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Security fears keep diplomats inside embassies

Threatened abroad, U.S. diplomats have been hit with unprecedented security restrictions, confining many to fortress-like compounds and frustrating Bush administration efforts to get out and counter anti-U.S. sentiment.
A security guard mans his post at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, on Thursday.
A security guard mans his post at the entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, on Thursday.William Fernando Martinez / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Threatened abroad, U.S. diplomats have been hit with unprecedented security restrictions, confining many to fortress-like compounds and frustrating Bush administration efforts to get out and counter anti-U.S. sentiment.

Lockdowns and prohibitions on travel now apply to Americans posted to embassies and consulates in at least 28 nations, according to an Associated Press survey of State Department warnings, internal directives and officials. More than half the nations are identified as key to curbing the spread of militant Islam.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the number of posts deemed too dangerous for U.S. diplomats to bring families has doubled, from 10 to 21. And since the 1980s, the number of missions where employees receive danger pay has soared from two — Colombia and Lebanon — to 26.

The rise in hotspot posts has made it difficult for the department to recruit people to serve in them, including new embassies opening in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the no-family rules go far beyond Kabul and Baghdad, covering all seven U.S. missions in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia as well as 12 posts in Bosnia, the Central African Republic, Congo, Kosovo, Liberia and Sudan.

'A less secure nation'
Even in countries where spouses and children are allowed, travel restrictions have been imposed because of threats from Islamic militants, other terrorism concerns, civil disturbances and, to a lesser extent, crime and disease.

The State Department doesn’t keep records on the number of posts covered at any one time by travel restrictions, but the American Foreign Service Association, the union for U.S. diplomats, believes it is higher now than at any other point since the organization was founded in 1924.

The impact on foreign policy is considerable, sweeping across four continents and many countries where the U.S. hopes to counter the spread of extremism and improve America’s tarnished image.

“The policy we have for diplomatic security actually makes us less secure as a nation because it limits our ability to carry out our mission in critical environments,” said Patrick Fine, a former senior Foreign Service officer who ran the U.S. Agency for International Development’s mission in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005.

'Managing risk'
Fine is hardly alone in that feeling.

This spring, the Government Accountability Office identified security restrictions as a major hindrance to reversing anti-U.S. trends.

“Security concerns have forced embassies to close publicly accessible facilities and curtail certain public outreach efforts, sending the unintended message that the United States is unapproachable,” it said in the little-publicized April 26 report.

An internal review by the State Department in 2005 concluded that security concerns “often require a low-profile approach during events, programs or other situations, which, in happier times, would have been able to generate considerable good will for the United States.”

Department officials insist diplomats are still able to do their jobs, though keeping them safe — particularly after the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania — may affect their ability to work.

“It’s always a matter of managing risk,” said spokesman Sean McCormack, who served as economic, commercial and consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Algeria at the height of a bloody Islamist insurgency in 1998 and 1999 that led to dire security measures at the mission.

“I couldn’t leave the compound without armed escorts, but I found I could have every meeting I needed to have, maybe not at the exact time I wanted, but I was able to arrange it,” he said.

Safety premium
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has put a premium on safety, he said.

“Her top priority is that people are protected when doing their jobs, but, at the same time, she wants them to get out from behind their desks and engage with local communities beyond capitals,” McCormack said. “We can be very creative, and the bottom line is that our officers are out there. They are out there beyond the wire.”

Many have paid the price. At least 19 embassy employees have died of unnatural causes in the line of duty over the past decade, according to AFSA.

In addition to the al-Qaida hotbeds of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, official U.S. travel is banned or curtailed due to Islamic terrorism concerns in Algeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Israel, Lebanon, Mali, the Palestinian territories, the Philippines, Tajikistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Yemen, according to the AP survey.

Outside of areas where radical Islam is considered the main threat, travel restrictions for U.S. diplomats are in place in Burundi, Colombia, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Haiti, India, Laos, Nepal, Peru, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Venezuela. Many of those countries are beset by internal strife.

Level of severity fluctuates
Curbs on U.S. official movement are most restrictive in Afghanistan and Iraq, where diplomats are barely able to leave their offices.

In Baghdad, for example, embassy personnel rarely venture outside the fortified “Green Zone,” and even there are required to wear flak jackets and helmets outside reinforced buildings.

Elsewhere, depending on threat levels, the severity of restrictions fluctuates.

Just this week in Yemen, the U.S. Embassy in San’a expanded a longstanding ban on diplomatic visits to tribal areas to include all travel outside the capital and some travel in the city after a suspected al-Qaida car bombing on Monday killed seven Spanish tourists and two Yemenis.

The AP survey did not include countries where the U.S. does not maintain a diplomatic presence, notably Iran, North Korea and Somalia. Nor does it include nations that have slapped travel restrictions on U.S. diplomats in retaliation for similar measures imposed by Washington, such as Cuba, Eritrea and Zimbabwe.