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World - Africa

Protecting embassies difficult ... and probably impossible

In this story:

August 10, 1998
Web posted at: 10:32 p.m. EDT (0232 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The devices used to protect an embassy can be as sophisticated as high-tech surveillance equipment and as simple as a concrete planter. But as the United States has learned, it is difficult to protect a building or people against those who are bent on destruction.

Even in his promise to take a tough stand against terrorism, President Clinton admits that security is almost impossible to guarantee.

"The more open the world becomes, the more vulnerable people become to those who are organized and have weapons, information technology and the ability to move," he says.

CNN's Eileen O'Connor reports on embassy security plans
Windows Media 28K 56K

The U.S. embassy complex in Nairobi, Kenya, that was heavily damaged by a terrorist bomb Friday was in the heart of the city, right off the sidewalk and adjacent to other office buildings. As a result of the bomb, 192 died and nearly 5,000 others were injured.

"When you have a blast, your initial blast wave will strike the building," says Chuck Runner, an embassy security expert. "The waves, of course, are going in all directions. The rebounding wave will come off the other structure at about twice the force."

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where another U.S. embassy was damaged by a bomb at nearly the same time, only 10 were killed and 74 were injured.

'Vigilance, vigilance, vigilance'

The difference is that the embassy in Dar es Salaam was set away from other buildings and protected by a wall.

It had also been an Israeli embassy before the United States acquired it, and it is possible that Israel's experience as the target of past attacks made a difference in the way the building was designed and protected.

"The way an embassy is constructed, the way people can get to the embassy, what construction materials are used ... all those things have to be taken into account, without any doubt," says Zalman Shoval, Israeli ambassador to the United States. "And just repeat three times: vigilance, vigilance, vigilance."

  U.S. Embassy Threat Assessment
  • 282 facilities reviewed
  • 77 projects proposed
  • 26 completed, 31 deferred, 20 cancelled
  • Many of the United States' embassies were designed in the 1950s with a lot of glass to create an open look. Security wasn't much of an issue back then, but utility and costs were.

    But in recent years, the terrorist threat has become evident and is documented in blood and ruin. Now, says Runner, "you want to reduce the amount of glass. You want to make sure the walls are thick."

    But even he admits that might not be enough.

    "Quite frankly," he says, "if you allow an explosive device the size of some of these truck bombs close enough, even that is not going to give you much protection."

    Appealing targets

    In the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Lebanon 15 years ago, a special presidential commission concluded that the prospects for preventing terrorism "are not good."

    The Reagan administration requested $4.4 billion to upgrade embassy security. Congress approved $2.4 billion, forcing the State Department to establish a priority list.

    Of the 262 embassies reviewed, 77 projects were proposed and 26 embassies were rebuilt. Work on 31 others was deferred, 20 projects were canceled, and a shortage of funds prevented upgrades on others.

    Some of the older U.S. embassies are being redesigned to meet modern security needs. The structures are being reinforced with concrete and steel. Film is being put over windows to minimize shattered glass, and bulletproof glass is being installed in public areas.

    The embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam were not rated critical or high on the scale of threat assessment, which may have made them more appealing targets to terrorists.

    No guarantees

    Members of Congress have promised to revisit the question of funding, although balanced budgets require that other priorities be met. And counterterrorism experts say that even money cannot buy perfect security.

    "You can't guarantee physical security anywhere on Earth for anybody," says Rosemary Dew, a former FBI agent. "Guarantee is a very strong word. You can strengthen it, and we could do better, but ..."

    Reinforced doors and windows, gates and walls and all the other devices may work against a mob, experts say, but there is no guarantee against a determined terrorist with a bomb.

    Correspondent Eileen O'Connor and Reporter Jonathan Aiken contributed to this report.

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