WASHINGTON — The U.S. embassy that was targeted Friday by a suicide bomber in the Turkish capital of Ankara dates back to the 1950s and was recommended for replacement, though it had undergone security upgrades that prevented mass casualties in the blast, the State Department said.
The embassy explosion, which killed one guard and wounded several other people, is renewing debate over diplomatic security, which came under scrutiny after the deadly Sept. 11 attacks against the U.S. consulate and a nearby CIA annex in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Ankara is among the capitals due a new embassy compound, but stressed that budget constraints mean that the government can schedule the rebuilding of only three embassies a year instead of the desired 10.
A partisan budget argument was central to the furor surrounding the Benghazi attacks, too, with Republicans lambasting the State Department for failing to boost security at U.S. posts in Libya and other high-risk sites, and Democrats responding that House Republicans had slashed the administration’s request for embassy security funds by $128 million in 2011 and more than $330 million last year. The funding goes not only for construction but also for guards and other diplomatic security measures.
“If we are fully funded, as we are requesting going forward, that would allow us to put 10 a year on the rebuilding list, and Ankara would be one that would benefit quickly,” Nuland said at a news conference.
After the Benghazi attacks, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, an independent review board found “grossly inadequate” security at the compound. The State Department conducted a review of all its 275 diplomatic posts around the world and created a senior position to supervise security conditions at posts in high-risk areas.
“Ankara is one of the posts that is due for a completely new embassy compound in the future, and it is one of the posts that will go on the list if the department gets the money that we’re looking for from the Congress for security,” Nuland said.
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Friday that the committee “stands ready to assist the State Department in protecting our diplomats,” perhaps signaling that the annual tug-of-war over embassy security funding might be eased this year. Other Republicans, however, have complained that the State Department budget is already bloated, with little oversight as to how the funds are allocated.
“The suicide bombing at our embassy in Turkey is yet another stark reminder of the constant terrorist threat against U.S. facilities, personnel and interests abroad,” Royce’s statement said. “Coming after Benghazi, it underscores the need for a comprehensive review of security at our diplomatic posts.”
Nuland said that the suicide bomber approached a back entrance of the embassy just after 1 p.m. local time and detonated his explosives at the first checkpoint, killing the guard on his side of the barrier. Two other guards behind bulletproof glass were shaken, Nuland said, but unharmed. The bomber died on the scene. She said one Turkish visitor was wounded and was in serious condition, while several American and Turkish staff members were treated on site for wounds from flying shrapnel.
“This is one of the compounds where we have been making steady security upgrades over the last decade, and, in fact, the attack was at one of the exterior compound access sites, so it was far from the main building,” Nuland said. “And it was a result of the way that it was hardened that we only lost the one local security guard.”
From the highest levels, the Obama administration was quick to call the Ankara blast a terrorist attack. One of the criticisms of the administration’s handling of Benghazi was its vacillating between calling it a terrorist attack and a spontaneous offshoot of protests, such as ones that simultaneously targeted U.S. posts in Indonesia, Egypt and Tunisia. It was finally determined to have been an Islamist militant attack.
Vice President Joe Biden, meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, welcomed her sympathy for Friday’s attack, adding that although he didn’t have the details, “it’s characterized obviously as a terrorist attack on our embassy in Ankara.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said that a suicide bombing is by definition an act of terror, but that “we do not know at this point who is responsible or the motivations behind the attack.”
The Turkish interior minister said publicly that the attacker was a member of a radical leftist group. Some terrorism experts called his statements premature, saying that such tactics were more typically used by al Qaida-style extremists. U.S. authorities seemed reluctant to endorse the Turks’ official version until the completion of a full investigation.
“The Turkish side believes that the attacker was a member of an outlawed leftist organization. I think we need to let the Turkish side investigate,” Nuland said.
The bombing disrupted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s final day in office. She started what was to have been a day of farewell events with a briefing on the Ankara blast, followed by phone conversations with the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Incoming Secretary John Kerry also was briefed via his staff, Nuland said. Kerry was sworn in Friday afternoon.
Lesley Clark contributed to this article.