Congress grills officials over controversial embassy designs

Controversy over government program to create... 03:11

A House committee grilled State Department officials Thursday citing original reporting from CBS News on a controversial government initiative CBS first reported on last month. The issue: spending hundreds of millions of dollars to replace run-down embassies with better-looking buildings without sacrificing security.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties are openly skeptical of the project, CBS News congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes reports.

Focus on embassy design putting Americans at ... 03:16

"The total project cost for London is near a billion dollars," said Lydia Muniz, director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations.

Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, R-Mich., exclaimed, "a billion dollars!"

At a tense hearing, lawmakers questioned the cost of the striking glass cube being built to house the U.S. Embassy in London.

"They could have spent $200 million less, and we could have built two other embassies," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.

The London embassy's sleek design reflects a new emphasis on architecture, which the State Department embraced in 2011, dubbing it "design excellence."

It's a shift from the Bush years, when U.S. Embassies, like the ones in Johannesburg and Bulgaria, were built rapid-fire using one standard design.

"I just know that we can build even better buildings, right? What we're doing is what we should be doing, what bureaucrats should be doing," Muniz said.

But Republicans and Democrats want proof that "design excellence" will be just as cost-effective as the old approach.

"Why can't we get the information? There seems to be some reluctance, and I don't know why that is," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md.

"In response to a CBS morning news program and a 'CBS Evening News' program, State Department was able to put out its fact sheet. They did produce those documents, but again no documents produced to the United States Congress," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said.

A former State Department official who was asked two years ago to study embassy security testified that beauty might be coming at the expense of safety.

"The people we talked to were not happy with their role in the selection process and felt very strongly that the pendulum had shifted from security to design," Grant Green, former undersecretary of state for management, said.

Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy disputed that finding in a recent interview with "CBS This Morning."

"We have reviewed our processes and feel very, very comfortable that our use of the design initiative gets us the security we need and the functionality we need at the best possible price," Kennedy said.

He argued that over time, buildings that are tailored to their environments will age better and will need less maintenance, but it's difficult to test that assertion at this point because the first building using the design excellence approach is being built in Mexico City, and it won't be completed until 2019.