AMERICA'S OTHER ARMY: Inside the Foreign Service
Embassy bombings spur security boost
By Nicholas Kralev
It was lunchtime on April 18, 1983, and the cafeteria of the American Embassy in Beirut was buzzing with customers.
At about 1 p.m., a powerful blast tore apart the front of the seven-story building. The bomb, hidden in a van reportedly stolen from the embassy 10 months earlier, killed 63 employees, including 17 Americans.
It was the first time that a U.S. embassy had become a terrorist target, and it forever changed the way the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the State Department's law-enforcement division, operates around the world.
"The bombings of the embassy in West Beirut in 1983 and of the embassy annex in East Beirut in 1984 were a major catalyst for creating the Bureau of Diplomatic Security," which oversees the DSS, said John C. Murphy, special agent in charge of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's protective detail and a DSS agent for 29 years.
The annex was a former apartment building rented by the embassy after the first bombing.
Also in 1983, terrorists attacked the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and the embassy in Kuwait.
"The number of our agents has more than tripled since then to 1,500, and we've adopted more stringent standards for our overseas buildings," Mr. Murphy said during an interview on Mr. Powell's plane last week as the secretary returned from a visit to Europe.
The increased attention to security still was not enough: On Aug. 7, 1998, terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network blew up the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Almost 300 people, including 12 Americans, were killed in the first attack and 10 in the second. More than 5,000 were wounded.
A State Department report later found that the U.S. government was not prepared for those assaults despite the history of the past 15 years, but DSS officials say they had done all they could.
"It wasn't that we didn't see it coming; our directions were to prevent bombings. That was an absolute priority, but with well over 200 facilities around the world, we could only do so much with the budget and time constraints we had," a senior security official said.
He said new embassies were being built to higher security standards even before 1998, "but you can't change every building overnight. It's a massive and very expensive undertaking."
It used to take eight to nine years to build an embassy from the ground up, he said, but that period has been shortened.
The embassy in Tanzania had been upgraded before it was bombed, the official added, accounting, in part, for the lower number of casualties there than in Kenya.
More than any previous attack, the African embassy bombings had a traumatic effect on thousands of American diplomats around the globe. Those incidents - and the additional uncertainties of the post-September 11 world - have taught them that they are potential targets not only at work, but also in residential compounds, schools and at social gatherings.
"The day they brought the bodies home in 1998, I was leaving for Israel," said Deborah R. Schwartz, a Foreign Service officer since 1975 and economic counselor at the embassy in Mexico City. "I was standing in the lobby of my mother's building waiting for a taxi to go to the airport, and my mother was crying. I had to promise her that I wouldn't come back in a body bag."
Since September 11, 2001, the State Department has been struggling to prevent the heightened security at its overseas missions from hurting its ever more important public-diplomacy efforts.
But a visit to a U.S. embassy or consulate anywhere in the world today reveals what both Americans and foreigners describe as a fortress - a far cry from the welcoming buildings of the past, where millions had their first contact with the United States.
The U.S. Foreign Service has accepted that the days when anyone could walk up the stairs of an embassy unescorted are long gone. But in interviews at about 30 posts in the past six months, some officers said certain screening procedures seem excessive and unnecessary.
"I've seen walls go up literally and figuratively," an officer in Europe said. "Our security is ever stricter [with] all those restrictions on what we can do and who we can bring in and what they have to go through.
"I'm not convinced that it makes us more secure. If anything, it probably just moves the terrorists to another target that's softer and even scarier."
Several officers said the new practice of building missions on the outskirts of cities rather than in their centers not only makes them less accessible to local populations, but also keeps the Americans away from local officials and other foreign diplomats.
They said the hassle of traveling for as long as an hour to attend a meeting forces them to spend most of their time in the office, losing touch with their "constituents."
"We get into a bunker mentality," the officer in Europe said. "Trying to make ourselves better understood requires understanding of how other people look at us."
Francis X. Taylor, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, said there is always "tension between security and public access."
"Balance is a challenge every day in this business. We want to be able to operate in an environment where our people can be safe and safely reach out to the constituency they have to work with in order to promote American foreign policy," Mr. Taylor said.
"Our embassies are not impenetrable. There are procedures that allow private citizens to get in. They just can't do what they did 30 years ago, when they walked up to the front door unescorted, because of the nature of the threats we are facing," he said.
'Paid to be paranoid'
The large majority of the more than 260 Foreign Service officers interviewed for this series said they recognize the need for heavy security and, for the most part, are happy to comply with various procedures.
