Embassy security survives deep budget cuts at State Dept

McClatchy InteractiveJanuary 14, 2014 


The U.S. Embassy is seen in Berlin, October 28, 2013


— The massive federal spending bill released late Monday by the House Appropriations Committee allots $49 billion for State and Foreign Operations, $4.3 billion less than last year overall but with extra funds in priority areas such as diplomatic security.

The bill pledged "full funding" for embassy security, plus other funds for upgrades of temporary missions. Diplomatic security became a focus in the aftermath of  Sept. 11, 2012, attacks that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in the Libyan city of Benghazi. That incident cropped up in another section, too, with a "prohibition on aid to Libya until the Secretary of State confirms Libyan cooperation in the Benghazi investigation."

State Department spending also came under scrutiny as a result of Benghazi; an independent panel and lawmakers criticized the department's leadership and priorities. The omnibus bill, in an effort to "rein in unnecessary spending," bans funding to renovate the U.N. headquarters in New York, withholds funds for a new London embassy, provides no authority for debt relief for foreign countries and gives no money for "assessed and voluntary contributions" for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

The bill allots $15.7 billion in base and contingency funding for the operational costs of the State Department and related agencies, a decrease of $2.4 billion from fiscal year 2013 and $1 billion less than requested. However, the document notes, the bill gives $25 million above the amount requested "for embassy security costs relating to the protection of personnel and facilities."

USAID will receive $1.3 billion for operations, a reduction of $215 million from the previous year. Within that total, $91 million is earmarked for contingency funding for USAID programs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Other parts of the omnibus legislation targets, or at least threatens to slash, foreign assistance to governments whose recent conduct has drawn U.S. rebukes.The bill withholds funds for Afghanistan until "certain conditions are met," chiefly the signing of a bilateral security agreement that clarifies the status of U.S. troops that remain in the country.

The bill does green-light funding for Egypt, where the military is in charge after the overthrow last summer of the democratically elected Islamist president, as long as the interim government takes steps such as upholding the peace treaty with Israel and "meeting milestones Egyptians have set for their political transition."

Freedom House, a nongovernmental pro-democracy organization, issued a statement saying that it was "dismayed" by the decision to reinstate aid to Egypt that had been suspended in protest of the military rulers' heavy handed security tactics and arbitrary arrests of opposition members, both Islamist and leftist. Freedom House said the legislation overrides provisions that call for restricting funding to countries where elected governments are ousted in military coups. The Obama administration has refused to use the term "coup" in reference to the events in Egypt.

"The Egyptian government shows no concern for the consequences of its abuses because there have been none," Charles Dunne, director for Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House, said in the statement. "At every stage since the January 25, 2011, revolution, the government, whether led by the military or Muslim Brotherhood, has targeted political opponents and committed human rights abuses.  The United States has been deeply reluctant to push for genuine democracy, preferring to carry on business as usual with the Egyptian government."

In the omnibus bill, no words were minced when it came to the Palestinian Authority: "The legislation stops economic assistance" to the Palestinians if they obtain membership to the United Nations or its agencies without an agreement with Israel. The bill also puts new restrictions on aid if the Palestinians pursue action related to Israel's human rights abuses via the International Criminal Court.

The bill is committed to "fully funding the $3.1 billion commitment to the United States-Israel Memorandum of Understanding." Israel is the No. 1 recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

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