re: "Back to the Embassy of the Future"
"The CSIS Commission is not the first distinguished panel of experts to peer into the future of the U.S. embassy. Way back in 1986 a very similar study was conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, which also produced a report titled “The Embassy of the Future,” that you can read here. Oddly, the new EOTF report never cites its forerunner, the old EOTF, even though they both cover some of the same ground, and even though the old EOTF set the course that the Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has been following all these years."
A shock to the system, I know, but people really have thought about these issues before, and made reasoned decisions and policies based on those studies. This doesn't mean the issues can't (or shouldn't) be revisited from time to time, to ensure that old assumptions are still valid, but it would have been nice to know the "experts" had a clue about the whys and wherefors of what had come before them.
"Both reports place strong emphasis on the same two key matters: on the selection of new embassy construction sites (meaning, exactly where in a city the new office compound ought to be located), and on risk-acceptance as the basis for making decisions about security. The reports conflict only on the matter of whether or not to collocate all the embassy functions in a city into a single location. The old EOTF gathered all offices and activities under one roof in order to avoid having multiple soft targets outside of the new secure compounds, but the new EOTF would have both a secure central compound and several small satellite offices for public outreach and "distributed presence." By the way, I very much like the new EOTF recommendations for that distributed presence, even though implementing them will require changing some current security standards and even a U.S. law (the Secure Embassy Construction and Counterterrorism Act, Public Law 106-113). It seems to me a reasonable risk, and a more appropriate venue for conducting public diplomacy."
That's right, colocation. It's not just a good idea, it's the law!
Again, an policy whose underlying assumptions it does no harm to reevaluate every decade or two, just to make sure they're still valid. Like my colleague TSB, I can see the value of a more "distributed presence" template, but even the present system does allow for exceptions and waivers to the policy.
"(T)he new EOTF makes a big point about the operational necessity of locating new embassy office buildings in highly accessible central downtown sites, rather than on the edges of cities (where they tend to be located now). That's fair enough. But the panel seemed to assume that security requirements for setback distance are the main reason why we have usually picked remote locations; therefore, the argument goes, if the security folks would only accept a little more risk we could have our new embassies downtown. Actually, setback requirements are only part of the reason new embassies tend to be located far from downtown. The Office of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has determined that they need a minimum site size of 10 acres - and more than that for a large embassy - in order to have a functional compound with all the supporting infrastructure (warehouse, motor pool, utility structures, parking, etc.) that new embassies require. The security requirement for setback between a new office building and the street is only 30 meters, and that could be met with a site far smaller than 10 acres. Indeed, we have some existing embassies on sites of less than 3 acres that nevertheless have full setback."
Sadly, the U.S. Government lacks eminent domain powers in other countries, or the site selection process would be ever so much easier.
"Have you ever tried to find a suitable and affordable new construction site of at least 10 acres in the central business district of an overseas city? I have, and can testify that it is, most of the time, impossible. Selecting a site is a very picky business. In addition to the size requirement, we also need our site to have particular soil conditions (to ensure the new building won't sink), an unobstructed satellite 'look' (for communications), a lack of certain undesirable neighbors and nearby industrial hazards, a lack of site pollutants that would require environmental remediation (a big issue in many third-world cities), multiple approach routes (to avoid transit choke-points), and to be available for purchase 'in fee simple' or else in consecutive 99-year leases (to prevent any future legal encroachment on the site). If we have all those requirements met, the purchase price of the site must be within the U.S. Government's independent assessment of its fair market value, or else we are precluded from purchasing it."
"Despite the best intentions of all concerned to find a downtown site for new embassies, most of the time it won't be feasible."
"Regarding the new EOTF's second big point, the need for risk acceptance vice risk avoidance, I have a mixed reaction. I fully support risk-based decision making and think we need more of it in the embassy arena, especially as a counterweight to the heavily standards-based approach used by the Overseas Security Policy Board [see more on the OSPB here]. However, the new EOTF panel makes the mistake of not appreciating how much risk acceptance has already gone into creating the current embassy security requirements.
Take the issue of blast protection, for example. It is far from a secret that new embassies are constructed to withstand bomb blast; what is something of a secret is exactly how large a blast they are designed to withstand. That design-basis threat explosive charge weight is, in fact, a risk-based requirement, since it was derived from a statistical assessment of probability [you'll have to take my word on that, since I can't cite an open source]. "
"The OSPB has made its own informed judgment as to how much blast risk to accept in new embassy construction. The specific charge weight they chose isn't important [and it's not 200 pounds]. My point is simply that the new embassy construction process currently does accept risk, even in this critical area.
It works the same way with most embassy security standards. They were developed through a risk-based process that aligns the protection they provide to the actual attacks that embassies abroad have historically experienced, and therefore you get a reasonable level of protection that is commensurate to the threat. Again, you'll have to take my word on that, but I believe it should be obvious to anyone who thinks it through that even the most troglodyte security type [that's not a dis, since I'm one myself] realizes embassy office buildings can't be made invulnerable, or even close to it, but must accept risk as a daily reality."
TSB just keeps being right. Risk management, risk avoidance, risk acceptance, these all address the same issues by establishing a rational framework for making defendable and explicable decisions when weighing competing interests and making security decisions whose effects will endure for decades.
"the new EOTF report also featured a heavy sprinkling of architectural snobbery"
Having read who would be on the committee (I read her book), I wasn't the least surprised at this observation.
It's like this: after two of our embassies were destroyed (along with a lot of local civilian collateral deaths and woundings) on 8/7, the decision was made to greatly accelerate the new embassy construction program. (To be frank, prior to 8/7 there simply wasn't funding or other support to do more than a handful of major construction projects at a time.) One of the ways the vastly upscaled new construction program undertaken by OBO was able to accomplish this was by adopting a Standard Embassy Design approach. That meant no more one-of-a-kind, work-of-art, reputation-making, monuments-to-an-architect's-ego embassy projects.
Memo to architects overly impressed with your role: Get over your bad selves.