Security officers at posts abroad said they generally receive good cooperation from embassy staff, although some voiced frustration that they still spend too much time explaining why certain measures are necessary.
"In the day-to-day operating environment, you always have 10 percent who don't get it, and you spend 80 percent of your time on them," said a senior State Department official in Washington.
Even with the new measures implemented after September 11, details of which DSS officials discussed but asked not to be published, most security officers at posts said their buildings were not completely safe.
"Our embassies have a lot of built-in security features, but as soon as the 1998 bombings occurred," everything had to be reassessed, said Aurelia Fedenisn, security officer at the embassy in Singapore.
Mr. Taylor said he and his colleagues "worry about it every day" because they are "paid to be paranoid."
"The reality is we can't fix every security problem that exists," he said. "We have to prioritize, and we take what we believe are prudent measures to mitigate the risks to a facility until time and resources are available to fix it."
Ray Bassi, deputy security officer at the embassy in New Delhi, said help from host governments is essential for securing embassy buildings because "you need concrete barriers and security cordons," and even some street closings.
"How do you do that in the middle of a city like Vienna?" he asked.
John Limbert, president of the American Foreign Service Association, praised the State Department for its efforts on diplomatic security, but urged it to pay more attention to so-called soft targets, such as schools and residential areas.
"We see this as an issue involving our members and their families," he said. "No one will ever be perfectly safe. You can't eliminate every risk, but still you have to look at it."
Jean Vahey, superintendent of the American International School in Caracas, Venezuela, said the higher threat level around the world also has changed the way educational institutions operate.
"When we gather for conferences, the main topic is security," she said. "Ten years ago, it was education."
Protecting U.S. property and officials overseas hardly exhausts the job of the DSS, a $1 billion-a-year operation with more than 32,000 employees in about 265 locations, domestic as well as international, Mr. Taylor said.
Dozens of agents also are responsible for the safety of foreign officials in the United States and sometimes even in their own countries, as is the case with Boniface Alexandre, the interim president of Haiti, who took office after Jean-Bertrand Aristide left the country five weeks ago.
A significant part of the service's efforts is dedicated to investigating passport and visa fraud by both Americans and foreigners, as well as probes into abuses of power by U.S. diplomats.
The most common crime committed by Foreign Service officers is what amounts to selling U.S. entry visas to foreign nationals. Security officials who investigate such cases said the price of a visa can exceed $10,000.
Two former employees of the embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka - Acey R. Johnson and Long N. Lee - are in custody on charges of aiding the illegal immigration to the United States of foreigners, primarily from Vietnam and India, from 2000 to 2003.
In June, Alexander J. Meerovich, formerly of the embassy in Prague, was sentenced to 24 months in prison and fined $5,000 for issuing at least 85 visas illegally from 1999 to 2002.
"Protecting the integrity of the U.S. visa is a top priority," the State Department said in a statement. "We will continue to investigate all allegations of visa fraud vigorously and seek to prosecute and punish those people involved to the fullest extent of the law."
Last year, the DSS helped to track down more than 70 U.S. fugitives overseas and return them to the United States. Most recently, a convicted child molester from Virginia Beach, Richard V. Lando, was found in Cambodia and sent back home on March 25. The next day, a child abductor from Texas, David Clenney, was returned from Belize.
DSS agents say that all the different aspects of their work make it even more challenging than that of similar organizations, such as the Secret Service.
"I don't think there is any other law-enforcement agency in the U.S. government that has the varied experiences and responsibilities we have," Mr. Murphy said.
As the State Department prepares to open its new embassy in Iraq when the United States transfers sovereignty to a new government in less than three months, Mr. Taylor and his colleagues are busy staffing the security office in what is expected to be the largest U.S. mission in the world.
Baghdad today is certainly a much tougher assignment than was Beirut in the early 1980s.
Back then, Mr. Powell, who was a senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, had more than a few arguments with the State Department.
He opposed sending Marines to Lebanon "to remain between two powder kegs, the Lebanese army and Syrian-backed Shi'ite units fighting it out in the Shouf Mountains," as he wrote in his 1995 book, "My American Journey."
President Reagan's national security adviser, Bud McFarlane, and Secretary of State George P. Shultz won the debate in the White House.
"I was developing a strong distaste for the antiseptic phrases coined by State Department officials for foreign interventions, which usually had bloody consequences for the military - words like 'presence,' 'symbol,' 'signal,' 'option on the table,' 'establishment of credibility.'
"Their use was fine if beneath them lay a solid mission. But too often these words were used to give the appearance of clarity to mud," Mr. Powell wrote.