Ambassadors Question Decision To Close Mideast Embassies

The State Department is keeping many of its embassies and consulates in the Muslim world closed this week "out of an abundance of caution." U.S. intelligence sources have been raising concerns about threats "emanating from the Arabian Peninsula." Britain and France are also concerned and have temporarily closed their embassies in Yemen. The U.S. list of closures is longer in part because the threats aren't specific enough, but the State Department is also far more cautious in the wake of last year attack in Benghazi, where the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others were killed.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Nineteen U.S. embassies and consulates in the Middle East and Africa will stay closed for the rest of the week. The State Department says that it's operating out of an abundance of caution amid intelligence reports about the possibility of terrorist attacks. And, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, it's not clear when the facilities will reopen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The State Department says it's been evaluating all the threat information and deciding post by post which ones could reopen and which need to stay closed. Britain, France and others have closed their embassies in Yemen, where al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is based. U.S. closures are far more extensive, including Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as Madagascar, Rwanda and Sudan.

Spokesperson Marie Harf says 19 in all will be closed for the remainder of this week.

MARIE HARF: We continue to refine our assessment of this threat. We continue, as you can imagine, to get new information. And as we do so, we'll evaluate our security needs going forward.

KELEMEN: A former ambassador, Ronald Neumann, who runs the American Academy of Diplomacy, sees this as the latest fallout over the controversy surrounding last year's attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others.

RONALD NEUMANN: Politicizing Benghazi in the feeding frenzy of the Congress has made this issue of security so sensitive that this and other administrations will continue to overreact and keep diplomats from actually making the judgments on the ground that they need to make.

KELEMEN: Neumann was ambassador to many trouble spots, including Afghanistan, Bahrain and Algeria. He says it's unusual, though not unprecedented, for Washington to close embassies, but there is a downside.

NEUMANN: You're telegraphing that you can basically close down a good piece of our worldwide diplomacy for an extended period of time if you can generate enough threat information. This would seem to me to create a new problem that you may have to deal with in the future of bogus threats.

KELEMEN: Former ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine says she's worried that terrorist groups are able to wreak havoc on U.S. diplomacy this easily and she suspects that al-Qaida chatter might be sending Washington down the wrong rabbit hole.

BARBARA BODINE: Sometimes what you end up with is what you might want to call chatter rabbits, which is you get an awful lot of chatter about one thing and it's a distraction. It's a diversion.

KELEMEN: That might explain why the U.S. is keeping so many embassies closed, but Bodine says closing embassies even temporarily is disruptive. It means that students or business executives can't go to embassies to get visas to travel to the U.S. and diplomats can't get out to do their jobs.

BODINE: The point of diplomacy is to have eyes and ears on what's going on in a country. So these kinds of constraints really make it very hard for us to do what we are paid to do by the government, for the people.

KELEMEN: At the State Department, spokesperson Marie Harf says the department wants to get back to business.

HARF: Everyone's preference in this building, from the secretary on down, is for our embassies and consulates to reopen as soon as possible, as soon as is safe to do so, so we can continue providing exactly that kind of support to U.S. citizens and others looking to come to the U.S.

KELEMEN: She dismissed the notion that the U.S. looks weak by closing so many embassies. She says some would have been closed anyway for the Muslim holiday Eid this week. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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