A former Iowa congressman who worked behind the scenes on embassy security issues says moving U.S. embassies out of urban areas may be the best option for security. Former Congressman Neal Smith, a Democrat from Des Moines, vividly recalls his 1983 trip to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon — just three weeks before a massive car bombing there.
Smith watched the reaction from local guards as a top U.S. general pulled up in front of the embassy in an Army jeep. “If you’re in a country where they like you, they see somebody in uniform, they smile,” Smith says. “They all looked the other way. They didn’t want us there.”
Smith was bomber pilot whose plane was shot down during World War II. During Smith’s 36-year tenure in congress he helped secure financing for new U.S. Embassies overseas that were built in areas that were safer than where embassies had traditionally been located, inside cities. “Move ’em out or else get out of there,” Smith says. “We did it in Egypt. Well, we did it in about 30 or 40 counties. We went out and we found an area where you could have a conclave and then you get other countries together and say, ‘If we move, would you move?’ and then you protect the circle.”
One of Smith’s former Republican colleagues says Smith had more influence on embassy security than any other member of congress. Smith had hoped to convince the Clinton Administration to move the U.S. Embassy out of Nairobi, Kenya as well. Smith left congress in January of 1995 after losing his 1994 bid for a 19th term. Three and a half years later the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was bombed, killing nearly 200 and wounding 5,000.
Smith, who is now 93, credits his own longevity to healthy living. He’s never drunk coffee or alcohol and quit smoking cigarettes when he was 17. “It’s like I told the Russians when there were here. I was at the first dinner when they came over in ’59. I sat between Mrs. Krushev and one daughter and Bea (Smith’s wife) sat between the two daughters and so when they came back 50 years later I introduced myself and (one of the Krushev children) said: ‘You must be the son of that Neal Smith,” and I said: ‘You must remember I never drink vodka,'” Smith recounted Friday afternoon during an interview, laughing.
Smith served in the U.S. House from January of 1959 ’til January of 1995. He was awarded the Purple Heart during his service in World War II. Smith earned his law degree in 1950 and in the mid-50s he was the national president of the Young Democratic Clubs of America.