WASHINGTON (AP) — Obama administration officials on Tuesday defended the innovative design of a $1 billion U.S. Embassy being built in London, saying it meets high security standards in a time of evolving terrorist threats against Americans abroad.
Republican lawmakers at a hearing sharply criticized the State Department officials for certifying the building's design and said construction began before blast testing was completed. The Republicans, led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, pointed to a report the State Department inspector general issued last summer, which concluded that the department violated the law because it did not "certify to Congress that the project design will meet security standards prior to initiating construction."
"Initiating construction prior to security certification and blast testing increased the financial risk to the department and taxpayers and was contrary to the department's policy," Steve Linick, inspector general for the State Department, told the committee.
Gregory Starr, assistant secretary for diplomatic security, countered, saying the design of the building — a steel-framed cube surrounded by a glass curtain wall — was endorsed by the architect, top blast construction experts and others in November and December 2013.
Based on the endorsement of the professionals, Starr said he certified the construction design and was confident it would adequately protect the Americans who would work there. He said the certification relied on computer simulations and even though the certification process did not require a full-scale blast test, that was done, too.
Starr said testing validated what the experts had said. "It passed with flying colors," Starr said.
Chaffetz alleged that the State Department was "gambling with federal dollars."
"State's premature certification and construction violated federal law and its own internal policies, which require State to prove the new embassy would be safe before construction began," Chaffetz said. "The blast testing did not start until at least three months after State certified to Congress that the curtain wall was safe."
Chaffetz said State accelerated the construction because it sold the existing embassy and faces financial penalties if construction of the new one runs over schedule.
Lydia Muniz, director of the bureau of overseas building operations at State, said the U.S. sold other properties in London to finance the entire cost of the new embassy. Upgrading the existing embassy would have cost $550 million and still would not be as secure as the new embassy, she said. Muniz said the embassy was on budget and will be completed on schedule by the end of next year.
Muniz also sought to reassure the committee about using a glass curtain wall — non-load bearing exterior walls that provide large, unobstructed spans of glass across multiple floors.
"Curtain wall systems have been used by the design and construction industry since the early 1900s and the department has used curtain wall systems in over a dozen embassy and consulate projects since the mid-1950s," she said.