Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Williams estimates it will cost nearly $5 billion to bring the State Department’s overseas buildings up to security specifications.
In January, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell tapped the former chief engineer for the Army’s North Atlantic Division to take over the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, an office long plagued by bureaucratic inactivity.
Gen. Williams said in an interview that he has known Mr. Powell since the Army, where both were generals. On July 6, Gen. Williams told United Press International about his upcoming five-year plan for rebuilding America’s embassies.
Question: When you came in, what were some of the management problems?
Answer: The big thing we didn’t have [was] a disciplined process that could be vetted and discussed like you and I are talking about now. What we had to do was to build real needs, and what we did here in this organization was to put in place for the first time a planning and development office.
This place had no planning and development office. This office is responsible for working with the posts, about 260 posts around the world, and garnering the real need and then take that need and transition that need into project definition, so you will be defining something into small, medium and large.
Don’t give something that will not fit into the boxes. Once we had put in place a disciplined process here, running designed reviews for example, the way projects were designed in the past, a lot of claimants use our buildings — not just State Department.
The way building plans were reviewed in the past is, we sent a copy of the plans to this entity one over here, one over there and this would go back to the designer in San Diego and he would have to make sense of each one of the parts. What we are doing is integrating that process. We have built a “war room” to bring all of the individuals into the same room and force the integration.
This reduces time and we reduce dollars. This is a combination of putting in place a planning and development team, relocating and realigning the function so it is under the grip of a stand-alone entity, discipline the process of executing the work and cutting the time on project construction by a year and a half.
The biggest effort was to get a get a grip on the management because it’s a big area, it’s a big responsibility and we have to manage this differently. So we made some recommendations on where this function should be placed in the State Department.
For many, many years, it had been a part of the of the old administration bureau. So we made a recommendation that this should be a stand-alone entity, out there so the secretary could see it, touch it, and in effect, be in charge of it.
Right now, it is a stand-alone entity treated as a management cell. It reports to the undersecretary for management, but I attend the secretary’s senior staff meeting. I have a seat at the table, I see him every day that he is in town and I’m in town. My issues can be put directly on the table with any of the other State issues. He has personally given me tasks such as going to Paris and straighten the parking-lot issue.
Q: Tell me about your trip to Paris.
A: We had a situation in Paris where there was a parking lot above the ground. Some people at the inspector general and GAO [General Accounting Office] were critical of the fact we were using the parking lot and it could be used for a better purpose.
I looked at all of the properties in the Paris domain from the State Department and was able to find a way to recommend we sell the parking lot and build an underground parking lot like the Brits do for our people and probably do it for about half the price. This has turned this into great news for the secretary.
I looked at the whole underutilization issue while I was there. This is fresh thinking. The department had been criticized over the years for hanging on to old property. Out of that visit, I was able to recommend another building be sold, and that building is probably valued at $40 [million] to $50 million.
I was able to get rid of the fleecing of America issue that was in the news, satisfy the inspector general and GAO for the parking lot, make our people safer by having a parking lot that was underground, get rid of the underutilization and put $50 [million] to $60 million in the U.S. coffers.
Q: You have appropriators in Congress who want you to keep your costs down and you have mandates saying you have to make the embassies more secure. How do you manage that?
A: You really have to work a careful blend between the requirement and the business case. Every time you tee something up, it has to make good business sense.
So the need is to get all of our people, 85 percent of our embassies around the world that had some security deficiency, get them as quickly as you can, and then of course, whatever you do has to make good business sense or else you won’t get money.
As we look at the new buildings, or replacing a new building, we decided to come up with standard design packages or standard basic building boxes. If we are talking about a small embassy, then we would have cost parameters not to exceed a certain amount of money. We cause our designers to stay within a box. And none of this would exceed $100 million.
I was able through this process to remove from the table the $100 million embassy notion that was stuck in the mind-set of Congress through this process.
That is what we feature in our new long-range plan, which we think is really going to be the vehicle to get us out of this mess.
When we are ready to build a new embassy, we have to think along three boxes. Does our presence, our business here, warrant a small embassy that is totally secure and meets all of the requirements? That’s probably about $40 million, 4,000 square meters of usable space. We can build it in less that a year and half rather than five years.
The other one is to move to a medium if the need and the requirement requires that. I would expect that to come from the political side. But it is a controlled situation, rather than unconstrained.
Q: Go through some of these security requirements. What do you have to do now to build an embassy up to security specs?
A: First of all, the setback distance from the building to a safe distance is considered to be a major variable in developing the security. You need a 100-foot setback. The other is to help with the blast protection. What goes along with this is shatter-resistant windows; what is recommended there is laminated windows. There are degrees of lamination that pertain to their thickness. You have to use common sense about that. You need to put in perimeter defenses, which in many cases would be a wall or a fence with surveillance cameras and the like. All of your gates must be controlled with the anti-ram devices, which would prevent vehicle traffic. Then you need the interior of the building configured so that you have got public-address systems that work from a secure post. A combination of all of that is what costs money.
