BOSTON — The bombing of two US embassies in Africa is raising pointed - and familiar - questions about security and what can be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.
The answers range from the practical to the monumentally expensive. Most experts agree on one point: America stands to receive more, not less, political violence, unless it takes drastic steps now to protect itself. The word from Washington has underscored the dilemma faced by the United States. As a global leader, America often takes part in military or political operations that draw the ire of a fanatical few. But Americans are unwilling to give up the convenience and freedom of an open society.
"It's unrealistic to believe that as the world's only remaining superpower, we are going to be able to protect every facility and every American individual abroad," says Buck Revell, a former senior counterterrorism official in the FBI and now a private security consultant in Dallas. "The most important thing to do now is look at the precautions that were taken, scrutinize what can be done to improve it, and make sure it can't happen again."
Not enough readiness
In this instance, White House officials admit, the US let down its guard. "It is clear that these two buildings did not meet our current standards," said the State Department's Thomas Pickering. The embassies were not on high alert, because there had been no warning of an attack. Of the 30,000 threats received by the State Department each year, few are directed at sites in Africa, and US relations in Kenya and Tanzania are especially cordial.
But even if warned, it is uncertain that they would have been able to prevent the powerful car bombs that left at least 200 dead and more than 4,800 injured. The facilities are located less than 100 feet from traffic, well within striking distance for a motivated, well-prepared individual or terrorist group.
"We are used to the ease in getting to our public officials and in getting through airports quickly," says Gene Gately, a former CIA official now at the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. But this convenience makes the US and its facilities, here and abroad, more vulnerable. Changing the public's attitudes may be difficult, he adds, but "if more-stringent rules are needed to guarantee safety, then this is the time to move."
Building safer embassies outside downtown areas will prove costly, he adds, and will certainly require greater political will. In 1986, Congress required all US embassies and facilities to meet security standards set after the string of bombings that killed 300 Americans in Beirut. But while Congress has spent $1 billion thus far on 20 facilities, most remain below standard.
Besides revamping embassies, US intelligence agencies can continue to monitor, infiltrate, and bring down groups that use violence to make their points. "When you are dealing with religious or political fanatics who are willing to give their lives to a cause, it's extremely difficult to get in, but it's not impossible," says Mr. Gately. Inevitably, every group has a "glitch." Some terrorist acts have been foiled by the judicious use of informants.
Once the culpable individual or group has been identified, the US has a number of political and financial tools at its disposal, including economic sanctions against nations with strong ties to terrorist organizations. More difficult are the sort of stiletto activities found in spy novels. "I know people may not believe this, but these agents have legal constraints," says Gately.