National Security

House lawmakers grill State over embassy overruns

House lawmakers criticized the State Department on Thursday for lengthy delays and ballooning budgets at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan that they say leaves American diplomats at risk and wastes taxpayers’ money.

Years after contractors were given more than $600 million in grants, the building project is three years behind schedule and 27 percent over budget.

{mosads}In the mean time, the embassy relies heavily on temporary facilities that lack acceptable safety standards, lawmakers said.

“The only security protection measure specified in the 2009 contract for the temporary housing was shatter-resistant window film,” scoffed Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) during a hearing. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think shatter-resistant windows can stop a bullet — or worse, a grenade.”

In 2009 and 2010, the State Department awarded $209.4 million and $416 million dollars to two different contractors in order to construct permanent official and residential facilities in Afghanistan’s capital. 

Lydia Muniz, director of the State Department’s bureau of overseas buildings operations, said the overruns were due to cost increases and blamed construction delays on Kabul’s unstable and high-risk environment. While the department had a static master building plan, she said, it is constantly being revised in order to respond to evolving needs in the area.

Muniz, who was appointed in 2012, has yet to visit the Kabul Embassy and took significant heat from lawmakers on Thursday.

“We’ve always known that Afghanistan is dangerous,” Chaffetz told Muniz. “The facilities are substandard and not secure, and I struggle to find one thing in that instance that is going better since you took over.”

Lawmakers recognized the difficulty of construction in a dangerous and occupied zone, but argued that these dangers were the very reason that facilities need to be secured in the first place. 

Thursday’s hearing comes on the heels of a suicide bombing of a NATO convoy near the embassy on June 30.

“We have never lost a person on our compound,” noted Gregory Starr, the assistant secretary of the State Department’s bureau of diplomatic security. “But there is room for improvement.”

The committee also scrutinized Michael Gulino, the CEO of security contractor Aegis LLC, for failing to meet security requirements as simple as providing informational posters at the facility.

“You get $723 million — it seems like you could get some posters up,” stated Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat. Cummings called the embassy’s prolonged confiscation of travelers’ passports an “indentured servant type of situation” that could lead to security breaches.

“We shouldn’t be hearing about that. Not in 2015,” he said.

According to the State Department, construction on the facility is underway and the situation continues to improve.

But lawmakers appeared unconvinced, unimpressed and skeptical of the panel’s overall truthfulness.

Officials’ inability to discuss additional costs in the construction of a Jakarta Embassy only added to their frustration.

“You act as if it is your money, and there is not going to be some sort of consequence here,” exclaimed Chaffetz.

“I want to know if you’re going to be truthful and honest with us, because you have yet to demonstrate to the United States Capitol that you can finish a project on budget, on time and that it’s safe and secure.”

It wasn’t the last the State Department would be seeing his committee on the matter, Chaffetz promised.

“You are going to be a regular visitor here,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

Tags Bureau of Diplomatic Security Jason Chaffetz State Department U.S. embassy

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