Q: Isn’t it true if you need a 100-foot setback it’s difficult to find space in the diplomatic or business districts in many capitals?
A: That’s the careful blend I’m talking about. You have to accept the reality that in order to do business in Paris, or Rome or Berlin, you are not going to have a 100-foot setback. For those buildings that are existing, you improve them as much as you can possibly do and under the constraints you have, and the rest will have to be waived. It makes good sense to do that.
Even in a new building, such as Berlin, there are engineering features such as wall construction and dealing with the columns and the treatment and the like, there are things you can do to the building in order to strengthen the wall of the building that mitigate against the setback. The setback is just one aspect, and if you can get it it’s a perfect situation, but in all situations you are not going to be able to do that. Then you have to look at smarter ways to mitigate as best as you can.
The security aspect of the building is very, very expensive and what we’re trying to do here is take a common-sense approach. An example would be in Brazil. Rather than building anything new in Brazil, what we decided to do is to lease a new office building for our consulate matters in Rio. It’s a brand new building. It has reasonable setback. It has vertical setback because we can be sandwiched between activities on the top of us and the bottom of us.
Let’s take these well-constructed buildings and reinforce them as appropriate, do our window treatment. It had good setback already and move our people right away into that newly acquired building. In the process of doing all that, we saved almost $100 million in the swing of funding, by using the smart idea of moving our people out of the existing building in Rio into a modern office building sandwiched between floors .
Q: In terms of the five-year plan, is that going to say when the embassies will meet security requirements? Will it have a time line? How much will be needed to do the job?
A: We hope the long-range, overseas-building plan will be the principle resourcing vehicle, because it will put for the first time everyone on the same page.
One example, if you were sitting here now and the plan was published, I could give you a plan and you could walk away and look at Bogota , you could look at Brazil. You could see each embassy that we have enough definition about.
This is a moving train; we are not just going to throw trash into the plan. You have to know you have a project defined. All definable projects will be in the plan.
What are we doing in South America? You go down and you pick up Rio in [fiscal year 2002], you see we have activity. You would see the amount of money for the other years; and a summary at the end to capture every single dollar and activity. To me, that makes an awful lot of sense, because the ambassador on the ground has a copy, the secretary has a copy, I have a copy, the reporters have copies. .. .
Q: The State Department didn’t have something like this before? How did things get done?
A: We planned things individually. Quite frankly, the mentality was backwards. The mentality here was funding drives planning. So the first thing to do was go over and sit with the folks at OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and Congress and make the case around ‘How much money will you give me?’ Once you were told how much money you would have, then you would come back and plan to the number.
You have to plan correctly first and make the case around planning and need. And when you ask for the money you have to ask for it in a way that the stakeholder provides the link to what you are doing.
The plan will be out in a month. We will make this a companion to the  funding submission. To have Powell over there to talk about this, the first thing a [Sen. Fritz] Hollings, [South Carolina Democrat], or [Sen. Judd] Gregg, [New Hampshire Republican], would say would be, “Well, general, tell me what you want.”
All he would have to do is say, “Mr. Congressman, Mr. Senator, open the plan and you can see the needs.” The way we will construct the plan is in six sections. The first section of the plan tells anyone why we are in Africa, what we are trying to do, why we are in the Middle East in very hard-hitting terms.
Q: Do you mean the diplomatic purpose?
A: Yes, because the facilities have to tie into the mission. You can’t say I want to build an embassy in Tashkent [Uzbekistan]; yeah, that’s a nice thing to say because we want to have an embassy there, but what is significant about that part of Europe? What are we trying to do? So what we are forced in the plan, each one of the bureaus for them to lay out in hard-hitting narrative presence why we must be in a certain location. .. .
Q: So this plan will also provide a glimpse into redefining what America’s priorities are in different parts of the world?
A: Absolutely. And also you will also see a whole new approach to building these facilities. There will be choices. For example if Congress says, “Look, I can only allow you to do a small embassy,” there will have to be some decision-making.
Q: Can you give a range in terms of a dollar figure for the five-year plan?
A: I would think the five-year plan would carry all of the requirements in ‘02, ‘03, ‘04, ‘05 and ‘06. You are talking about six years of projects and I would probably say the value of that plan would be about $5 billion $4 [billion] to $5 billion.
Q: So, for $4 [billion] to $5 billion, we are updating security for all of our embassies?
A: We update security around the world with that. We will be doing six or seven new embassies this year. It will not take us long.