The security of United States embassies and personnel serving abroad has become the focus of an intense policy debate in Washington. Press accounts in recent months have highlighted attempts by the Soviet KGB and other espionage services to steal America's most sensitive secrets by means of sophisticated eavesdropping devices and the compromising of US personnel overseas. But this is just one of the security risks directed against Americans abroad.
Congressional staff aides and other US experts emphasize that the physical risks to American installations and officials abroad are as great an area of concern as are the dangers of espionage. Although there has been at least a temporary lull in violence by terrorists against US representatives overseas, experts observe that such violence could break out again at any time.
Congress expressed its concern over the terrorism against US facilities abroad in the late '70s and early '80s by flooding the State Department with money. It provided money for the construction of new, safe embassies, for the beefing-up of old ones, for fortress-like residential compounds, and for security training programs. In fact, it gave the State Department more money than even many senior department officials had ever managed.
But this, according to congressional aides like John Ziolkowski, was how a lot of trouble started. Mr. Ziolkowski, a former Foreign Service officer, was, as an aide to Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, one of those responsible for looking into State Department security expenditures.
``For years the State Department got by with building one or two embassies a year, and remodeling a few,'' he says. ``Now they have hundreds of millions of dollars for security and new embassy construction. From 1980 to 1985 State was given $965.9 million for new building and security. In 1986 alone, they got $702 million, and in fiscal year 1987, $340 million. That's over $2 billion, and that's a lot of money.
``The State Department is simply not geared up to handle this kind of money,'' he adds. ``It has never been a particularly well-managed organization in terms of administration, and now it has simply been overwhelmed.''
Even before the much publicized security and construction problems at the Moscow Embassy, Senate aides from the Foreign Relations and Budget Committees had been unearthing alarming reports of State Department mismanagement. Many of these reports, according to Ziolkowski and other staff assistants, have originated with concerned Foreign Service officers.
In Somalia, Ziolkowski says, the State Department proposed to spend $35 million on the construction of a new embassy there, including, $2.7 million for the construction of an ambassador's residence and $6.7 million for the construction of 10 residences for senior officers. The ambassador sent back a cable detailing how the whole project could easily be done for $26 million. He stated, among other things, that he would be embarrassed to have so lavish a residence in so poor a country.
According to Ziolkowski, the State Department sent back a cable demanding that the ambassador stick to the original high budget.
In Uganda the department, according to Ziolkowski, budgeted $10 million to buy land for the new embassy there. The ambassador wired back that for $10 million he could buy most of northern Uganda.
In Djibouti, according to other congressional sources, nothing has been done on an embassy that was to be built in 1984. The staff has been in temporary quarters for almost a year.
According to some congressional staff members, there is so much congressional irritation with the alleged mismanagement that the entire State Department budget stands at risk of being sharply reduced.
Ziolkowski and others see several underlying reasons behind the department's problems.
First, they believe that very few Foreign Service officers, who are trained to be generalists, are capable of managing a multimillion-dollar building program. With people constantly shifted from one function to another, it is almost impossible for the officers at the department's Foreign Building Office to acquire the necessary experience.
Second, they bemoan the lack of accountability in the department. No one person is responsible for anything, they say, so it is impossible to put the blame on anyone. Congressional staff aides point to the fact that key people involved in the Moscow embassy construction and an almost equally disastrous project in Cairo have been promoted.
Third, the critics see a lack of coordination between the various branches of the State Department which should be in constant touch. For example, FBO does not coordinate with the office in charge of security.
Under this barrage of criticism, State Department officials admit that there have been difficulties, but they stress another side to the story. ``Not enough care was given to scrubbing the construction figures down,'' concedes one ranking department official, ``but this was largely for political reasons.
``For many years we were not able to get adequate funding for general construction or security,'' the official continues. ``Some people in the department felt that, with all the congressional attention on terrorist attacks on embassies, we had to put together a dramatic and large program quickly.''
The official stresses that, for the first time, the State Department was naming an inspector-general who came from outside the department, and would not be caught up in the ``old boy'' network.
Many congressional critics, however, remain unappeased. They stress that after all the bad publicity over Moscow, and the congressional criticism, there is not enough significant improvement. The department still tries to construct buildings at the same time that it is constantly changing security and other requirements.