Security at U.S. Embassies: Diplomacy and Design

03/07/2008 |

The latest U.S. Government Accountability Office report on embassy security says that several U.S. embassies remain vulnerable to attack and fail to meet key security standards. Finding the balance between security and openness remains the ongoing challenge for embassy design, as for so many other civic buildings, public venues, and iconic structures around the world.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

On Feb. 21, 2008, masked attackers broke into the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, and set an office on fire during massive street protests that erupted after Kosovo declared independence. More than 150,000 Serbs participated in the rally. That day, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in Washington, D.C., issued a report stating that a number of U.S. embassies remain vulnerable to attack and fail to meet security standards.

GAO would not comment on whether the Belgrade facility was one of the embassies considered to be at risk; however, this incident illustrates the challenges facing public and private-sector building owners seeking to upgrade iconic buildings to meet government security requirements or best-practice security guidelines.

Such concerns are not limited to imposing walled compounds and large overseas buildings; even small, symbolic structures in the United States are also vulnerable to threats from planned explosions and attack, and not just from truck or vehicle bombs.

During the early morning hours of March 6, 2008, in New York City, an improvised explosive device (IED) damaged the front of a military recruiting station in the middle of Times Square. Situated on a traffic island in one of the busiest U.S. urban spaces, the 520-square-foot military recruiting station had reopened in 1999. It is the third such building on the site since 1946, and has been the site of antiwar protests.

According to police officials and video surveillance tapes, the suspect who planted the IED at the building is believed to be a man in a hooded sweatshirt leaving the scene on a bicycle. Preliminary reports indicate that authorities are investigating possible connections to previous blasts with similar characteristics in New York City. The October 2007 blast at the Mexican consulate and May 2005 blast at the British consulate both were crude bombs delivered with similar methods and timing, roughly between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., and resulted in shattered windows. The buildings were not occupied, and no casualties occurred; however, if these blasts had been timed just several hours later with more powerful explosives, the fatalities, building damage, and impact on traffic, underground subways, and regional and national economies could have been astronomical and devastating.

Overseas Buildings
Civic architecture, which includes embassies, reflects on the democratic ideals Americans value as a free society. In the post-9/11 world, especially while the United States is fighting an unpopular war in Iraq, finding the balance between security and openness remains the ongoing challenge for embassy design and for so many other civic buildings, public venues, and iconic structures around the world.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that, in many countries, U.S. embassies and military installations are subject to terrorist threats by those who seek to damage American interests and assets abroad, raising the diplomatic and design challenges to even higher levels.

U.S. embassies represent an American presence in foreign countries and remain a symbol of the American government and its people. They provide services to American expatriates, foster cultural exchange among nations, and assist citizens of host nations seeking visas and U.S. travel information. Embassies are also residences and workplaces for a highly dedicated diplomatic corps of Americans working abroad.

According to architectural historian and embassy expert Jane Loeffler, in "The Identity Crisis of the American Embassy," published in the June 2000 Foreign Service Journal: "Security is about more than building stronger or more formidable buildings – it is about providing decent workplaces and residences for diplomats as part of an overall commitment to America’s overseas presence." After the 1983 Marine Headquarters bombing in Beirut, which has never been forgotten by military personnel and those who survived this attack 25 years ago, the U.S. government adopted stringent new security rules for blast-resistant design. Known as the Inman standards, after Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, who wrote the 1985 report calling for changes in embassy design and siting, these standards mandated the following criteria:

  • 100–foot setback from the street or uncontrolled areas.
  • Sites of 15 acres or more.
  • Locations far from downtown (often required to find sites of 15 acres).
  • Reduced use of glass, defined as a maximum window-to-wall ratio of 15 percent.

At the time, Inman recommended replacing or renovating buildings at 126 posts within 7 years. After the simultaneous 1998 embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, the U.S. Department of State determined that more than 85 percent of diplomatic facilities did not meet security standards and were vulnerable to terrorist attack. Some were closed and the posts were relocated to other facilities.

According to the January 2008 GAO report (, the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has since replaced or upgraded security at many embassies, but for a variety of reasons, others will not be replaced in the near future.

In some instances, site conditions prevented embassies from compliance with recommended security standards. A number of posts are located in urban areas and are unable to achieve a 100–foot standoff, or setback distance, to mitigate the impact of vehicle bombs and IEDs. Other, older structures are unable to support forced entry/ballistic resistant windows. As a result, says the report, many buildings, and their occupants, the vast majority of whom are Americans, may remain vulnerable to attack.

Thus, OBO has undertaken a $140 million–per–year effort for its Compound Security Upgrade Program (CSUP). Using the Inman standards as a basis, the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act of 1999 requires five key security criteria, which address blast resistant design and construction:

  1. 100–foot setbacks from streets and uncontrolled areas to protect buildings from blasts.
  2. High–perimeter walls and fences that are difficult to climb, protecting the compound by deterring attackers on foot.
  3. Anti–ram barriers to prevent vehicles from breaching the facility perimeter, getting close to the building, and detonating a bomb.
  4. Blast–resistant construction techniques and materials, such as reinforced concrete and steel construction and blast-resistant windows.
  5. Controlled access of pedestrians and vehicles at the perimeter of a compound.

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