On the same day that rioters broke into the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, a report was released warning that several U.S. embassies remain susceptible to attack and have failed to meet key security standards.
The report was released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which examined security at 11 U.S. embassies in Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. The GAO would not comment if the embassy in Belgrade was one of the ones they visited.
"If you look at what happened at the Belgrade embassy, you can clearly see the challenge the U.S. faces in trying to upgrade certain facilities if they're not able to meet certain requirements," said Charles Johnson, director of international counterterrorism issues at the GAO. "We've looked at embassies in the Middle East, but we cannot publicly release that information because of the sensitive nature," said Johnson. "We don't want to provide a roadmap to those looking for vulnerabilities."
The State Department refused to comment in detail on the results of the report saying that "for security reasons, we do not discuss specific measures used to protect U.S. embassies."
In regards to the embassy in Belgrade, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security said, "Everything is secure at the embassy, and we are satisfied with the level of support that the host government is providing." The spokesman pointed out that the embassy in Belgrade was not mentioned in the GAO report; however, the report didn't name any of the embassies visited by the GAO.
The State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, or the OBO, undertook a program to replace or upgrade embassy security in 1998 after hundreds were killed in simultaneous attacks at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Following those bombings, the State Department found that more than 85 percent of diplomatic facilities did not meet security standards and were vulnerable to attack. Almost 10 years later, the OBO expects that all major security projects won't be completed for another 10 years.
Key security measures such as high perimeter walls and fences that are difficult to climb, anti-ram barriers and blast-resistant construction, including reinforced concrete and windows, are now required, according to the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999. The GAO acknowledged, however, that some of the efforts to meet the requirements, such as locating embassies at least 100 feet from uncontrolled areas, are hampered because of host nation limitations.
"The local restrictions can be a matter of not meeting local housing and aesthetic codes and wanting to be cooperative with the local government," said Valerie Nowak, a GAO senior analyst. "We face a logistical challenge of finding properties that would accommodate our needs, or if we don't want to move, making the existing properties meet our needs."
The OBO prioritizes which embassies will receive upgrades based on assessments from the State Department on the threat levels and physical security conditions at each post. Each year, the State Department ranks all 262 embassies based on their vulnerabilities and threat levels. With input from the embassies' security officers and the intelligence community, the State Department then determines the threat level for terrorism and political violence.
The GAO report cites an acknowledgement by the State Department that other facilities may not be replaced due to cost and political concerns. As a result, many U.S. embassies may remain vulnerable to attack.