In-Depth: Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) introduced this bill to streamline embassy and consulate design and construction by prioritizing buildings’ security and cutting unnecessary waste in designing and constructing American facilities abroad:
“The attacks on U.S. buildings in Benghazi, Beirut, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam remind us of the dangers our diplomatic and military service members abroad face every day. We owe it to our brave men and women overseas to provide them with safe and functional workplaces in a timely fashion so we can prevent attacks like these in the future. Unfortunately, Design Excellence, implemented by the Obama administration to construct embassies overseas, shifted away from that core focus in favor of complex architectural design and costly building materials. My bill prioritizes the security and quality of our diplomatic facilities, while also cutting bloated costs and inefficient processes in embassy design and construction.”
Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) praises this bill for helping make U.S. embassies and consulates more accessible to people with disabilities:
“As markers of American ideals around the world, embassies and consulates must not only be built to meet the needs of security and functionality but also accessibility. The U.S. government must continue to build infrastructure that is accessible to people with disabilities and recognize the importance of doing so to our diplomatic and international development priorities. Accessible embassies help promote the employment of Americans with disabilities in diplomatic posts and reinforce U.S. leadership in advancing the rights of people with disabilities around the world.”
In 2010, then-Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) argued that the design and aesthetic appeal of American embassies overseas are important signals of what America stands for. At that time, Sen. Kerry called for excellent design, modern security requirements, sustainability, and energy efficiency to all be goals of the State Department’s embassy designs:
“The design of America's embassies overseas might seem at best a mere question of bricks and mortar or a relatively arcane issue in a time of big challenges. But as we wage a global battle for hearts and minds, embassies can send a powerful message to people everywhere about what America stands for. As the first impression many foreign people have of the United States, embassies can be another force in our arsenal to convey who we really are, to bring allies closer to us, and, yes, even to make us safer… We need to think creatively about how we can create embassies that protect our diplomats but also project our values… Under Secretary of State Colin Powell's leadership, the department embarked on a construction program that has led to the completion of 71 new facilities and moved over 20,000 people to safer and more secure buildings since 2001. Although this effort significantly improved the safety of our diplomats, unique architectural wonders built to last were replaced by a standardized ‘embassy in a box.’ They are uniform in appearance and quickly assembled fortresses designed to meet security specifications in one of four sizes -- small, medium, large and extra-large, epitomized by our supersized embassy in Baghdad. Congress, too, got into the act, putting speed and cost ahead of our support for the kinds of iconic embassies we built during the Cold War. This contributed to a system where embassy projects are evaluated first and foremost for cost efficiency, with design and location relegated to the status of afterthought. Such designs and locations are sometimes necessary, but our Foreign Service officers will be the first to tell you that they make it much more difficult to reach deep into societies to conduct real diplomacy.”
This bill passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously and currently has the support of three cosponsors, including one Republican and two Democrats.
Of Note: A senior-level State Department review board recently concluded its investigation of the “sonic attacks” in November 2017 which left a number of U.S. diplomats suffering from a range of symptoms, including severe headaches, nausea, and hearing loss. On August 30, 2018, the board released a summary of their inquiry and recommendations after a four-month review of the circumstances leading up to the incidents at the U.S. Embassy in China. After interviewing over 100 embassy officials and staff members, the review board members found that “security systems and procedures were overall adequate and properly implemented.”
Attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets are a constant threat. From 2001-2009, 20 separate deadly attacks were carried out against U.S. embassies, consulates, and traveling U.S. personnel. A State Department report covering significant attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel from 2007-2016 is 55 pages long despite being not comprehensive — giving a sense of the extent to which U.S. diplomatic missions and their personnel are under threat at any given time.
In 2011, the Department of State’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) established an Excellence approach in response to concerns regarding the aesthetics, quality, location, and functionality of embassies built using its Standard Embassy Design (SED). Under the Excellence approach, OBO now directly contracts with design firms to develop customized embassy designs before contracting for construction. This approach gives OBO greater design control, which the office believes will improve embassies’ appearance in representing the United States, functionality, quality, and operating costs. However, in 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that after moving to the Excellence approach, OBO had yet to implement a process for evaluating the success and cost-effectiveness of the new design paradigm.
Since the OBO’s move to the Excellence approach, Congress has found the approach to have:
Increased the cost of building new embassies and consulates,
Delayed the move of thousands of staff from facilities that do not meet current security standards to new, secure facilities,
Exacerbated pre-existing deficiencies in the OBO’s program management,
Played a role in reducing competition for capital construction projects, and
Complicated the pursuit of the State Department’s security requirements for its embassies
In 2014, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) charged that the State Department’s move to Excellence design had produced prettier, but less secure, embassies that “look better and cost more… they may be visually attractive but the new design process does not prioritize security. It prioritizes appearance."
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStock.com / YinYang)