Congress resists `gold plated' embassy-security proposals. Shultz stresses danger to US diplomats abroad
Washington — When it comes to cutting the budget, even the fight against terrorism may have to take a back seat. This week Secretary of State George P. Shultz is lobbying hard to get Congress to restore cuts in a five-year, $4.4 billion Reagan administration plan designed to make United States embassies around the world safer from terrorist attack.
Without the full backing of Congress, Mr. Shultz warns, security-related renovations of US embassies could be postponed. Administration officials say this would leave American diplomats vulnerable to a recurrence of incidents like the two bombings of the US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and '84 that left a total of 19 Americans and more than 50 other people dead.
But faced with relentless budget-cutting pressures, Congress is reluctant to go along. In addition, many in Congress have chafed at hints of dereliction of duty dropped by Shultz in a widely reported press conference last weekend.
``Congress is just as interested in this issue as [Shultz] is,'' insists Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) of Arkansas. ``But to suggest that if you don`t give [the administration] every dime they're asking for there'll be blood on our hands is just irresponsible.''
The Reagan plan calls for relocating 79 embassies and retrofitting most of the remaining 184 diplomatic facilities maintained by the US to reduce their vulnerability to terrorism and mob violence.
The plan would also create a new Bureau of Diplomatic Security within the State Department, authorize the hiring of larger host-country police forces for security outside embassy buildings, and fund new security training programs for embassy employees.
State Department officials are concerned that without improved security the threat to 17,000 American diplomats serving abroad could grow.
Many US diplomatic facilities, originally built to be open and accessible to the public, have now become easy targets for terrorists. Department officials warn that if budget cuts are not restored, the results could be disastrous.
``One of these days, there'll be another tragedy at some embassy,'' Shultz said last weekend in response to congressional budget-cutting moves. That would be the fault of Congress, Shultz says, for failing ``to provide for the security of people who are living constantly under threat.''
In general, Congress has been supportive of the plan to make life safer for Americans serving their country overseas. Congress has also been eager to demonstrate US resolve in dealing with terrorism.
But congressional sources say that unless the Reagan administration comes up with the money to pay the bill for enhanced embassy security, it will have to settle for half a loaf.
The budget resolution passed by the Senate last week included only $591 million for embassy construction and renovation, less than half of the $1.4 billion requested by the administration for fiscal 1987. The Senate has not yet taken up a request for $702 million in supplemental embassy-construction appropriations for 1986.
A House committee, meanwhile, trimmed the Reagan administration's 1987 request to $1.1 billion.
There has been considerable congressional skepticism over some of the embassy rebuilding projects recommended in the original State Department request. Critics point to what one congressional source describes as ``horror stories,'' such as the department's proposal to spend more than $250,000 per acre for a new embassy site in Kampala, Uganda.
``Some of the things we found in staff inquiries indicate a lot more invested in gold plating than armor plating,'' says Mark Helmke, a spokesman for Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Richard G. Lugar (R) of Indiana.
There's also concern that ``hardening'' US diplomatic facilities will only prompt terrorists to target ``soft'' targets like the residences of US diplomats and businessmen living overseas.
State Department officials concede the point but say that's not an argument for ignoring the safety of the embassies.
``You can't lose sight of the fact that even if [terrorists] move to softer targets, in a way we're denying the terrorists political gains by protecting our embassies,'' says Assistant Secretary of State Robert E. Lamb. ``Very few targets out there have the same political symbolic value that an embassy does.''
In addition to cutting the State Department's budget request, the House Foreign Affairs Committee has acted to safeguard against program cost overruns.
Under the authorizing legislation, the State Department would be required to take money from its other programs to compensate for overruns on embassy construction.