GOP Lawmakers Say State Department Should Trim Fancy Embassies

Investigative report was prepared for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Investigative report was prepared for Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. Molly Riley/AP

After two years’ research, Republicans on the main House oversight panel on Tuesday released a report blasting the State Department for building embassies overseas that “prioritize… architectural significance over security and cost efficiency.”

Department officials and Democrats on the committee disagreed.

The staff report from the Oversight and Government Reform Committee prepared for Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said State’s approach to designing and fortifying its 285 facilities abroad emphasizes aesthetics over security, “costs too much and takes too long.”

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The results keep “American diplomats in less secure facilities longer than necessary,” the report said, adding that the report “illustrates what can go wrong when new design concepts are introduced under a compressed construction schedule and how costs skyrocket when aesthetics drive decision-making.”

Committee staff reviewed 355,000 documents, interviewed 14 State employees and visited 10 sites, the report said. The department’s shift away from the Standard Embassy Design to Design Excellence brought about longer planning and construction schedules, which were accompanied by millions of dollars in increased costs for facilities,” the congressional staff stated. 

The staff examined in detail U.S. facilities in London, Jakarta, Kabul, Mexico City and Beirut.

The report recommended that Congress should require State’s builders to return to a Standard Embassy Design-type template as the default for all new embassy and consulate facilities, consider a budget cap on overseas facility design and require State’s Overseas Buildings Operations to produce an annual long-range building plan.

Asked about the report at a Tuesday press conference, State spokesman Mark Toner said department officials had not read the final version, having been permitted to view only an “in camera” draft. But “safety and security of U.S. personnel serving overseas is obviously at the forefront," Toner said. "It’s our top priority and the cornerstone of all the work that the bureaus of Diplomatic Security and Overseas Building Operations do.” He expressed concern that the report might disclose sensitive information without first undergoing an interagency review. 

"We work really hard in this building to ensure that our embassies, our consulates, our buildings overseas are protected,” Toner added. “Obviously, that’s not easy in today’s world. It requires constant updating, innovation. We do so mindful always of the price of that.”

The report’s methodology and its authors’ motivations came under fire from the oversight panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who called it “flawed and partisan.”

He said the report, requested in 2014 by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., was never submitted to Democrats for review or a vote and “contains basic factual errors, omits key facts that contradict preconceived partisan narratives, and makes reckless allegations with no credible evidence to support them.”

The report’s top finding, that a shift to a Design Excellence construction approach caused delays and drove up costs, contradicts the testimony of 14 State Department witnesses, who basically praised the approach for “improved features in security, functionality, and reduced long-term costs,” Cummings said.

Cummings also rapped the report for omitting a review of the overbudget U.S. embassy built in Baghdad during the Iraq war, and he faulted Chaffetz and staff for spending on their own trips overseas and for flying in witnesses from abroad rather than using videoconferencing.

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