State Dept Embassy 'Makeovers' Costing Millions

Saturday, 07 Jun 2014 02:21 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The State Department's plans to redesign the United States' embassies around the world to make them look better and use less energy is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lawmakers say the new facilities are being built too slowly, cost too much, and could put embassy staffers' lives in danger by forcing them to wait longer for more secure new facilities.

"Every metric you look at, they're slower, they're less secure," Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told CBS News.  "They may be more beautiful, but they cost a whole lot more money."

For example, the new U.S. embassy in London, which is set to open in 2017, is a strikingly modern glass structure. But after just six months of construction, the facility is at least $100 million over initial cost estimates because of the design's six-inch-thick, blastproof glass.

And that glass is what's leading to the extra costs. Patrick Kennedy, State's under-secretary for management, said he is not sure where the glass is made, but CBS learned the glass is made in Europe. It must then be shipped to the United States, under guards, and then shipped  back to Europe.

"Sometimes you move things, sometimes you don't move things," Kennedy said. "All of this is based upon best value."

But according to a State Department report, there are questions about the London embassy's glass design, which the department's value engineering team said is too costly.

"I have not seen that report. I'll be glad to go look at it," Kennedy said. "However, the contract arrangements we have with the architects, the engineering and construction firm drive to a fixed price. So this is a good deal."

The State Department in 2009 overhauled its approach to designing embassies. Instead of being under a standard design, the facilities are becoming more elegant.

But the slower construction pace may leave "more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time," the State Department said in an internal security review after the Benghazi compound attack in 2012, but Kennedy disagrees with the report's findings.

"We believe that the steps we have taken now are getting us safe buildings at a good price for the taxpayer," he told CBS.

There is also the matter of design over function. Secretary of State John Kerry once called the Bush-era embassies "ugly," but Chaffetz said they look fine and wants a hearing later this month on the issue.

During Bush's presidency, State had small, medium, or large designs for most embassies and consulates. But under Obama, State said the standard, rather plain designs did not reflect American culture and values, and the newer buildings meet the new approach, which was rolled out in 2011, reports the American Institute of Architects.

"Just three different sizes is not how diplomacy works, it is an infinite range," Kennedy said.

But Chaffetz said the embassies are taking too long to build, which puts diplomatic staff in more danger when they don't have facilities that are secure enough.

"These people live in very dangerous parts of the world," he said. "We don't have time to make sure that the building and the flowers look more pretty; we have to make sure that these people are safe and secure and can do their jobs."


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