GAO’s report concludes in part that:
State carried out a historic effort in helping to repatriate more than 100,000 individuals during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the passengers who responded to our survey gave State high marks for its communication and information related to repatriation. In addition, State’s application of lessons learned from its COVID-19 repatriation effort will help it address future crises effectively.
However, although State took steps to prepare for a global crisis such as the pandemic, addressing several gaps could improve State’s
preparedness to carry out future repatriations. Reconvening quarterly meetings of the WLG, which has not met since April 2019, would ensure better communication among the agencies involved in planning emergency evacuations.
The publicly available 1998 MOU between the State Department and DOD on the protection and evacuation of US citizens and nationals and designated other persons from threatened areas overseas explains the role of the WLG:
The Washington Liaison Group (WLG) is an organization consisting of members of the Departments of State and Defense, chaired by a representative of the Department of State, which has basic responsibility for the coordination and implementation of plans for the protection and evacuation in emergencies of persons abroad for whom the Secretaries of State and/or Defense are responsible. The representatives on the WLG are the points of contact for their departments on all matters pertaining to emergency evacuation planning, implementation of plans, and coordination of repatriation activities with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Regional liaison groups are established overseas and activated upon the recommendation of the WLG to assist in the coordination of emergency and evacuation planning between the Departments of State and Defense for areas outside the United States.
GAO notes that WLG members include DOD, DHS, and HHS, among other agencies, as well as a number of State bureaus. Specifically, State WLG members include CA, DS, the Bureau of Administration, the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, the Office of the Legal Advisor, and regional bureaus.
More from the GAO report:
Although State established an interagency group—the WLG—to ensure coordination for the protection and evacuation of U.S. citizens abroad, State did not sustain the regular quarterly WLG meetings, which may have contributed to gaps in interagency communication during the global repatriation effort. State and DOD established the WLG in 1998, with State as the lead agency, to coordinate and implement plans for the evacuation of persons abroad during emergencies, and according to State officials, State formalized WLG’s charter in 2018.39 The charter states that the WLG is expected to meet quarterly. CMS—which is responsible for department-wide crisis preparedness and response activities—manages the WLG’s day-to-day operations, including scheduling meetings.40 However, as of May 2021, CMS officials told us that they had not convened the group since April 2019.
According to CMS officials, after the WLG last met in April 2019 and before the pandemic began, members of the group questioned the
purpose of further meetings. CMS officials told us that, in response, they offered to schedule future meetings on request or if the need arose.
According to the officials, in February 2021, interagency WLG members expressed interest in CMS reconvening the WLG to discuss information sharing about repatriation across and among the task forces. However, CMS delayed reconvening the WLG in part because of limited capacity within CMS to manage the group while also playing an active role in managing State’s international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to CMS officials.
State documents and comments by CMS officials suggest that the lack of WLG meetings before and during the pandemic may have contributed to gaps related to interagency communication. In internal documents, State identified a number of gaps related to interagency communication during the pandemic, such as a lack of knowledge of how to communicate with other agencies, lack of guidance about points of contact at other agencies, and lack of clarity about U.S. government policy on repatriation. Comments by State officials indicated that such gaps led to challenges in communicating with the correct offices at interagency partners and coordinating repatriation efforts with interagency partners in the absence of clear, established policy. For example, CMS officials told us that regular meetings of the WLG would have facilitated interagency communication at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, because such communication would have reduced the effort required to identify the correct contacts in other agencies.
In part because CMS did not convene quarterly WLG meetings in accordance with the group’s charter, State’s ability to coordinate with other agencies to respond to the pandemic and carry out repatriation activities was diminished. In addition to the requirement for the WLG to meet quarterly, leading practices for interagency coordination based on our prior work call for agencies to consider how to sustain leadership of interagency groups over the long term—such as by meeting regularly—in order to maintain the group’s effectiveness.41 CMS officials told us in May 2021 that they planned to reconvene the WLG in the future but did not know when that would occur. Convening quarterly meetings of the WLG would enhance State’s ability to coordinate repatriation activities with other agencies in any future global crisis.