– Domani Spero
Last week, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on Examining New Embassy Construction: Are New Administration Policies Putting Americans Overseas in Danger? The congressional witnesses to the full committee hearing included Lydia Muniz, the Director, Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations at the State Department (prepared statement here pdf), Casey Jones, the Deputy Director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations (OBO) who oversees the Program Development, Coordination and Support and Construction, Facilities and Security Management Directorates. Previously, he was the Director of Excellence in Diplomatic Facilities, assisting the Department in launching its Excellence initiative (see prepared statement here pdf), and Grant S. Green, Jr., the State Department Under Secretary for Management from 2001 to 2005 and panel chairperson of the State Department Report on Diplomatic Security Organization and Management. The report which remains under SBU cloak was leaked to Al Jazeera in May 2014 but is available online here. Congress is apparently not happy that the report was not made available to them and that they had to print it out from the AJAM website.
The accompanying Al Jazeera report says:
A confidential government report obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit sharply criticizes the U.S. Department of State’s diplomatic security operations and raises serious concerns about an elaborate embassy construction program overseas.
The panel also delivered a stiff jab to another State Department entity, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which supervises the design and construction of U.S. facilities abroad. The bureau is pushing a new design and building program that, department officials said, enhances the appearance of overseas facilities but also provides essential security for the safety of U.S. personnel.
But here is the part of that AJAM report that should have perked many ears in Foggy Bottom:
William Miner, the former director of the OBO’s design and engineering office, said the department began using Standard Embassy Design a few years after the East African bombings at two U.S. embassies in 1998. The buildings were constructed quickly and were “very secure, very safe.” He explained, “You needed to get people under cover and use a standardized approach to do that. OBO actually designed and built over 100 embassies using that strategy.”
On the other hand, Miner said, “we went overboard from a safety and security standpoint.” Now, with the transition to Design Excellence, he said he worries that “the pendulum will swing in the other direction with the design issues.” The challenge, he said, is to find “the right balance.”
Miner said he retired from the State Department in January, as did others who worked for him. He said the changes in the design program and a desire to pursue other professional interests were factors in his decision to leave after 28 years.
Miner said he registered his concerns over the design approach with senior OBO officials. “I was not alone in shouting in the wind,” he said. “The office of diplomatic security shouted even more forcefully,” expressing the view that the Design Excellence program was “a bad way to go.”
Discussing the development of the new London embassy, now under construction, Miner said that the planned curtain wall façade is “fragile,” adding, “You don’t want to beg for problems but this façade could be asking for trouble.”
Last month, CBS News reported on the Design Excellence with specific focus on the New London Embassy’s (NLE) blast proof glass:
The State Department has made design a priority for U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. New buildings must be better looking and more energy efficient. But CBS News has learned this is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars — while potentially keeping American officials in harm’s way.
A striking glass structure, set to open in 2017, will be the new U.S. embassy in London. But six months into construction, CBS News has learned, the project is already at least $100 million over the initial cost estimate, partly due to manufacturing challenges with the design’s six-inch-thick blast-proof glass.
When HOGR had its hearing last week, the Committee did not invite Mr. Miner who left the State Department after 28 years of service. The Committee also did not invite anyone from Diplomatic Security. Instead the Committee invited Mr. Green who left the State Department in 2005, and Mr. Casey who was recruited by the State Department in 2012. Sometime after 2009, Ms. Muniz served as Principal Deputy Director at OBO prior to her appointment as OBO director in 2012. Of course, Congress wanted hear from these witnesses; Mr. Green chaired the panel that did the report that was leaked to AJAM but did we really need the top two officials from OBO there? What’s with a hearing on “putting Americans overseas in danger” without Diplomatic Security (DS), the bureau “responsible for providing a safe and secure environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy” as a witness? And no one wants to hear first-hand from Mr. Miner why he and some of his staff quit OBO?
Our State Department source familiar with OBO work told us that this glass facade issue has been “an enormous point of contention between DS and OBO for a year or more,” but it hadn’t gotten into the press before the AJAM story in May. Our source speaking on background as he/she is not authorized to speak for the State Department says that Mr. Miner headed all of OBO’s design and engineering work, and if he doesn’t think the London design will work for blast protection, then “I assume Congress may want to call him for a hearing.” So far, it doesn’t look like Congress is anxious to talk to him.
But here’s the kicker:
Our source said that the New London Embassy (NLE) “went into construction before its glass facade design was tested to confirm it will meet blast standards.”
This wouldn’t have the potential of leaving OBO with a billion-dollar fiasco, would it? Also — is this the kind of thing that would make a veteran official like Miner and some of his staff quit their jobs?
Our source explained that the testing was needed only because the New London Embassy does not use known, familiar, window systems. The curtain wall apparently has no frames to ‘bite’ the glass and retain it under blast. That is a new technique for OBO we’re told, so the bureau reportedly had no basis to analyze the design.
Here is what Ms. Muniz said in May when the AJAM story broke:
Lydia Muniz, director of the OBO, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that the London design meets DS safety and security standards. If there are any problems in testing for blast vulnerability, she said, steps will be taken to rectify the situation. Asked if an earlier test failed, she said, “We are still testing. We don’t make any final determinations until the completion of testing, including the full-scale mock-up, which has not taken place yet. I would not say that it failed.”
“Safety and security are not taking a back seat under this program,” she said. “There is no diminishing in any way the security standards that diplomatic security puts forward.”
Forgive us for not understanding this — how can anyone say that the design meets DS safety and security standards if testing has not yet been completed? Isn’t that a tad premature? And, should we expect some quibbling about the meaning of these test results in the future?
Dear Diplomatic Security, we hope you have nordstromed yourselves!
It’s been a couple of months since that AJAM interview. So, did the curtain wall/windows withstand the blast test yet? Yes? No? Maybe? Are we all confident about the results? Might we learn more about this test results from the Congress, or State/OIG or GAO anytime soon?
Now, the good news apparently is that the lower-level construction that’s going on now at the New London Embassy is separate from the curtain wall and windows. We understand that is fine and chugging along to 2017. But allow us to be the curmudgeon in the room and say, what if …
…what if when completed, the tests indicates a blast vulnerability?
The New London Embassy cost approximately a billion dollars.
How much would it cost to “rectify the situation” for the curtain walls/windows for a building like this, if needed?
* * *
- Issa and Chaffetz: Is State Department Embassy Design Putting Style Over Safety? (oversight.house.gov)
- Congress grills officials over controversial embassy designs (cbsnews.com)
- Shiny new U.S. embassies costing taxpayers millions (cbsnews.com)
- New U.S. embassies too costly to build? (cbsnews.com)