In fight over embassy security site, Virginia leads Georgia

AP News
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Posted: Sep 16, 2015 11:09 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Three years after the Benghazi attack, the Obama administration and Republicans in Congress still haven't agreed on where to build a consolidated Diplomatic Security training center that both say is critical for protecting American embassies and consulates around the world.

The question has prompted an increasingly nasty congressional turf battle, though a government audit circulated last week could help settle the case for a National Guard base in southern Virginia over a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia.

The State Department wants the site at Fort Pickett, Virginia, within three hours of the nation's capital, the Pentagon, headquarters of intelligence agencies and major military training sites. But several GOP lawmakers say it would be cheaper to retrofit the law enforcement training ground in Glynco, Georgia, near the Florida border. The deadlock is threatening an administration request for $99 million next year to break ground on the project.

The Government Accountability Office's 38-page report bolsters the Virginia bid.

Sending all the agents to Georgia instead of Virginia could cost U.S. taxpayers up to $736 million more over the next 50 years, according to the report. It also criticized the Georgia cost estimate for not being comprehensive, fully documented, accurate or credible.

After four Americans were killed in the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, an independent review board recommended further security training for Diplomatic Security agents and Foreign Service personnel. Whereas a decade ago only 3,500 were getting such training each year, the State Department wants the new consolidated center to accommodate 9,000 annually.

The audit hasn't settled the issue yet in Congress. Initially, Rep. Ed Royce, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, put a 30-day hold on its release, though the GAO posted the document online Wednesday after The Associated Press published a story based on a copy it obtained. And the future location of the center was the subject of an acrimonious debate last week between a Georgia lawmaker and the State Department's security chief.

"Can you tell me, on a facility that's this important, and a facility that's this expensive, why the State Department would be uncooperative in addressing this?" Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., asked at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing last week, alleging unfair bias against his home state's bid. "You need to go back, you need to compare the two sites, compare them fairly," Carter said.

"Spending money on something that doesn't meet our requirements is not going to be a good investment," Assistant Secretary of State Gregory Starr shot back. The Georgia site, he argued, lacks facilities for the type of weapons the agents use and would force staff to travel to and from a bombing range 60 miles away.

The GAO says Fort Pickett would consolidate almost all of Diplomatic Security's training for high-threat posts, which involves firearms, driving and explosives training and is currently scattered in 11 locations over seven states. It says the base can host nighttime exercises, which staff conducts 190 days a year, whereas limitations apply in Georgia. And it says the Virginia option benefits from proximity to Washington, a requirement stemming from the post-Benghazi, Accountability Review Board's report.

That proximity also would help Marines participating in Diplomatic Security training, but traveling at their own expense.

The State Department has been hoping to build the facility for more than a decade. Construction of the first phase at Fort Pickett, 50 miles southwest of Richmond, was set to begin Aug. 1 with a completion date of 2019. Officials have put that work on hold while they respond to congressional inquiries.

The $413 million project includes driver training tracks, explosive demolition ranges, firing ranges, classrooms, laboratories, ammunition storage bunkers, dormitories and mock diplomatic and urban facilities. Officials at the law enforcement center in Georgia had said they could meet the requirements for $272 million.

The audit is addressed to Royce and fellow Republicans Michael McCaul and Jeff Duncan. McCaul, of Texas, is the House Homeland Security Committee chairman. Duncan, of South Carolina, also has backed the Georgia site.

Virginia's case has been championed naturally by its representatives, such as Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. The project would create more than 1,000 construction jobs and leave hundreds of highly paid State Department officials year-round in a mainly rural area of the state.