A new report by a government watchdog found that a State Department plan to replace 180 embassies with safer facilities by 2018 has made significantly slower progress than expected, with work completed on 77 by the end of fiscal year 2017.
In 1999, a year after deadly US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, Congress passed the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act requiring the State Department to identify US diplomatic facilities that were most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Congress allocated funding to replace the most vulnerable of these facilities in order to make them more secure.
That year, the State Department identified 180 embassies for replacement, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday. It later revised this number slightly, deciding that 10 of the embassies would be upgraded rather than replaced.
In 2005, work was underway on 30 facilities and the goal was to complete the rest by 2018. However, by the end of fiscal year 2017, only 77 had been completed and an additional 21 were under construction. The State Department plans to start construction on 25 between fiscal years 2018 and 2022, and 47 more embassies are targets for replacement after 2022.
The GAO attributed this lag in part to inflation and “unexpected additional building requirements, such as office annexes and Marine quarters.” The report also notes that “staffing workload and contractor collaboration” have affected the pace.
Among its recommendations, the GAO suggested that the State Department “provide information on the estimated effects of inflation on planned projects” and conduct a workforce analysis of the bureau overseeing the construction of the embassies. According to the report and a State Department spokesperson, the department agreed with the recommendations. The spokesperson said that under new leadership at the bureau, “work has been under way addressing many of the recommendations.”
That bureau “is actively responding to each recommendation and intends to work proactively with GAO to develop and institute enduring systems that will more effectively drive the scope, delivery, and cost of embassy projects to maximize use of taxpayer dollars while providing safe and secure facilities that support our diplomats around the globe,” they said.
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told CNN, “There is nothing more important to Secretary Pompeo than the safety of our people and facilities abroad. We will continue to review the report and make changes as appropriate.”
The report comes amid continued concerns about diplomatic security abroad. In September, the State Department announced it had ordered all nonessential personnel to leave the US Consulate in Basra, Iraq.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited threats from Iran in a statement and a senior US official told CNN that the decision to place the facility on “ordered departure” was prompted by “security threats from Iran.”
A CNN report found that although the State Department made plans to spend millions on security improvements to the consulate in 2017 and 2018, there is no record of the work being done.
“Secretary Pompeo made the decision to order the departure of our diplomats from Consulate Basrah for one reason and one reason only: the safety and security of our colleagues who were under increasing threat from the Government of Iran, the IRGC and militias facilitated by and under the control and direction of the Quds Force,” Nauert told CNN.
“The security changes were only necessary if the consulate’s facilities expanded and grew. That expansion wasn’t needed, therefore security additions weren’t required,” she added.
CNN’s Zachary Cohen contributed to this report.