US Embassies Said
'Close To System Failure' 05/1/an4r.html
By Jonathan Wright
WASHINGTON - U.S. embassies abroad are "perilously close to the point of system failure" because of antiquated buildings and grossly inefficient computer networks, an independent commission said on Friday.
Few U.S. diplomats can send e-mail messages to each other, even within the same embassy, but continue to depend on the slow and hierarchical "cable culture" of traditional diplomacy, the Overseas Presence Advisory Panel said in a report.
In some embassies, such as those in Kiev, Ukraine, and Luanda, Angola, embassy staff operate out of trailers or freight containers because spending on buildings has not kept pace with changing demands and staffing levels, it said.
The solution is to spend at least $200 million on information technology, rethink the size and shape of embassies, perform some administrative functions regionally or in Washington and set up a new corporation to manage U.S. government property abroad, it added.
"The status quo is not acceptable," U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said of the report. "We need more resources to support our people, operations and programs. These are investments that will pay large dividends rapidly."
The commission also backed an earlier recommendation that the United States spend about $1.3 billion a year for the next 10 years to protect embassies from attack.
Albright set up the panel in April, partly in response to the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Its report offered some comfort to Albright in her battle against budget cuts proposed by a Republican-dominated Congress that she and President Bill Clinton call isolationist.
But it also said staff cuts could lead to significant savings, and Kaden told a news conference the panel thought there were too many people serving overseas.
"We should have a leaner, more agile, better functioning, better trained force representing the 30 agencies who do work overseas," he said.
State Department officials quickly disputed the existence of overstaffing overall, even if it exists in some posts.
"I believe it's true in some areas. I believe, however, that our resources in the department have been stretched enough for us to look at reallocating resources at the moment as an important priority and we need to get the mix and the balance right," said Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering.
The commission agreed with Albright that economic globalization and the spread of political pluralism make it more important for the United States to have representatives on the ground and that diplomats are a "first line of defense."
"High technology cannot replace face-to-face diplomacy... Closing U.S. embassies ... could have serious consequences for the effectiveness of our foreign policy and for the security and prosperity of the American people," it said.
But panel chairman Lewis Kaden, a New York corporate lawyer, said that the cost savings through "right-sizing" embassies could compensate for much of the extra spending on buildings and on a new communications system.
Because more than 10 U.S. government agencies have personnel stationed abroad, only the president can order a rational review of how big embassies should be, he added.
The United States has more than 14,000 U.S. citizens stationed overseas in 252 diplomatic posts in 160 countries. The State Department employs about 38 percent of them, followed by the Pentagon at 37 percent, and the Agency for International Development and the Justice Department at six percent each.
The panel, which included representatives of the private sector and nongovernmental organizations, visited 23 diplomatic posts on five continents.
"(They found that) the overseas facilities of the wealthiest nation in history are often overcrowded, deteriorating, even shabby," the report said.
The embassies have failed to adopt private-sector practices that increase productivity, and there is no mechanism for cooperation between all the agencies, it added.
"Many panel members were shocked by these incongruities; all find them unacceptable... The Panel fears that our overseas presence is perilously close to the point of system failure. It needs immediate reform," it added.
Kaden said he thought the Clinton administration could win congressional approval for the investments if it showed it was serious about reforms that could save money.
But Admiral William Crowe, the panel member who reviewed embassy security after the African bombings, said he was not optimistic about the prospects for adequate funding, either of embassy security or of diplomatic operations.