By Alex Wilts
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers criticized the State Department for construction delays and cost overruns at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan on Thursday, saying they waste taxpayer dollars and put employees' lives at unnecessary risk.
The expansion of the sprawling embassy complex in Kabul is more than three years behind schedule, and at least 27 percent over budget, at $730 million, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The project is now due to be finished in autumn 2017.
During a House Oversight Committee hearing on cost overruns at the embassy, several members questioned security at the facility. The delays have prolonged the amount of time Americans in Kabul have spent in temporary facilities, which do not have to adhere to the same security standards as permanent facilities.
"The American diplomatic staff in Afghanistan are being exposed to unnecessary danger," said Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, the panel's chairman.
State Department officials said cost increases and delays were unavoidable, given the evolving situation in Afghanistan where there are frequent attacks by Taliban militants.
"We started with a master plan, and we will continue to make modifications to that plan until we have the right combination of facilities and security features in place in Kabul," said Lydia Muniz, director of the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.
Congress has been scrutinizing security at U.S. diplomatic facilities since attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012 that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Republicans have accused Democratic President Barack Obama of failing to provide sufficient security. Democrats have suggested that Republican-backed budget cuts were partially responsible for the lack of security in Benghazi.
Chaffetz promised during the hearing that Muniz would be called to testify on other delayed embassy projects.
"You act as if it's your money and there's not going to be some sort of consequence here," Chaffetz said to Muniz, referring to other delayed embassy construction projects in Mexico and Zimbabwe.
(Reporting by Alex Wilts; Editing by Patricia Zengerle and Tom Brown)