Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Daily Press Briefing

FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 1999

1-5Embassy Heightened Status of Alert Because of Security Concerns/Terrorists/Osama bin Laden/Security/Taliban/Threats to Americans/Coordinator for Counter-terrorism Mike Sheehan

DPB #81
FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 1999, 12:45 P.M.

MR. RUBIN: Hello. Welcome to the State Department briefing. Let me say, before turning to other subjects, some of this information has come out over the last 12 to 16 hours, so let me provide for you our assessment on the embassy situation.

American embassies in Africa and the rest of the world have been placed on a heightened status of alert, due to increased security concerns. As some of our embassies in Africa have been under surveillance by suspicious individuals, we are taking the precaution of temporarily closing our embassies in Gambia, Togo, Madagascar, Liberia, Namibia and Senegal from June 24 through the 27th of June - that is Sunday. We will re-evaluate the status in the coming days to decide whether to reopen and resume operations at some or all of those embassies beginning on Monday. I don't have any new information on that for you.

In the past, at various times, most but not all of our embassies in sub-Saharan Africa were ordered to close for two days from December 17 to 18, 1998, in the heightened threat environment following our actions in Iraq. In addition, our embassy in Uganda has closed due to security reasons on a few occasions since the bombing of our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Other embassies are on various statuses of closed or suspension, and I can provide you those details if you're interested.

QUESTION: A little bit more on this if we can pursue it a little bit. The account given for the six closings was that some suspicious folks had been noticed taking a hard look at the installations. Could you address - these are the six - this is it - a heightened state of alert not based, obviously, on these same suspicious folks? What do you - is it bin Laden; is it Ocalan; is it material you've received? Terrorists have always been out there - what's brought all this on?

MR. RUBIN: Again, assessing security matters is a combination of strategic information about the intentions of terrorists as well as tactical information about what individuals may be doing on the ground in specific locations.

As I indicated earlier, some of our embassies in Africa have been under surveillance by suspicious individuals, so that's certainly part of the equation. It's difficult to go into all the details, given the intelligence information involved and also in hopes of ensuring that we don't give those who might want to harm our embassies any additional information.

I can certainly say we have seen a pattern of activity indicating continued planning for terrorist attacks by members of Usama bin Laden's network, and we take reporting of such threats seriously. When we have reason to believe, through a combination of strategic information and tactical information, that it is prudent to take appropriate countermeasures and precautions, we do so and that's what we've done in this case.

QUESTION: This would be a good question at the news conference, I think, but since I won't be there, let me try you at the President's news conference. Could you step back a minute and address whether, indeed, embassy closings -- I could quickly cite that the President wrote Senator Moynihan that he had two reasons for not moving the embassy to Jerusalem. One was the familiar one: he didn't want to prejudge the outcome of negotiations; but he also said he was concerned about the security of Americans and American installations. Haven't terrorists, to an extent, influenced US operations, if not American foreign policy? Haven't they accomplished, at least, part of their goals of intimidation?

MR. RUBIN: No, we are not intending to let terrorists accomplish any of their goals. If they had accomplished their goals, we wouldn't have embassies in many countries around the world; we wouldn't have troops in many countries where they would not like to see us have troops. We have foiled their objective of stopping our determination to have an American presence around the world and to interfere with our determination as a global power to have American troop presences in various countries. So they have failed.

That doesn't mean we don't have to adjust our practices, that we don't have to spend more money to protect our people; and we are determined to do that. But we're not going to let these cowardly terrorists who kill innocent people achieve their objectives.

QUESTION: You mentioned earlier, I think I heard you say, that there were other embassies that were closed or on heightened state of alert?

MR. RUBIN: Our embassies in Somalia, Guinea-Bassau, Sierra Leone, and Congo-Brazzaville have been closed for some time, due to domestic instability. Our embassy in Sudan is open, but manned by local staff only.

QUESTION: Can you confirm that the surveillance was by members of the bin Laden group, and can you tell us --

MR. RUBIN: I've gone as far as I can on the information justifying our suspended operations.

QUESTION: You can't talk about whether there were specific threats that were directed against these embassies or against any Americans overseas?

MR. RUBIN: We try to be very careful. I've tried to give you some tactical information about surveillance, some strategic information about intentions of the Usama bin Laden organization, and I'm not prepared to go beyond that.

QUESTION: What will the re-evaluation be re-evaluating - as to whether these embassies re-open?

MR. RUBIN: Security is a complex decision-making process about where people are that we may know about; about where they may be directing their activities; about whether necessary precautions have been taken around embassies to ensure that they're in better position to protect themselves. What we try to do is take prudent and precautionary measures when we think there's a heightened threat to make sure we're in a position to meet that threat. If we're not, then they will remain suspended.

