GAO Report: Diplomatic Security Needs Strategic Review

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The Government Accountability Office had just released its report titled Diplomatic Security’s Recent Growth Warrants Strategic Review (GAO-10-156 November 2009). It lists down Diplomatic Security’s policy and operational challenges.

First, according to Diplomatic Security officials, State is maintaining missions in countries where it would have previously evacuated personnel, which requires more resources and, therefore, makes it more difficult for Diplomatic Security to provide a secure environment.

Second, although Diplomatic Security has grown considerably in staff over the last 10 years, staffing shortages in domestic offices and other operational challenges further tax Diplomatic Security’s ability to implement all of its missions.

Finally, State has expanded Diplomatic Security without the benefit of solid strategic planning; neither State’s departmental strategic plan nor Diplomatic Security’s bureau strategic plan specifically addresses the bureau’s resource needs or its management challenges.

The GAO report also gives an overview of the impact of the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan on Diplomatic Security:

Staffing the Iraq mission:
As previously discussed, staffing the large number of special agents at the Iraq embassy has drawn staff away from other missions and offices. Iraq is a critical threat post; therefore, Diplomatic Security fills it and other critical threat posts first. In 2008, 81 Diplomatic Security special agents—or 16 percent of Diplomatic Security staff—were posted to Iraq for 1-year tours. To fill this need, State officials reported that special agents frequently leave positions in other countries before completing the end of their tours to serve in Iraq. In 2008, we reported that, in order to provide enough Diplomatic Security special agents in Iraq, Diplomatic Security had to move agents from other programs, and those moves have affected the agency’s ability to perform other missions, including providing security for visiting dignitaries and visa, passport, and identity fraud investigations.

Afghanistan is currently Diplomatic Security’s second largest overseas post with a staff of 16 special agents in 2008, which increased to 22 special agents in 2009. As of April 2009, Diplomatic Security was responsible for the security of approximately 300 authorized U.S. civilian personnel, although Diplomatic Security expects that number to increase if State opens consular offices in the cities of Herat and Mazar-e-Sherif. While Diplomatic Security has not been placing a special agent in every contractor-led convoy, as in Iraq, Diplomatic Security plans to increase the use of Diplomatic Security staff for all convoys. To address these changes, Diplomatic Security plans to add an additional 25 special agents in 2010, effectively doubling the number of agents in Afghanistan.

Other operational challenges that impede the Diplomatic Security’s ability to fully implement its missions and activities were also indentified including two glaring ones on foreign language deficiencies and experience gaps. Excerpted from report:

Foreign language deficiencies:
Earlier this year, GAO found that 53 percent of RSOs do not speak and read at the level required by their positions. According to officials in Diplomatic Security, language training for security officers is often cut short because many ambassadors are unwilling to leave security positions vacant. However, GAO concluded that these foreign language shortfalls could be negatively affecting several aspects of U.S. diplomacy, including security operations. For example, an officer at a post of strategic interest said because she did not speak the language, she had transferred a sensitive telephone call from a local informant to a local employee, which could have compromised the informant’s identity.

Experience gaps:
Thirty-four percent of Diplomatic Security’s positions (not including those in Baghdad) are filled with officers below the position’s grade. In a previous publication, GAO reported that experience gaps can compromise diplomatic readiness. In addition, Diplomatic Security officials stated that these gaps between the experience level required by the position and the experience level of the employee assigned can affect the quality of Diplomatic Security’s work. For example, several ARSOs with whom we met were in their first overseas positions and stated that they did not feel adequately prepared for their job, particularly their responsibility to manage large security contracts.

The GAO concludes that “Diplomatic Security faces human capital challenges, such as inexperienced staff and foreign language proficiency shortfalls. The implications of this growth—in conjunction with the potential for increased challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hostile environments as well as the management challenges listed above— have not been strategically reviewed by the department. Nevertheless, State leadership acknowledges the importance of broad strategic planning, as evidenced by the Secretary’s new QDDR, which is intended to ensure people, programs, and resources serve the highest priorities at State.”

According to the State Department’s response to this report, there is no current plan to conduct a strategic review of Diplomatic Security’s mission and capabilities under the QDDR, but it still mentioned the QDDR’s overall strategic focus on building operational and resource platforms for success” in its response. See State’s full response in Appendix X.

For the next several months, State can point to the QDDR as the possible response to the different challenges ranging from foreign assistance to human capital challenges and all that ails State. But the QDDR is not expected to be completed until summer or fall of 2010 (I hear that an interim report could be released early next year), half-way through this administration’s first term.

Let’s see what else DS, the American Academy of Diplomacy and AFSA might add to this report. The GAO as well as Ambassador Eric J. Boswell, A/Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, (Ret.) of the American Academy of Diplomacy and Susan R. Johnson of the American Foreign Service Association will be at the Senate tomorrow, December 9 for The Diplomat’s Shield: Diplomatic Security in Today’s World hearing (Dirksen Senate Office Building, room 342, 2:30 PM).

Related Item:
GAO-10-156 State Department: Diplomatic Security’s Recent Growth Warrants Strategic Review | November 2009 | PDF