Shiny new U.S. embassies costing taxpayers millions

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

WASHINGTON -- The State Department has made design a priority for U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. New buildings must be better looking and more energy efficient. But CBS News has learned this is costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars -- while potentially keeping American officials in harm's way.

A striking glass structure, set to open in 2017, will be the new U.S. embassy in London. But six months into construction, CBS News has learned, the project is already at least $100 million over the initial cost estimate, partly due to manufacturing challenges with the design's six-inch-thick blast-proof glass.

The new U.S. embassy in London is set to open in 2017. CBS News

Patrick Kennedy, the State Department's under-secretary for management, says he isn't sure where the glass is made.

But CBS News learned it's made in Europe, which means it then must be shipped to the U.S. with guards and then shipped back to Europe.

"Sometimes you move things, sometimes you don't move things," Kennedy says. "All of this is based upon best value."

Patrick Kennedy CBS News

In 2009, the State Department overhauled its approach to embassy design, from standard design, like the Rwandan embassy, to a variety of more elegant structures, like the embassy in Brunei.

Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah is a top member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

"Every metric you look at, they're slower, they're less secure," he says. "They may be more beautiful, but they cost a whole lot more money."

After the U.S. mission in Benghazi was attacked in 2012, the State Department commissioned an internal security review. It warned the slower pace of construction under the new design approach could leave "more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time."

Kennedy says he disagreed with the findings of the report.

The U.S. Embassy in Brunei. CBS News

"We believe that the steps we have taken now are getting us safe buildings at a good price for the taxpayer," he says.

Grant Green, a former State Department official who authored the internal report, stands by his findings.

"If it takes longer, it's going to cost more, and if it costs more and takes longer, it puts people at risk out there waiting for their embassy to be built," he says.

Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. Secretary of State John Kerry once described the Bush-era embassies as ugly. Rep. Chaffetz argues they look just fine and is calling for a hearing on the matter later this month.

  • Nancy Cordes
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    Nancy Cordes is CBS News' congressional correspondent.