US Embassy Vatican Relocation Drives “Everyone” Mad Except The Pope and The Holy See

– Domani Spero

On November 20, 2013, the National Catholic Reporter had an article about the plan to  move the U.S. embassy to the Vatican onto the grounds of the larger American embassy to Italy.  The US Vatican embassy will reportedly move into a separate building and with a distinct entrance but made news because it drew “fire from five former American envoys despite the tacit consent of the Vatican itself.”

At the time of the report, the NCR notes that the move has not yet been publicly announced, a contract for renovations to the new facility has been awarded, and it’s tentatively scheduled to open in January 2015.  One former ambassador, James Nicholson told NCR, “It’s turning this embassy into a stepchild of the embassy to Italy.

The ambassadors named in the report includes three political ambassadors appointed by George W, Bush, one political ambassador by George H.W. Bush, and one political appointee by William J. Clinton.  No career diplomat to-date has ever been appointed chief of mission to the Holy See.

What follows the last several days is mind boggling though not entirely unpredictable.  The planned relocation of the embassy has been reported as a “closure”, a “slap”, a “snub”, or as a “downgrade” in diplomatic relations. It has also been linked to Obamacare and the Iran nuke deal.

Below is a photo of Embassy Vatican from 2008.

U.S. Embassy to the Vatican Photo via State/OIG

U.S. Embassy to the Vatican
Photo via State/OIG

At the time the embassy was inspected by State/OIG in 2008, during the tenure of Secretary Condoleezza Rice, it had seven American direct-hire employees, two American local hire and 10 local employees. Embassy Vatican represents the United States to the Holy See, a sovereign entity headed by the Pope and populated by approximately 800 people.  Post total funding in FY2007 was $2,888,882.  Way back in 2008, this is what the OIG report says:

The embassy is housed in a leased building fronting on a busy street and in need of relatively costly upgrades. Its budget is tight, and it seems clear that relocation would provide significant cost savings.

Embassy Vatican’s chancery consists of a long-term leased building that is somewhat awkwardly configured for office space. The main meeting room is open to the lobby, the only staircase is spiral and narrow, and the office space for most of the American officers is small and affords no privacy. The terms of the lease, signed in 1994, include a 15-year base with two five-year options, and the current annual cost of the lease is $530,000. The building does not meet setback requirements, and local guard services currently cost $335,000 per year.

The U.S. government could realize significant savings if Embassy Vatican relocated to the compound on which Embassy Rome now stands and where the U.S. Mission to the UN Agencies in Rome soon will move. In addition to cost savings, security would be improved. The possibility of relocating Embassy Vatican was raised in 2005 after the addition of the spacious Sembler Building to the Embassy Rome compound. The Embassy Vatican ambassador at the time opposed the move citing “policy grounds” that included anticipated strong objection by the host government and Congressional support for physically separate missions to Italy and the Holy See. In June 2006, the Department authorized Embassy Vatican to remain at its current location based on these considerations. [REDACTION] addition, significant cost savings and improved functionality would be achieved by a move to the Embassy Rome compound into a building that would preserve Embassy Vatican’s identity.

The State/OIG inspectors recommended that “Embassy Vatican, in coordination with Embassy Rome and the Bureaus of Overseas Buildings Operations and Diplomatic Security, should develop and implement a plan to relocate to the Embassy Rome compound, as soon as possible, with an eye towards cost savings, improved security, and maintaining as much as possible its separate identity to include a separate street address. (Action: Embassy Vatican, in coordination with Embassy Rome, OBO, and DS).”

One of the proposed work arounds in 2008 involved replacing the existing steel casement windows and sliding doors on Embassy Vatican chancery since the existing windows were rusted and beyond repair.

Further, the inspectors note the operating reality in the last several years:

The Embassy Vatican operating environment has changed drastically since OIG’s last inspection in 2001. Regionalization, rightsizing, collaborative management initiatives, standardization, and post-to-post cooperation are now the imperatives. Diminishing budgets, exchange rate losses, and stagnant LE staff wages are now the resource realities. Notwithstanding the considerable support it already receives from the Embassy Rome tri-mission management platform, Embassy Vatican could move more aggressively to implement management initiatives that could ameliorate the effects of increasingly constrained resources. Post then could redirect any savings to efforts that relate more directly to program goals or otherwise reprogram them.

The ambassador in 2005 who opposed the move could either be James Nicholson  (2001-205)or Francis Rooney (2005-2008).  The 15-year base lease was up in 2009. So when the ambassador opposed the move in 2005, there was still time on the base lease.  It appears like the USG exercised one of its two five year options, which would bring the lease up to 2014 and makes this move timely and sensible. The alternative is to kick it down to one more five-year option lease which would see the embassy continue in the same location until 2019. In which case, the USG (and taxpayers) would most certainly be saddled with costly expenses for band-aid solutions security upgrades.

Ambassador Ken Hackett, the current U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, and his immediate predecessor Ambassador Miguel Diaz, both Obama appointees, support the embassy move according to media reports.

CNN also  reports that  Rev. Thomas Rosica of the Vatican’s press office, said the Vatican requires foreign embassies to the Holy See be separate from the country’s mission to Italy, have a separate address and have a separate entrance. A spokesman for the Vatican said that Embassy Vatican move was well within the Holy See’s requirements for embassies and that “relations with the United States are far from strained.”

And yet  … here we are, now on a third week on this subject.

The good news is — no one has yet charged that the “closure” is due to President Obama being a secret Muslim.

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