A State Department Under Secretary for Security? Our Readers Wade In

— Domani Spero


Last week we blogged about AFSA’s opposition to the creation of an Under Secretary for Security position, a position that had been recommended and approved but never implemented following the East Africa Embassy Bombings in 1998.  (See Eek! Diplomats Union Opposes Creation of Under Secretary for Security — Badda bing badda boom?!).

The Independent Panel (Sullivan Panel, 2013) tasked with looking into the Best Practices on security after ARB Benghazi (2012) has again recommended the creation of an Under Secretary for Diplomatic Security.

Related item: The Independent Panel on Best Practices | August 2013(pdf) via Al Jazeera

The previous recommendation in 2000 was for the creation of a new position for Under Secretary for Security, Law Enforcement & Counter Terrorism. This to us, appears to make the most sense, instead of having just one for security as the Sullivan Panel recommended.  That said, we are not optimistic this would happen anytime soon.  An expanded bureaucracy is, of course, a legitimate concern.  But to a certain extent, that has already happened with the creation of the DAS for High Threat Posts, except that the internal shuffles only happened within Diplomatic Security, and had not remedied the U/S for Management’s span of control over thirteen bureaus.

About HTP, we understand that it now stands for ‘High Threat Programs’?  Here’s an explanation from a blog pal in the know (Thanks T!) on HTP and danger posts:

“That term “High Threat Posts” was a very poor choice for the name of the new DS office, since it seems to say that high threat levels alone are enough to qualify a post for special security interest. They’ve now changed the name to “High Threat Programs,” but that’s just as bad. It’s actually a combination of high threat levels,  low host government willingness and/or capability to provide security support,  and a really bad mission physical security platform that puts a post on the list. That’s why the HTP list doesn’t correlate with the danger pay list, and why it doesn’t include even some posts that have a history of attacks. “

Diplomatic Security Great Seal

Diplomatic Security Great Seal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


In any case, we’ve invited readers to send us their thoughts for or against the creation of an Under Secretary for Security. Below is a selection of the feedback we received:

  • ▶︎ As an active DS Agent, I fully support the creation of the U/S position. DS should have a preeminent role in the security decisions facing our diplomats. It is a complete travesty that this recommendation was made 14 years ago and still hasn’t been implemented.
  • ▶︎ I support an U/S for Security position.  It signals that the Department actually takes the safety and security of our foreign service personnel seriously. An organization chart reflects the priorities of the organization. The senior security professional should be place as high as possible within the organization and should report directly to the senior executive in the organization. The DoS currently shows they don’t take security seriously when the head of security for the organization reports to the U/S for Management instead of reporting directly to the Secretary.
  • ▶︎ A DS U/S would be a dedicated security and law enforcement  professional with the ability to ensure that security considerations are given fair discussion.
  • ▶︎ AFSA and the Department hold FSOs up as the main decision makers on everything even though they usually aren’t the best qualified. Could you imagine the uproar if we created a working group of DS Agents to decide our political or economic policies? Yet, they convene a panel of FSOs to decide security policy and no one bats an eyelash.
  • ▶︎ I’m worried that if the U/S for Security becomes a reality the Department would fill it with a political appointee or someone outside of DS which I think would be completely unfair. Could you imagine the FBI or Secret Service filling their top position with someone outside their respective agency?
  • ▶︎ While I can think of several good reasons to have, I think all will be outweighed by the fact that this will end up being a political appointee position that would have no insight into State Department operations, no knowledge or understanding of DS operations and no true experience in security operations on the global scale within which DS operates.
  • ▶︎ Our FSO colleagues can write and they can  move US policy forward. But most are completely clueless when it  comes to security and law enforcement. I see it every day. ‘Nobody  would hurt me. I’m here to help. ‘ A DS U/S would mirror the  overseas environment where other sections partner with RSOs to get  things done.  I always tell my colleagues that you tell me what you want/need to do and I’ll figure out a way to do it. It may not be exactly as they were thinking (sometimes the ideas are simply wacky), but we’ll get the work done.
  • ▶︎ Why shouldn’t there be an U/S for DS?  Start with the Finding on page 17 of the “Green Report.”  (Like the Sullivan Report, not distributed within or outside the Department, but — also like the Sullivan Report — available on Al-Jazeera’s website.)  Then read the rest of the report.
  • ▶︎ In support of a U/S for DS, INR and CT, the Secretary would be in a position to nominate an experienced, credible and respected leader such as retired Generals John R. Allen or Stan McCrystal.  This type of person would be influential and provide advise on how to best mesh security with diplomatic engagement, along with oversight for DS, INR and CT = a true model for how to break the shackles of DS under the M paradigm.


And then here’s this one from an FSO:

  • ▶︎ As someone who has recently served in one of the most dangerous posts in the world, I fully support the Foreign Service union’s message.  I, along with many of my colleagues, often felt extremely frustrated by the security restrictions that the Regional Security Office imposed on us diplomats.  We only rarely left our compound.  And after the fallout from Banghazi, we often couldn’t even go to other Embassies for social functions.  However – other embassy personnel – the ones who carried guns – didn’t have to follow the same rules.  As a result, they became the faces of the embassy to both the public and to the rest of the international community while we – the diplomats – stayed cloistered in our compound.  Often we felt like mere fig leaves or window dressing, present in a country only for cover to the military and security types, even though many of us would have willingly accepted the same risks that they did for the sake of our mission.  I strongly believe that the work we diplomats do abroad is equally important to the national interest as the work done by the military and other agencies.  Why then, should we not take the same risks as they do?

