary Wednesday showing that only 31 of the 260 diplomatic posts meet the recommended requirement of a 100-foot safety perimeter to protect against car bombings. He said the government has been purchasing property around several embassies to provide such buffers.

Last month, the State Department's Sheehan told a Senate committee that the worldwide threat level is "between yellow and red, and all too frequently, in different parts of the world, clearly in the red."

Department analysts estimate 2,400 threats or incidents aimed at U.S. interests overseas in the past year _ more than double the same period a year ago.

The main concern is the terror network allegedly run by bin Laden, he said. But the bombings exposed a broad range of vulnerability in many countries: security personnel shortages, indifference or incompetence of host governments and buildings with sheets of exposed glass on busy streets.

Officials said vehicle barriers, bomb-screening equipment and security improvements invisible to the public have raised the bar against terrorism.

In exposed facilities that are unlikely to be replaced for several years, such as the Hanoi embassy, staff members will be regrouped in internal offices, away from windows, a senior security official said.

In some capitals, the State Department seeks to acquire property adjacent to existing facilities to expand their buffer areas and avoid the cost of new construction. In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for example, the State Department bought a gas station and convenience store next to the embassy and plans to tear them down.

But State Department officials said mob attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Damascus, Syria, and Beijing _ tolerated if not fomented by local authorities _ have shown that even with reinforcements, security can be overwhelmed if a host government is unwilling or unable to control the streets.

"It's important to have strong embassies, and we're going to need to build embassies and stronger defenses," Sheehan said. "But in order to have better security, we're going to have to get outside the outer ring of (our) security. And that means working with countries, bucking up their will to deter terrorism, providing them with assistance."

Even after the hiring of 200 diplomatic security agents, another official said, security forces are stretched pretty thin. According to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the 200 new agents will be offset by the same number of mandatory retirements in the next five years.

Moreover, a shortage of military personnel blocked plans to station U.S. Marine security guards at 11 additional embassies this year, a State Department official said.

Officials at several U.S. embassies overseas said the events of the past year have raised security awareness throughout the Foreign Service, but attention still ebbs and flows with events.

In Moscow, where the embassy fronts on a busy boulevard, adjacent streets were closed during protests over the U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia but have since reopened. A new, less exposed chancellery, which is finally being rebuilt after a major bugging scandal more than a decade ago, is scheduled to open in Moscow next spring.

_ Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report.