QUESTION: Jamie, can I try a two-part quick one? The US is in a process of bolstering security all over the world at installations. Are the ones that are closed -- not necessarily these six, but the others that have been closed - are they closed temporarily or whatever because of specific concerns there, or has it something to do with you haven't reached the point where their security has been improved sufficiently to satisfy people who make these decisions? And can you give us any price tag on what has been spent so far and what is projected to bring embassies up to speed?

MR. RUBIN: Well, I can get you some information after the briefing on embassy security, but to answer your question in short form, security is a combination of a threat that an installation faces and the ability of that installation to withstand such a threat. It's a combination.

If you have an American operation with no security around it, they are more subject to any potential threat. If you think there's a particular place being targeted and you have done a lot to protect it, then you have a different calculation. So it's both the precautionary measures you take, the defensive measures you take, on the one hand, weighed against what you're able to judge is the potential for attack. But what we learned in these bombings last summer is that every American installation is, at some level, a target.

QUESTION: Can you give us an update on your contacts with the Taliban?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: It's on Usama bin Laden. On Usama bin Laden, do you have reason to believe that he's within territory controlled by the Taliban? What is the Taliban telling you now about their attitude towards his presence.

MR. RUBIN: Well, we've been in regular touch with the Taliban to urge them very strongly to make sure that Usama bin Laden is brought to justice. I'm not going to speak for the Taliban. We think they need to provide the necessary steps to bring him to justice. They have not done so, and that's a major concern of ours.

QUESTION: I want to go back to what actual closure of these embassies means. I don't know if you can get into this --

MR. RUBIN: Suspended operations.

QUESTION: Yeah, but does that mean the Marine guards are still there? Are the embassies - are there local staff still there?

MR. RUBIN: Well, they haven't closed down in terms of withdrawing all personnel back to the United States or other locations; they've suspended operations. Each one will approach that differently. Whether there are Marine guards, I don't have that level of information; we can try to get that for you.

QUESTION: Jamie, could you volunteer information on embassy closings next time this happens? This never would have come to light had not one of our colleagues stumbled across it last evening.

MR. RUBIN: I will certainly endeavor to do that. Believe it or not, I had it in my book yesterday and I was waiting to be asked. I didn't get asked so I didn't answer.

QUESTION: Well, if I may actually follow up on that, is it your information or your understanding that only embassies are under threat, or are American interests in these countries or Americans who may be traveling in these countries? In other words, does your information say specifically you only think that the buildings are under threat?

MR. RUBIN: As at any time when traveling abroad, American citizens should continue to exercise caution, but we have received no specific threats targeted at American citizens overseas.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) -- embassies in that region issue any warnings to Americans in those countries where you all -

MR. RUBIN: I think the warden system is operating in a situation like that.

QUESTION: There are currently about six embassies being closed; I only have five on my list. Could you go through that list again?

MR. RUBIN: I named six; would you like me to repeat the six? I'd be happy to repeat the six, yes: Gambia, Togo, Madagascar, Liberia, Namibia, and Senegal.

QUESTION: Can you say what connection, if any, the decision to close was connected to today being the three year anniversary in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia?

MR. RUBIN: I'm not going to make a practice of getting into every calculation that goes into these situations. I've been provided, after some careful research and work, with the maximum that our people feel comfortable with me saying as to why we have suspended operations at these embassies.

QUESTION: Is it not true that every time a terrorist bombs or commits an atrocious act that they expose themselves more to counter-terror, to intelligence, et cetera? Has that not been the case with bin Laden?

MR. RUBIN: Well, we recently had named a very able coordinator for counter-terrorism who is going to be subject to Senate confirmation. His name is Mike Sheehan; he's extremely capable in this area. And at the appropriate time, I would be certainly willing to urge him to have a briefing to give all of you a generic discussion of counter-terrorism goals. But I think I wouldn't want to comment beyond that as a non-counter-terrorism expert, although your question suggests that you've been very studied in this area.

QUESTION: Well not so much, Jamie, but is it not true that what the terrorist accomplishes is opening himself up?

MR. RUBIN: As I said, our hoped-to-be Ambassador Sheehan, who will hopefully be confirmed by the Senate, would be in a better position to talk about counter-terrorism techniques with you.


QUESTION: This may be premature, but I'm just wondering after your generous offer yesterday, if the HEROES line has been ringing off the hook with tips about --

MR. RUBIN: Not as of yet, to my knowledge, but I will check for you.

(The briefing concluded at 1:30 P.M.)

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