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Report: Security Concerns at U.S. Embassy in Belarus

10:25 AM, Nov 25, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
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The terrorist attack against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, awakened renewed interest in the security of overseas consulates and embassy facilities. A recent report by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General spotlights some major concerns regarding the safety of American diplomats and staff in Minsk, Belarus, as well as the security of communications.  The report notes that some progress has been made during the last year, but more remains to be done.

The report lays out the difficult conditions for the diplomatic mission in Belarus, noting that to visit the "Embassy Minsk is to step back in time to an era when American diplomats in Eastern Europe operated in inhospitable environments."  The government of Belarus is often hostile and imposes severe restrictions, including a five-person limit on American staff.  This has produced a ratio of five Americans to 119 locals staff members, too high by normal standards, and has also resulted in the five Americans (down from 35 in 2008) serving long hours and often double duty.  The limit remains despite assurance from the Belarus government that it was only temporary, and is largely responsible for the staff's inability "to comply with numerous security, consular, information technology, reporting, and management requirements.”

The American staff is generally praised by the inspector general for excellent work and ingenuity under difficult conditions.  For instance, the report relates an incident where consul foiled "the kidnapping of an American citizen by repeatedly calling his cell phone until the kidnappers, alarmed by the U.S. Government label appearing on his phone’s screen, released him unharmed." Additionally, the chargé d’affaires is credited with improving security since arriving in 2012:

The chargé has also reinforced embassy security measures. When he arrived at post in 2012, access control was haphazard. Badges were not issued to visitors, and the local guard force used familiarity as a criterion for granting personnel access to the compound. The chargé and management officer/post security officer moved quickly to implement the required access control policy and procedures. The chargé has also worked with the Kyiv-based RSO to enhance mission security.

Security concerns, however, remain as noted elsewhere in the report:

The 2012 chief of mission controls statement of assurance noted that a physical security survey has not been performed within the past 3 years. As discussed earlier in the report, there are serious facilities, [portion redacted] deficiencies that did not appear in the 2012 statement. The OIG team stressed that, in preparation for the 2013 statement, it is important that the mission review, document, and establish an improvement plan to resolve current deficiencies. 

Because the main facility (the "chancery") is in a state of disrepair and a $34 million planned renovation is on hold, all embassy business must be conducted from an annex.  This as well as the intrusiveness of the government of Belarus makes conducting private communication virtually impossible.  The report notes that communications security is non-existent:

Embassy Minsk staff members, both American and local, are subject to regular harassment by the Belarusian security services. American staff residences have been entered surreptitiously. The embassy and all U.S. and Belarusian staff are under constant physical surveillance...

The embassy does not have classified communications. Staff members operate on the assumption that everything sent on unclassified systems or spoken on the telephone is monitored by Belarusian security services and other local security agencies.

Restrictions and sanctions against Belarus by the U.S. and other countries make it important for diplomatic staff to keep a close eye on visas granted by the embassy:

The United States has also imposed sanctions on Belarus under several additional laws and executive orders, These sanctions include travel and financial sanctions and asset freezes against officials who have undermined democratic processes and against state-owned and other companies that have supported proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or money laundering. The European Union also maintains a broad range of sanctions against individuals and firms. 

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