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US opted against spending millions to fortify threatened diplomatic outpost

In 2017 and 2018, the State Department planned to spend millions on security improvements for the US consula...

Posted: Oct 14, 2018 11:31 AM
Updated: Oct 14, 2018 11:31 AM

In 2017 and 2018, the State Department planned to spend millions on security improvements for the US consulate in Basra, Iraq --- but despite indications that the money was available, there is no record of the work ever being done, according to an analysis of federal procurement databases.

Then, last month, due to "security threats from Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that all nonessential personnel had been suddenly ordered to leave the Basra consulate, raising additional questions about the need for better security there.

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State Department officials have offered little explanation as to why the $5-10 million in improvements that were first allocated under the Obama administration were never made, two years running, even after repeated inquiries by CNN.

The move stands out because the Trump administration has staked out a tough position aimed at countering Iran in the region and the Basra consulate is seemingly strategically located to help achieve that aim. While there could be a number of reasonable explanations for the move, the State Department has refused to elaborate on its decision, citing security concerns.

"We do not publicly discuss matters related to the security requirements of our facilities," a senior State Department official told CNN, adding that "any projected procurement is subject to change or cancellation."

"During FY17 and FY18 the Department developed a number of projects to address evolving infrastructure and security requirements on the Basra compound. Several projects were not ultimately approved for construction," the official said.

Basra is a strategically important port city in the south of Iraq close to the border with Iran.

Southern Iraq sits atop around 80% of the country's proven oil reserves, and it contains Iraq's only deep-water port, Umm Qasr. Much of the country's wealth comes from the Basra area, but it doesn't stay there. Basra has been wracked by protests in recent months over the poor state of public services.

The danger of disruption to Iraq's oil exports comes at a time when the Trump administration is hell-bent on crippling Iran's ability to export oil as it imposes sanctions after pulling out of the nuclear deal.

It remains unclear whether the implementation of the large-scale security upgrades called for in "procurement forecasts" for 2017 and 2018 would have had an impact on Pompeo's decision to withdraw all nonessential staff, but the move is raising questions about how the State Department allocates resources to deal with threats to its diplomatic outposts.

"Basra is a very important post. But a post must be securable with what is available if it is to remain open," according to Patrick Kennedy, a former under secretary of state for management.

Millions of dollars in contracts to upgrade security were awarded in 2017 for US embassies in Brussels, Belgium, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, and in 2018 for Baghdad, Iraq, and Nicosia, Cyprus.

But it wasn't only embassies identified for upgrades. In 2017, a contract worth $5-10 million for security upgrades at the US consulate in Vancouver, British Columbia, was never awarded, although it is a much safer outpost than Basra.

US officials have failed to address questions about why the State Department never followed through on plans to spend millions of dollars on security improvements for diplomats in Basra despite earmarking the money to do so.

It is important to note that the debate surrounding Basra and the value of maintaining a US diplomatic presence there dates to the Obama administration.

According to one former senior State Department official familiar with the situation, the plan to allocate money for upgrades in 2017 was made during the Obama presidency and intended to "refine existing facilities."

While this official worked under the Obama administration, they said there were "a number of issues" surrounding the consulate in Basra, safety-wise, dating to around 2013, when questions arose "as to whether this was a post that had any foreign policy benefit."

"Basra has been looked at and debated for several years," the former senior official told CNN, adding that "some felt that there was really no diplomatic imperative to keeping it open" due to the hostile environment surrounding the compound, which prevented diplomats from even leaving it very often.

"Still, many thought 'If we don't have a flag waving there, we're essentially giving it to Iran,' " the former official said.

That debate carried over to the Trump administration, according to this former official.

"When the new administration took over, obviously there was agreement that this was something that was needed, at least up to a point. But this is an era of budget cutting. And Basra was low-hanging fruit," the source said.

Casey Jones, former deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations said bureaus generally participate in setting priorities for contracts, but "ultimately it is the Secretary's office that decides what work is done."

"It's a back-and-forth process. There are a lot of stakeholders, and prioritization of projects is based on threats. For every diplomatic mission, there are a series of factors that determine the priority of a project," he said.

"For Basra, it could be that it was a priority, then something happened in some other part of the world, and that became the greater priority," Jones added.

Asked if projects get canceled, Brett Bruen, a former US diplomat who served in Iraq, told CNN: "It happens. But what this shows is there was a plan to do it and leadership didn't move it forward."

Still, Pompeo's decision to close the consulate in Basra "reflects a long-standing aim of the Trump administration to close more diplomatic posts and reduce spending on foreign policy," according to Bruen, the current president of the Global Situation Room consulting firm, who worked at the State Department and the White House under the Obama administration.

"Our diplomats and soldiers sacrificed to build bonds with local leaders, especially in the critically important Shia community. ... They were far more serious than anything that is currently evident or alleged," he said.

"Using the safety of our diplomats as an excuse to cut the State Department budget is callous and cruel," Bruen added. "In the end, this decision strengthens Iran's influence in Iraq and dishonors the legacy of our fallen diplomats and soldiers."

The previously mentioned former State Department official told CNN that closing the consulate in Basra -- if that is what ultimately happens -- a "shortsighted" geopolitical decision that signals the US is "backing out of the region."

"We lose ground when we're not there. It's to demonstrate a presence, to say we're still here, we're still with you. We lose the moral ground when we're not there," the former official said, adding that the situation there has "always been dicey" but a US presence had value as it served as a "significant irritant to the Iranians."

In May 2018, Pompeo said the safety of State Department diplomats and their families would a top priority under his leadership.

"I promise I'm going to do everything I can to keep every one of our team members safe," he said at a ceremony for foreign service officers who had died in the line of duty, their names engraved on the wall behind him.

But the issue of safety is fraught, both for the secretary and the agency he leads.

Pompeo made his mark as a lawmaker on the House select investigative committee probing the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the deaths of four Americans.

During that time, he was a vocal critic of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's leadership of the State Department, rebuking her and others in the Obama administration for failing to better protect its personnel and respond to the attack as it unfolded.

Many in the diplomatic community believe the House Select Committee on Benghazi's investigation led to a culture of greater risk aversion in the agency, which has since hampered its efforts. Diplomats in certain posts are forbidden from traveling outside the embassy without guards, curbing their ability to connect with people. In some countries, they're forbidden from entering certain areas for security reasons.

It is an issue Pompeo continues to grapple with as he calls for diplomats to regain their "swagger" and do their jobs "in every corner of the world," as part of President Donald Trump's "muscular diplomacy."

Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, expressed concern over the decision: "These consulates are not only symbols of US presence, they're also intel gathering locations. The competition with Iran is on. This is strategic terrain. Basra is the second most important city in Iraq. If you're not going to spend the money there, it's like giving up without a fight. And if you don't show you have enough toughness to stay in Basra, that could embolden Iran elsewhere. I don't like where this has gone."

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