Posted: 12:24 am EDT
An assistant secretary of the Bureau of Consular Affairs told Congress in 2003 that “the Department of State’s visa work abroad constitutes the “forward based defense” of the United States against terrorists and criminals who seek to enter the country to harm us.”
In 2012, the deputy assistant secretary for visa services told Congress, “We are the first line of defense in border security because the Department is often the first government agency to have contact with foreign nationals wishing to visit the United States” (pdf).
We get that, and then you read about embassy officials who all had full-time duties elsewhere in the embassy serving as consular officers. Some of them who apparently had no experience with consular work performed consular functions according to the OIG inspectors. No consular experience? We wonder if that means first tour officers who went through the consular course but serving in a non-consular function at post, or does that mean embassy officials with no prior experience but hopefully, at least, with Con-Gen light training? Folks might read this and scream like … but that is such a small consular operation. Well, that’s true enough. But like they say, the bad guys only have to succeed once, and we know that they are trying mighty hard every day.
Via State/OIG inspection report of US Embassy Antananarivo (pdf):
The small consular section provides the full range of consular services, and Department end users express satisfaction with the work of the section. The embassy processed 1,579 nonimmigrant visas in FY 2014. Demand for immigration from Madagascar and Comoros to the United States has been low historically. Between FYs 2009 and 2014, the embassy issued on average fewer than 35 immigrant visas each year. The consular staff noted that few citizens of Madagascar and Comoros have taken advantage of the Diversity Visa Program that Congress created to diversify the sources of immigration to the United States. In 2013, the consular staff started publicizing the Diversity Visa Program in Madagascar and Comoros. More than 21,400 Malagasy submitted entries for the program in 2013, three times the number who applied in 2012.
The consular section chief position experienced a gap of 8 months from December 2011 to August 2012 because of a voluntary curtailment by the previous consular officer. The embassy assured the Department that backup officers at the embassy could cover the gap. Several different officers served as consular officers during that period, but all had full-time duties elsewhere in the embassy and some had no experience doing consular work. Because the amount of consular work in Antananarivo was low, the Department accepted the backup assurances as acceptable and decided not to send any officers on temporary duty assignment during the 8-month gap.
When the current consular section chief arrived, he discovered several problems with consular management controls. The backup officers had not done the daily accounting for consular cash receipts from April to August 2012, a management control vulnerability that the consular section chief reported to the Bureau of Consular Affairs. The consular section chief also learned that one of the backup officers was attempting to use consular funds to pay for a nonconsular trip to Comoros and to purchase equipment, such as iPads and four flat-screen televisions, that were ostensibly for use in the consular section but in fact were meant for use elsewhere in the embassy. The current consular section chief stopped those inappropriate expenditures of consular funds and reconstructed the consular cash records for the 8-month period. He did not find any discrepancies in accounting for the consular cash. However, this incident highlights the fact that consular management controls can go awry even in small consular operations, especially when no full-time consular manager is present. The embassy gave assurances to the Department that an officer who headed another section could serve concurrently as consular section chief for 8 months. The Department needs to consider carefully the credibility of such assurances when evaluating options for filling staffing gaps.
The consular section chief has had discussions with the Bureau of Consular Affairs about the fact that his consular workload does not require a full 40 hours per week. Officials in the Bureau of Consular Affairs suggested that the consular section chief could volunteer to take on other duties in the embassy. During the inspection, in consultation with the OIG inspection team, the chargé d’affaires designated him as the backup Comoros reporting officer.
We doubt that these gaps or occasionally, the temporary closures of consular section when the sole consular officers are away from their posts had to do with money, since the CA bureau certainly has tons of that. So we’re wondering if this has more to do with poor planning. If not, well, what is it?
Well, now …