We’ve done away with the comments section in this blog for a while now, but it’s open today if you have additional thoughts to share.

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6 responses

  1. @ drockford22 – I have never thought of myself as a diplomat. Nor would i want to. However, many times, and in many countries, myself and other DS Agents were doing far more “diplomatic” work than our “generalist” colleagues.

    Again, the issue lies in the fact that FSO’s have no idea what we do or what our job responsibilities are, and so should not be in charge of us or our programs.

    How many FSO’s understand that CONUS we are Federal Special Agents and do mostly investigations (arrests warrants, search warrants, serve on US Marshals, HSI, and FBI task forces)? How many FSO’s realize that more and more our duties are one half domestic, one half overseas? How many FSO’s realize that our overseas security functions are often balanced with more and more law enforcement duties? How many FSO’s understand how to plan, organize and execute a protective detail? How many FSO’s understand threat stream assessment?

    I do not tell the Econ officer how to “diplomat” in their cone of specialty and I do not think that a DS Agent should be the U/S of Economic Policy. Why should a Management Officer tell me and my colleagues how to do security and law enforcement functions?

    We need a U/S of Diplomatic Security. Better yet, we need to be an independent Agency. Neither of which are likely to happen.

  2. DS agents are not diplomats. I know it’s the DOS way to make everyone feel equal, but DS agents, like all other specialists, are support employees. The diplomats are the officers who have commissions as secretaries in the diplomatic service from the President of the United States – just like military officers. A diplomatic passport does not make one a diplomat. In fact, diplomatic passports being given to employees other than FSOs is a relatively new phenonemon – everyone else used to travel on Official passports. My old skipper used to tell all of us before we pulled into port that we’re ambassadors for the US. If it helps you to think of yourself as a diplomat in that way then go for it.

  3. Just to clarify, since I realize I didn’t write my comment very clearly: I did not mean to say that Diplomatic Security agents were not diplomats or that anyone served as poor representatives of the embassy. When I said that the Security Office prohibited diplomats from travel, I was including the security agents with us – the agents, of course, followed their own travel policies. But other agencies – the ones who carried guns – either didn’t follow the policies or played by different rules. As a result, they got out much more than the diplomats (including Diplomatic Security). I’m confident they reprsented the Embassy well when it came to discussion counterterrorism, military cooperation, or other security issues. But they (for the most part) didn’t have a clue what we were doing to promote economic cooperation, political stability, cultural exchange, et cetera. And often, no one was present to represent that side of our bilateral engagement.

    And yes, we understand the threat. We all saw what happened on September 11. We all know what happened to Anne. And we have access to the same threat information as anyone else. But many of us feel that we were willing to accept the risk for the importance of the work we did.

    Another point – I do not mean to point any fingers at the Security Officers themselves. In their shoes, facing the same incentive structures, I’d make the same decisions and make the same arguments. The problem, in my mind, lies in Washington. I’d love to see our leadership (and Congress, for that matter) stand up and say that the State Department’s mission is so important – so crucial to our national interest and to the welfare of American citizens – that we must take some calculated risks with our personnel. And, further, that we have brave and selfless officers in our State Department willing and able to take those risks with the full knowledge that we cannot have 100% safety and security in all parts of the world. In other words, to speak perfectly frankly, with the full knowledge that on ocassion some diplomats will likely have to pay the ultimate price for the work that they do. But, at the same time, that the work we do as a Department – like the work the military does – is that important to justify that risk. Maybe I’m not listening to the right people, but right now I’m not hearing that message. Instead, I’m hearing that our number one priority is our safety. Well, frankly, I didn’t join the State Department because I cared about my own safety. I joined because I believed in the Department’s mission.

    A caveat – no one I knew in the post in which I served *ever* went anywhere where he or she felt uncomfortable, nor am I advoacting that they should. Further, I do think that the Department should base promotion and tenure based on whether own volunteers for dangerous assignments or dangerous tasks. If people don’t volunteer, fine. But, again, I would like to see a Department (and a political climate) where officers who do volunteer – with an understanding of the calculated risk and a strong belief in the critical importance of their work – can operate as effectively as possible in the circumstances. And honestly, it is damn hard to operate effectively as a diplomat when you’re stuck in a compound in the capital.

    Frankly, I have no opinion on whether we should have an Undersecretary of Diplomatic Security. I do not pretend to have any expertise on the proper bureaucratic setup. Maybe it would help. But I did applaud the union’s message – a message I feel we have lost recently in the wake of Benghazi – that we need to balance security with the importance of our mission.

  4. The issue of span-of-control is one that has plagued the U/S for Management for decades now and an U/S for Security, LE, & CT would ease that burden and unclog that stovepipe at least a little bit.

    Regarding some of the comments from my DS colleagues, it’s not unusual for other federal LE agencies to be headed by someone whose professional LE credentials came from another agency. So even an “in house” DOS candidate for the notional U/S job wouldn’t necessarily have had to been a cradle-to-grave, badged and gunned DS agent. Someone from another federal LE agency or a DOS person with solid CT or IC credentials might be a good fit.

    (If nominated, CAA will not run; if confirmed, CAA will not serve.)

  5. The comment above from the FSO is a picture perfect example of why DS exists, and or more importance, why it needs a U/S. In fact, the best option would be as an independent agency, much like the FBI is independent of Justice.

    FSO’s truly do not understand our job, and after a number of years in DS, I feel that most never will. They think we are some blend of security guard and hall monitor, and for someone who alledgely served at a “most dangerous post”, you would think that they would understand the threats that truly lurk out in the world. God forbid we say no to an “Embassy Social Function”.

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