U.S. intelligence agencies lobbied against the release of a scathing report on the CIA’s torture tactics, predicting that its publication would cause grave danger to American assets around the world. That warning was echoed by the State Department, which said on Wednesday that the report “could prompt anti-U.S. protests” as it issued alerts to a number of embassies in the Middle East, Asia and Europe. As ominous as these warnings may be, however, experts said that American diplomatic facilities are better protected than ever and that attacks against embassies and consulates have dropped drastically in recent decades.
“In general, security precautions at embassies are very high anyway,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and now a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey. Since the mid-1980s, there’s been a very persistent effort to upgrade security at embassies and “anything built since then has conformed to very rigorous standards, including setbacks from streets, reinforced exteriors and other security measures,” he said.
U.S. embassies in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Thailand were immediately put on high alert Tuesday after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's extensive report on CIA enhanced interrogation tactics used against terror suspects after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Embassies in Egypt, the Netherlands and Sweden also issued warnings Wednesday. State Department spokesman Noel Clay would not comment about the specific nature of the threats issued at these embassies, or the security precautions put in place to deter attacks. He said the department “constantly assess[es] our security needs."
When a situation arises like the release of the Senate report, which has sparked international outrage against the U.S., embassies always prepare for contingencies, according to Kurtzer, even without indications of an imminent attack. “Even when there's no specific intelligence, someone has thought that it can catalyze someone to take action,” he said. That can make it difficult to determine whether the warnings issued this week were based on a concrete threat or a general security assessment.
The Senate report detailed CIA interrogation tactics including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and rectal rehydration. Prior to its release, CIA Director Michael Hayden had warned that the report could “be used by our enemies to motivate people to attack Americans in American facilities overseas," according to CBS.
Mike Rogers, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also attempted to block the release of the report, noting that foreign leaders had warned the U.S. that the report would “cause violence and deaths.” Secretary of State John Kerry also sought to have the report’s release delayed over concerns about the safety of diplomats abroad, reported Bloomberg View.
Attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets have dropped drastically since the mid-1990s. This drop may be attributed to a decline in terrorism generally, according to Mother Jones. But it’s also linked to the measures undertaken by the U.S. government to ensure embassy security in the aftermath of the 1983 U.S. embassy bombing in Beirut, said Kurtzer. That attack led to a report by Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, known as the Inman Report, which issued a series of recommendations to improve security at embassies.
“Most of our embassies have either been rebuilt since then or upgraded,” said Kurtzer. The ones that weren’t upgraded became the most vulnerable to attack, including the embassies in the east African cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi that were bombed by al Qaeda in 1998.
Vulnerability to attack can also be a product of funding, which was the case with the high-profile attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 that resulted in the death of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Prior to the attack, the facility “didn't get attention it should have because of budgetary constraints and the result was tragic,” said Kurtzer.
When the State Department warns that the threat level has gone up, that would usually entail greater vigilance on the part of embassy staff, including diplomatic activity outside of the facility, as well as concrete preparations put in place by an embassy’s security office, Kurtzer said. This would include coordination with the host government and local security forces. U.S. marines stationed at the facility would also practice their response to a variety of scenarios, both possible and unlikely.
These contingency preparations are widespread and not limited to conflict areas or countries that may play host to anti-American sentiments. “Every country is thinking about contingencies,” said Kurtzer. “The embassies, being a manifestation of the U.S., are going to feel it everywhere, whether through their interactions with local contacts, the press or with demonstrations."