Security of American embassies

By , Arthur J. Goldberg, former US Supreme Court associate justice, ambassador to the UN, was chairman of the American delegation to the Helsinki Review Conference at Belgrade, 1977-78.

The House Armed Services Investigations Subcommittee issued an extraordinary report Dec. 19 sharply criticizing the military chain of command for lax security in the Oct. 23 truck-bombing that killed 241 United States Marines in Beirut.

The report comments about the prior bombing of our embassy in Beirut that resulted in more than 60 deaths.

In this unruly world, where terrorism is all too prevalent, the security of our embassy personnel throughout the world warrants more attention than it has received.

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A number of our embassies, including most recently those in Lebanon, Kuwait, and Tehran, have been the subject of terrorist bombings or takeovers.

Perhaps the most politically notorious of these attacks was the storming of our embassy in Tehran and the capture and confinement of more than 50 embassy personnel by Iranian so-called revolutionary guards.

In my own diplomatic experience, both at the United Nations and as ambassador-at-large in Belgrade, I found that security measures for our embassies and residencies of our ambassadors are woefully inadequate.

Because of my concern, shared by many Foreign Service officers, that our foreign personnel abroad are not being adequately protected, on May 5, 1982, I addressed a communication to General Haig, then secretary of state, relating to this subject.

In my letter I pointed out that, according to reliable press accounts, our embassy in Tehran was most inadequately secured. The press reports stated that our embassy had a complement of 18 marines. Further, the arms and antiriot equipment available to the marines were apparently kept under lock at the time the embassy was seized. It also appeared that the marines were under orders, from our ambassador or his deputy, to wear civilian clothes and be ''unobtrusive.'' Most of them were on temporary leave and not at the embassy when it was invaded. The marine detachment was not at fault. It was following orders of the Office of Security of the State Department to the ambassador or, in his absence, to the deputy chief of mission.

As an officer in the American Army in World War II, with some experience in this area, I feel that, were the 18 marines in Tehran armed with antiriot and other armaments and manning the gates, they could have prevented the Iranian mob , then largely unarmed, from entering our compound and seizing our people as hostages. Our country would have been spared a terrible trauma.

In answer to my letter, General Haig responded on June 1, 1982. His response was obviously prepared by State Department officials in charge of security. In essence, General Haig stated that, under the Vienna Convention on the Conduct of Diplomatic Relations, the host government is charged with the responsibility for the protection of accredited diplomats and diplomatic property. How this convention would protect our embassies and our Foreign Service officers in revolutionary situations, such as in Iran or, in chaotic ones as in Lebanon, against terrorist attacks, is not addressed.

General Haig added that, notwithstanding the convention and its requirement that host countries must secure foreign embassies, chiefs of mission now have authority to utilize marines as a small deterrent force to repel any assault upon embassy property and personnel.

These security provisions are grossly inadequate. A small force is simply not enough when matters threaten to get out of hand and host-country protection is often unreliable. Ambassadors, either acting on their own or under instructions, seem reluctant to exercise this authority, presumably because they are given to understand that additional security measures are costly.

Whatever security is provided is for the embassy proper, not for the ambassador's residence. The French are more realistic. When a mob of Syrian-inspired Lebanese recently attempted to storm the French Embassy in Beirut, they were repelled by armed French paratroopers who had been brought in specifically to ensure the security of the French Embassy and residence.

I found General Haig's response to my letter to be inadequate. But I fear that what he said is still our policy, except in extraordinary situations, such as Beirut. Upon inquiry, I have learned that embassy security has been improved in Beirut. The situation elsewhere remains unsatisfactory. Our foreign personnel , under the given circumstances, are very much at risk.

In light of the chaotic situation in various parts of the world and the prevalence of terrorism, it is foolhardy, as experience demonstrates, except in Western democracies and some Eastern countries to rely upon the host country to protect embassies and personnel. There is nothing in the Vienna Convention which precludes self-defense of our diplomatic properties and officers where the host country is unable or unwilling to provide adequate security. Just as our marines apparently were not adequately secured in Beirut, with the consequent terrible loss of lives, so, in my opinion, are our embassies and residences in many parts of the world. And the financial cost of adequate security is infinitesimal.

The time is overdue for a complete and impartial investigation of the security of our diplomatic personnel.

I cannot prejudge the results of the investigation, which I recommend. It should, however, not be in-house but conducted by distinguished Americans. An investigation of this character is imperative and long overdue.

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