By Susan Cornwell
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - More than half the U.S. diplomatic posts overseas may not fully meet security standards, a senior U.S. official told a hearing on Thursday that follows an attack on the mission in Benghazi in which the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans died.
Pat Kennedy, the under secretary of state for management at the State Department, told a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee that the United States had a diplomatic presence at 283 locations around the world.
He said 97 safe and secure facilities had been completed since the 1999 passage of a U.S. law authorizing additional funding for security upgrades, including 70 full replacements of embassies or consulates, as well as some building of Marine guard quarters and office annexes.
"There remain approximately 158 posts that have facilities that may not fully meet current security standards," he said.
"Many of these facilities were built or acquired prior to the establishment of the current security standards, and others are subject to authorized waivers and/or exceptions."
Kennedy was giving written testimony at a closed hearing of the subcommittee that oversees the State Department, but his comments were posted afterwards on a House website.
The issue of embassy security has been under particular scrutiny since the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attack. In December, an independent review described security precautions at the U.S. mission in the eastern Libyan city as "grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place" there.
Another State Department official said a variety of factors, including increased costs of fuel and construction, contributed to the delay in upgrading security for diplomatic posts.
"To accommodate our building requirements, collocate staff, and achieve required setback (from the property perimeter), we seek sites of about 7 to 10 acres of buildable land. These can be challenging to find in a capital city," the official told Reuters.
One of the lawmakers who attended the hearing said part of the problem was that many posts are located directly on streets. This makes them more vulnerable to car bombs and other attacks.
"The problem is, there are a good number of our embassies that are right at the street," Representative Nita Lowey, the panel's ranking Democrat, told Reuters. "So ideally, you'd want to find new land to move them. So they are looking at all kinds of different methods."
BOMBINGS SPURRED SECURITY UPGRADES
The 1999 law on embassy security construction was passed after the deadly bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania a year earlier in which hundreds of people were killed.
In addition to providing funding for security upgrades, the 1999 law contained some new security requirements, including a mandate that any new embassy or consulate building be no less than 100 feet from the compound's perimeter.
Kennedy said Congress had appropriated about $10 billion for the embassy security construction effort since 1999, and that 37 projects were currently in design or construction.
Following the Benghazi attack, the State Department asked in December for more than $1 billion to be reprogrammed in the current fiscal year to improve security at diplomatic missions.
The Senate recently approved the transfer of $1.1 billion in funds that are no longer needed in Iraq because of reduced operations there.
The House has yet to decide whether to make the reprogramming move, although Representative Kay Granger, the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee, told Reuters she looked favorably on the idea.
"There is great concern, as you can imagine, about what needs to be done," said Granger, a Republican.
The issue is likely to get caught up in congressional wrangling over the overall budget for this year as well as automatic spending cuts set for March 1.
(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by David Brunnstrom)