Report: Security Concerns at U.S. Embassy in Belarus
10:25 AM, Nov 25, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
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:
Security concerns, however, remain as noted elsewhere in the report:
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:
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:
However, the same five-person staff limitation imposed by the host country has caused concerns about visa referrals issued by the embassy:
Other concerns are raised in the report as well, including one redacted in its entirety, as shown here:
The State Department, first under Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, instituted worldwide security reviews of diplomatic facilities after the Benghazi attack and in response to the subsequent report from the Accountability Review Board. Although some advances have apparently taken place, this report on the Minsk embassy shows that security at foreign facilities is far from ideal.
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