U.S. embassies too fortress-like, says American ambassador
Security criteria need to be reassessed for U.S. embassies, says outgoing U.S. ambassador Victor Ashe
The Associated Press
WARSAW, Poland — The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Poland criticized the "fortress-like" feel of American embassies built since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, saying Thursday that some are excessively expensive and send an unfriendly message to non-Americans.
Victor Ashe is calling on U.S. authorities to reassess policies put in place after 9/11, which require equally tight security standards in both hot spots and places deemed much safer. He said there should not be a "one size fits all" approach.
"The type of embassy you might build in Pakistan has a different set of security needs — which in that case would be substantial — than an embassy you might build in Reykjavik, Iceland, or in Warsaw, Poland," Ashe told The Associated Press.
Ashe was appointed by former U.S. President George W. Bush in 2004 and is in his final week as ambassador to Poland. He will be succeeded by Lee Feinstein, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's national security adviser during her presidential campaign. Feinstein was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday.
Ashe made his argument in a newsletter sent out to more than 7,000 people this week — unusually outspoken statements for a diplomat still in office. He said they were "personal observations which reflect only my own views."
After the Sept. 11 attacks, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell launched a massive effort to speed up the construction of new U.S. embassies and ensure they conformed with enhanced security requirements. One example of those requirements is that embassies be set back at least 100 feet (30 meters) from city streets on all four sides.
Ashe said that if those standards are kept for all new embassies, it would make it either very expensive or simply impossible to find real estate in most city centers. That already has pushed many embassies to suburbs, making matters difficult for both visitors and diplomats.
"The cost to the taxpayers if these standards are implemented worldwide will be huge," Ashe wrote. "The design of many of these buildings quite often creates a fortress-like atmosphere and the impression given to host nations can be less than friendly; not the warm, welcoming impression we should offer as Americans."
The situation in Britain's capital is a good example.
Its U.S. Embassy will be moved from the leafy, upmarket Mayfair district of central London to a safer building in a less prestigious neighborhood south of the River Thames. The move, announced in 2008, is part of American efforts to improve the safety of its staff.
It would have cost more than $600 million to renovate and upgrade the embassy's current concrete and glass building in Grosvenor Square, and even then it would not have met security standards without obstructing traffic in surrounding streets.
Residents living near the embassy will be happy to see it go. They have complained in the past about the temporary concrete blast barriers and other security measures introduced around the building after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Ashe also called for more importance to be put on architectural aesthetics, saying he objects to the tiny windows of new embassies that add to their fortress look.
"An embassy should be a handsome building that reflects the best of the United States," he said. "They should reflect our hopes and our aspirations, not our fears."
The U.S. Embassy is Warsaw is widely considered an eyesore.
The American government in the 1960s tore down what Ashe called a "beautiful historic residence" — one of the few to survive World War II — to make room a functional-looking glass and steel structure.
"Our architecture has not set a good example in the historic neighborhood where we are," Ashe said.