CBS: Obama State Dept. Wasting Millions on Embassy Aesthetics at Cost of Security Upgrades

On the June 4 episode of CBS This Morning, anchor Nancy Cordes devoted more than five minutes to a segment about the rising costs of building American embassies overseas. Instead of rebuilding embassies according to the straightforward standards of the Bush administration, she found, the State Department under Obama has jeopardized the safety of its consulates by embarking on lengthy and expensive renovations. By contrast, the competition at ABC and NBC failed to devote any resources to covering this revelation.

Starting in 2009, Foggy Bottom instituted the Design Initiative, an expensive program that supposedly “tailor[ed] the design of embassies to their locations and climates while maximizing safety.” These projects have been known to cost $100 million dollars over budget, and as Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz explains, take more time than they should. [See video below. Click here for MP3 audio]

CHAFFETZ: We don't have time to make sure the building and the flowers look more pretty. We've got to make sure that these people are safe and secure and can do their jobs.

In the wake of the fatal attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, one might think the State Department would want to work as quickly and efficiently as possible to ensure the safety of its consulates. In fact, an internal security review of the State Department that was commissioned after Benghazi attack revealed that “the slower pace of construction could leave more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time.”

But it seems the Obama/Kerry State Department doesn’t care.

Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, dismisses the report, claiming the State Department is “very, very comfortable” that the Design Initiative provides “the security we need and the functionality we need at the best possible price.”  

A transcript of the segment appears below:

CBS
CBS This Morning
June 4, 2014
7:32 a.m.
5 minutes and 9 seconds

CHARLIE ROSE, anchor: The State Department is responsible for the construction and maintenance of more than 200 American embassies around the world. Some of those embassies have ben described as unattractive fortresses, which prompted the State Department to embrace a new initiative called Design Excellence. Our Nancy Cordes shows us why building more beautiful embassies comes with its own costs. Nancy good morning, again.

NANCY CORDES, reporter: Good morning Charlie. Even Secretary of State John Kerry once described the US Embassies as flat out ugly. The Design Excellence initiative was put in place in 2009 to change that. To tailor the design of embassies to their locations and climates while maximizing safety. But critics say the approach is slowing construction and driving up costs. This stunning modern glass structure is nicknamed the cube. It will house the new US embassy in London when it opens in early 2017. But six months into construction, CBS news has learned the $1 billion project is already $100 million more expensive than initial estimates. Partly because of the unique, blast proof glass at the heart of the design. It's made in Europe, then shipped under guard to the US for framing before being sent back to England for installation.

PATRICK KENNEDY: Sometimes you move things, sometimes you don't move things

CORDES: Patrick Kennedy is the State Department's Undersecretary for Management. Why use this glass design at all? We heard that the State Department's Value Engineering Assessment Team recommended using a different glass design because this one is too costly.

KENNEDY: I have not seen that report. I'll be glad to go look at it. However, the contract arrangements we have with the architects, the engineering, the construction firm drive to a fixed price. This is a good deal.

CORDES: US Embassies weren't always so chic. In the Bush years, the State Department's building offices had standards, small, medium, and large designs for most embassies and consulates, like these buildings in Johannesburg, South Africa and Bulgaria. But when President Obama took office, State Department officials decided the standard design didn't reflect America's culture and values. Buildings like these in Brunei and Guangzho, China utilize the Design Excellence approach.

KENNEDY: Just three different sizes is not how diplomacy works. It is an infinite range.

REP JASON CHAFFETZ: People aren't safe and secure.

CORDES: Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz is a top Republican on the House government oversight committee. He says these embassies now take longer to build.

CHAFFETZ: These people live in very dangerous parts of the world. We don't have time to make sure the building and the flowers look more pretty. We've got to make sure that these people are safe and secure and can do their jobs.

CORDES: He's visited new embassy sights, like Port Moresby in Papau New Guinea where a decision to expand the new embassy forced the State Department to scrape the entire design and start over. The project estimate has ballooned from $50 million to $211 million, and according to an internal State Department document, there has been a termination of the current work and shuttering of the site until a new construction contract is awarded.

CHAFFETZ: That's just poor total mismanagement from top to bottom.

CORDES: Undersecretary Kennedy argues the State Department's money is being well spent.

KENNEDY: When you have a significant change in the scope of a project, it is logical that the price would go up.

CORDES: But security is also a concern. After the attack on the Benghazi consulate, the State Department commissioned an internal security review. It warned the slower pace of construction could leave more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time. It also found no evidence of a cost benefit analysis supporting this new Design Excellence initiative. Grant Green, a former State Department official oversaw the report.

GRANT GREEN: If it takes longer, it's going to cost more. And if it costs more and it takes longer, it puts people at risk out there waiting for their embassy to be built.

CORDES: Kennedy disagrees with the report's findings.

GREEN: We have reviewed our processes and feel very, very comfortable that our use of the Design Initiative get us the security we need and the functionality we need at the best possible price.

CORDES: Congressman Chaffetz has called for a hearing on this issue later this month. And the question here is, is there a happy medium between these cookie cutter embassies of the past and more beautiful embassies that are also a little more complicated to build an maintain.

GAYLE KING: What's the answer?

CORDES: We're still trying to find that balance.

KING: New construction, everybody knows, is always over budget. But those numbers are gagging $100 million over budget is scary.

CORDES: Yeah, and you know, the State Department has a finite budget every year for how many embassies it can built. If those embassies cost more, that reduces the number of safer embassies you can build in any given year.         

Laura Flint
Laura Flint is a 2014 summer intern for the MRC's News Analysis Division.