Mostly Empty US Consulate Blocks Hamburg Streets Round-the-Clock Security for Skeleton Staff

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, United States embassies around the world have been turned into fortresses. In Hamburg the US Consulate General has just four State Department staff and few duties, yet it is blocking off major streets and the round-the-clock security is costing the German taxpayers dearly.

By Sebastian Knauer


The police sentry outside the United States Consulate General on Lake Alster in Hamburg is not all that exciting. Since the end of 2001 several dozen armed police officers -- and initially also US soldiers -- have patrolled the perimeters of the white patrician villa. The GIs used to go to the local barbers on nearby Warburg Strasse to get their military crew cuts and were welcome customers on this cordoned off street.

The most exciting incident since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington led to a sharp increase in security was the accidental shot from a machine gun that had been placed in front of the heating uni in a sentry hut. One official was injured by a chip from a plastic window that was hit. Otherwise, the most excitement you're likely to find here are traffic wardens who like to go hunting for parking tickets.

Behind the wooden screens between the heavy grey concrete cubes a police woman sometimes sets up a camping chair in order to devote herself to reading her book. "The security situation demands the continued protection of the diplomatic representatives," says Ralf Meyer, a police spokesperson.

The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations compels the Germans to provide foreign representations with comprehensive protection, according to the German consulate spokesperson Walter Wieland.

Graphic: Cordoned off zone around the US Consulate in Hamburg
DER SPIEGEL

Graphic: Cordoned off zone around the US Consulate in Hamburg

In Hamburg this has led to road blocks on two entire streets along Alster Lake. Every effort by local politicians to come up with innovative solutions to get rid of this obstacle has been thwarted by the US State Department's "100 feet setback" rule. In 2002, following the devastating attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and on the World Trade Center, the US Bureau of Overseas Building Operations made this setback rule the standard.

Only after long-drawn out, delicate negotiations with the local government was it possible to find a special rule for the new US embassy on Pariser Platz in the German capital city of Berlin. In order to avoid the complete cordoning off of the streets around the Holocaust Memorial, Behren Street was pushed back 25 meters to create a security barrier between the embassy building and the "uncontrolled areas." But this solution has now failed in Hamburg. A special delegation of experts sent by Hamburg's Interior Minister Udo Nagel to Berlin came back with the conclusion that it would not be possible to reduce the setback demanded by the US administration for the non-concrete historical consulate building in Hamburg.

The Hamburg government has decided that the square in front of the consulate is to be equipped with sunken steel poles and new sentry huts. According to officials in Hamburg, €1.7 million is to be spent on remedying the previously "optically unsuitable view. Now the stopgap solution is to be made permanent. The personnel costs for the round-the-clock security patrols, in three shifts, have reached an estimated €20 million since 2001. At the back of the consulate a huge satellite dish and a garage have to be protected.

The US Consulate General in Hamburg has had to shed a number of its duties, including the issuing of visas, to Berlin. According to the consulate, only four State Department employees work in the former luxury home. A further 40 workers are hired locally. The majority of the work involves dealing with American cruise ship passengers passing through Hamburg. The Consul General Duane C. Butcher is to leave the practically abandoned white mansion for Uzbekistan soon. "The security measures are not very comfortable for us either," he says. "We have al-Qaida to thank for that."

Despite the skelton staff, the streets at Hamburg's best address will continue to be blocked. One alternative suggestion made by the opposition, business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) to solve the setback problem was rejected "on aesthetic grounds." It involved a "maritime solution" to bring back the traffic. The FDP even contracted an engineering office to draw up plans. The quayside road would be pushed out into the lake on an arched road on stilts surrounding the embassy. The natural quayside and old trees would be spared under the plan.

"And if there were to be a reappraisal of the security situation by a new US president," say the FDP parliamentary representative Burkhardt Müller-Sönksen, "then the bridge street could be taken down again." The solution would cost an estimated €3.5 million, which would include creating extra mooring spots for boats on the Alster. According to estimates by the FDP, the economic cost of the forced diversion of traffic by completely cordoning off the streets will cost four times as much.

The local government in Hamburg, which is Germany's third-largest city, is sticking to the long-term cordoning off of the public streets, "because we like having the Americans here." Great Britain has already shut down its Consulate General on the Alster. The bridge suggestion was refused on "aesthetic grounds." Washington has already rejected a proposal to move the shrunken consulate to a planned America Center in Hamburg's new Hafen City (Harbor City) residential and business area. Washington has refused to give up the villa that it bought after the war, and that was home to the Nazi Gauleiter during the Third Reich.

Like it says on the Consulate General's Web site, its vision is: "To represent in an outstanding manner the interests of the American government, citizens, companies and institutions."

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