WASHINGTON — Before they go overseas, American foreign-service personnel attend a two-day course that includes something other than the usual diplomatic niceties.
They drive around northern Virginia learning how to detect if they're being tailed. They handle mock letter bombs. They study how to tell if someone has attached an explosive to their car.
It's all part of helping diplomats prepare for the possible threats they will face abroad. Besides terrorism, they may confront irate visa applicants, fire-trap buildings, street criminals, secret-police harassment, drug traffickers, or mob violence.
"The image of US diplomats as people in striped pants at cocktail parties is not true. Our work is much more dangerous than that," says Riley Sever, a vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. "If you look where most of our embassies are, they are in very challenging places."
Strengthening protection of United States diplomatic posts and the people who work in them is a difficult task.
As the investigation of the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania continues, the government is taking a thorough look at how to beef up embassy security. But officials warn doing so will take time and require Congress's cooperation.
President Clinton has ordered a report on which embassies are at greatest risk and what can be done to better protect the buildings, along with the Americans and local nationals who work there.
Beefing up security
"This is going to require relocating some embassies right away and putting the rest in appropriate locations," says Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering, the department's No. 3 official.
"AFSA feels that recent events in Africa clearly indicate that embassy security is not adequate," says Mr. Sever, the US Information Agency vice president for AFSA. AFSA represents foreign-service employees of the State Department, USIA, and the Agency of International Development. "Higher priority must be put on providing higher security measures for all of our embassies." He notes that Congress has not fully funded the foreign-affairs budget for several years. "This does have an effect on what we can do security-wise overseas."
Underscoring the potential perils of the job, a tearful US president yesterday addressed a memorial service at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington for the 12 Americans who died in the Nairobi blast.
In Kenya, local and US investigators said they are questioning five people in connection with the attack.
Security at US embassies and consulates is a difficult balancing act. The buildings must protect people, files, and cryptographic communications equipment. At the same time they must be open to foreigners seeking US visas, American citizens requiring passports or emergency help, business representatives consulting about how to connect with American companies, and citizens visiting USIA libraries and exhibits.
While new buildings incorporate the latest lessons from past terrorist acts, many posts were built or leased long before terrorism was the threat it has become in the past 20 years. They may be on crowded downtown streets vulnerable to car bombers, as in Nairobi. Or they may connected to other buildings to which the US cannot control access.
When jogging is out of the question
Often embassy offices are scattered in different locations. Diplomats' children may attend school far from the watchful eye of Marine guards. Government-furnished residences for ambassadors and other employees are often distant from each other and the embassy.
An embassy employee in a high-threat post can find that security concerns rule his or her life. Work schedules and travel routes change frequently. Jogging or even taking a short walk around the neighborhood can be out of the question. A sightseeing trip or a dinner in a restaurant can be a security nightmare. In hostile countries, an embassy driver or a maid might be a secret-police officer in disguise.
The State Department says it keeps security under constant review and develops a ranking of posts where the threat is greatest.
"Basically ... when you're deploying resources around the world, you want to make sure that you put the most resources against the greatest level of threat, " says Patrick Kennedy, assistant secretary of state for administration. "We look at security personnel staffing, physical barriers, technical measures, surveillance cameras, et cetera. It's a large range of activities."
Embassies in the Middle East have long been under threat from Islamist terrorists. Posts in cities like Bogot, Colombia, or Lima, Peru, face threats from drug cartels and antigovernment guerrillas.
But predicting where a terrorist might strike is a risky business. Both Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam were considered low-threat posts. "We just can't ever afford to let our guard down," AFSA's Sever says. "You can't anticipate that terrorism will occur in one place and not another. Clearly terrorists are looking for places where we don't expect a problem."
Indeed, reports yesterday said that Ambassador Prudence Bushnell told Washington eight months ago she believed the Nairobi embassy was not safe. State Department officials say they agreed, but didn't have the money to act. Even if they had, they said, they could not have finished the job in time to prevent last week's attack.
"This is something that can't be solved overnight," says Andy Laine, spokesman for the Diplomatic Security Bureau. "It's going to take a lot of hard work. We are going to have to work very closely with Congress."