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U.S. Embassies Remain Targets

From diplomatic outposts to the newly fortified State Department, American diplomats live in the shadow of unprecedented terrorist threat a year after one of U.S. diplomacy's darkest days - dual embassy bombings in Africa.

But officials say U.S. diplomats are safer now, even though a majority of embassies remain vulnerable to car bombs.

The heightened U.S. concern over terrorism and the intense drive to fortify American missions in the wake of recent threats comes at a time when statistics indicate terrorism in general, and state-sponsored terrorism in particular, is on the decline.

Total terrorist strikes last year were at a 20-year low - 273 compared with a peak of 666 in 1987.

Seven countries remain on the State Department's list of international terrorism sponsors: Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria.

But the State Department's latest assessments indicate softened attitudes towards each:

  • Cuba is no longer accused of supporting armed struggle in Latin America. The Clinton administration denies any warming of relations but is promoting contacts between Americans and Cubans through increased commercial flights and other actions.
  • Iran has a president perceived as a moderate and the administration has refused to embrace opponents trying to topple the regime.
  • Libya finally has handed over two suspects for a Netherlands trial in the 1989 bombing of PanAm Flight 103 that killed 270 people, including 189 Americans.
  • North Korea has not been linked to an international terrorist incident since 1987, and the United States is trying to ease into better relationships with an agreement to end any nuclear weapons program.
  • Syria's last known export of terrorism was in 1986, and improved relations are a likely goal in the renewed effort to foster Mideast peace.
Sanctions were eased last month against Iran, Libya and Sudan to allow American companies to sell them some farm products, medicine and medical equipment.
Expenditures since the Aug. 7, 1998, bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa include:
  • $650 million to equip all 265 U.S. foreign posts with enhanced security equipment.
  • $200 million to create temporary embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, while new buildings are designed.
  • $186 million to expand local guard coverage around embassies worldwide.
  • $185 million to temporarily relocate, upgrade or construct new facilities at high-priority posts.
  • $123 million to upgrade emergency radio communications at all posts.
  • $75 million to hire top security experts at more posts.
  • $50 million in humanitarian assistance to Kenya and Tanzania.
  • $20 million to increase antiterrorism activities.
  • The State Department has spent $1.5 billion reuilding and enhancing security at posts around the world in the year since terrorists, allegedly directed by Saudi dissident millionaire Osama bin Laden, bombed embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 224 people, including 12 Americans.

    With 4,000 additional local guards and more than 200 top security personnel added around the world, all diplomats now have an adequate "baseline level of protection," said Peter Bergin, head of the Diplomatic Security Service.

    But Bergin and other top officials responsible for counterterrorism and diplomatic security acknowledged Wednesday that American outposts remain vulnerable. They said only 31 of 270 embassies and consulates are adequately shielded and set back safely from potential car bombs.

    "These are big, big bombs that we're having to counter. It makes our job difficult, but it's something that we are attempting to, striving to deter," Bergin said. "We've made improvements at every single post around the world."

    Since the bombings, department analysts estimate 2,400 threats or incidents have been aimed at U.S. interests overseas - more than double the same period a year ago.

    Nearly 70 embassies or consulates have been closed for 24 hours or more in response to security concerns or specific threats since the bombings, said Patrick Kennedy, assistant secretary of state for administration. All except the embassy in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, which officials say cannot be defended, were open this week.

    Security experts cite several factors that they believe have helped keep terrorists at bay: Last year's U.S. missile assaults against camps in Afghanistan and a factory in Sudan, the posting of $5 million rewards, a series of charges and arrest of eight bin Laden associates, sanctions against countries harboring terrorists and a range of "disruption tactics" against terrorist groups by the CIA.

    The U.S. Embassy in Niarobi, Kenya, after the terrorist attack August, 1998.
    Despite the threats and rising concern for U.S. vulnerability, terrorist incidents are on the decline globally and U.S. officials agree that state-sponsored terrorism has waned.

    But bin Laden, who denies ordering the African bombings, isn't the only perceived threat.

    Followers of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, sentenced to death by Turkey, blame his capture partly on help from U.S. intelligence. In all, the State Department lists 55 terrorist groups around the globe, with 40 percent of incidents last year targeting Americans.

    In spreading instances of diplomatic jitters, suspicious surveillance of the embassy in Madagascar, a phoned threat in Chad, and concern over the vulnerability of other African embassies led t closures of at least six missions in the weeks before the anniversary.

    U.S. consulates in Istanbul and Adana, Turkey, were closed temporarily in June after the Ocalan death sentence.

    "We have succeeded in preventing specific operations," said terrorism expert Yossef Bodansky. "But we are far, far from what is really needed given the magnitude of the threat. Our defense against weapons of mass destruction is dismal."

    Bodansky, director of a congressional task force on terrorism and author of a new book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, said bin Laden has never been a military or terrorist commander and is not indispensable to the cause.

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