— By Domani Spero
In a ceremony in Nairobi today, U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Robert F. Godec and the U.S. embassy community honored the victims of the August 7, 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy. Before laying a wreath at the memorial obelisk on the Embassy grounds, the U.S. marines presented colors, the Ambassador and a Kenyan staff member of the Embassy shared thoughts on the tragedy and its meaning for Kenyans and Americans, and the hundreds of staff members of the Embassy observed a moment of silence in remembrance of those killed and injured.
And because there were too many dead, and too many wounded, we should revisit how we got there. Also of particular note, the disaster tourists and photo opportunists:
It was one of the most horrific events in U.S. diplomatic history. On August 7, 1998, between 10:30 am and 10:40 am local time, suicide bombers parked trucks loaded with explosives outside the embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi and almost simultaneously detonated them. In Nairobi, approximately 212 people were killed, and an estimated 4,000 wounded; in Dar es Salaam, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85. Prudence Bushnell, a career Foreign Service Officer, was Ambassador to Kenya at the time and relates to Stu Kennedy of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training the harrowing events of those days.
Read her complete oral history here.
BUSHNELL: In the ’90s, President Clinton felt compelled to give the American people their peace dividend, while Congress thought that now that the Cold War was over there was no need for any significant funding of intelligence, foreign affairs or diplomacy. There were discussions about whether we needed embassies now that we had 24-hour news casts, e-mail, etc. Newt Gingrich and the Congress closed the federal government a couple of times. Agencies were starved of funding across the board. Needless to say, there was no money for security. Funding provided in the aftermath of the bombing of our embassy in Beirut in the ’80s that created new building standards for embassies and brought in greater numbers of diplomatic security officer dried up.
As an answer to lack of funding, State Department stopped talking about need. For example, when we had inadequate staff to fill positions, State eliminated the positions, so we no longer can talk about the need. If there’s no money for security, then let’s not talk about security needs. The fact of increasing concern at the embassy about crime and violence was irrelevant in Washington. So was the condition of our building.
When I returned to Washington on consultations in December of ’97, I was told point blank by the AF Executive Office to stop sending cables because people were getting very irritated with me. That really pushed up my blood pressure. Later, in the spring of ’98, for the first time in my career I was not asked for input into the “Needs Improvement” section of my performance evaluation. That’s always a sign! When I read the criticism that “she tends to overload the bureaucratic circuits,” I knew exactly what it referred to. Yes, the cables had been read, they just weren’t appreciated.
In the years since the bombing, I learned just out just how much I did not know about U.S. national security and law enforcement efforts against al Qaeda. The information was highly compartmentalized, on a “need to know” basis and clearly Washington did not think the US ambassador needed to know. So, while I was aware of the al Qaeda presence and various U.S. teams coming and going, I did not know, nor was I told, what they were learning. When the Kenyans finally broke up the cell in the spring of ’98, I figured “that was that.”
Once the Secretary and her entourage came and left, we received what I began to call the disaster tourists. Well meaning people from various parts of Washington who couldn’t do a thing to help us. In November I sent a cable to Washington requesting by name the people we wanted to visit. The response was “Now wait a minute, you’re complaining about the visitors who are coming and now you want others. You’re sending very mixed messages here.” They didn’t seem to understand the difference between those VIPs who could be part of the solution and those having their photographs taken in the remains of the embassy.
Read in full here.
At the US Embassy in Tanzania, the attack killed at least 11 and wounded 85. There doesn’t seem to be any remembrances or commemoration in Dar es Salaam as of this writing.
- Kenya Marks 15th Anniversary of US Embassy Bombings (voanews.com)
- Kenya marks 15 years since US embassy bombing (capitalfm.co.ke)
- Big fire, slow response: Kenya airport hall gutted (cnsnews.com)
- US embassy closures a window into threat concern (stripes.com)