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GAO Cites Gaps in @StateDept’s Crisis and Evacuation Preparedness for Overseas Posts

Posted: 3:11 am ET

 

The GAO recently released its review of the State Department policies and procedures for evacuating overseas posts. The report notes that from October 2012 to September 2016, the State Department evacuated overseas post staff and family members from 23 overseas posts.  The evacuation was in response to various threats, such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. Overseas posts undergoing evacuations generally have three types of movement: authorized departure (voluntary), ordered departure (mandatory) of specific post staff or family members, and suspended operations (closure).

The report also note that in fiscal years 2010 through 2016, State’s reported costs associated with evacuating from posts on 53 occasions were roughly $25.5 million.

“According to State officials, costs associated with evacuations varied due to several factors, including the number of post staff and family members evacuated. In fiscal year 2014, costs associated with evacuating Embassy Maseru in Lesotho were roughly $20,000, while in the same year, costs associated with evacuating Embassy Sana’a in Yemen were roughly $1.9 million.”

Certainly, a big chunk of that cost has to come from security and transportation. Below are the significant gaps cited by the GAO in the State Department’s crisis and evac preparedness:

U.S. personnel working at overseas posts, along with the family members who accompany them, face a range of threats to their safety and security—such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. To help protect them, State has established processes to prepare overseas posts for crises and to conduct evacuations. However, State has significant gaps in implementation of its preparedness processes for crises and evacuations at overseas posts.

➥Overseas posts are not completing required annual Emergency Action Plans (EAP) updates

➥ Diplomatic Security is not identifying incomplete updates in its Emergency Action Plan (EAP) reviews

➥ The EAPs themselves are not readily usable during emergency situations

➥ Although regular drilling is a critical crisis preparedness task, very few overseas posts have completed all required annual drills

➥ Because overseas posts are not submitting required after-action reports containing lessons learned following evacuations, the State Department is missing important opportunities to identify challenges and best practices and to make changes to prepare for future evacuations from overseas posts.

The report concludes that “while State has taken initial actions— including some actions in response to our ongoing work—to improve implementation of its preparedness processes for crises and evacuations, significant shortcomings exist.” It also says that “while each of these gaps is of concern, taken together, they increase the risk that post staff are not sufficiently prepared to handle crisis and emergency situations.”

 Other details excerpted from the report:

Late Annual Updates:

In fiscal year 2016, about 1 in 12 overseas posts were late in completing required annual updates. On average, these posts were about 6 months late in completing their EAP updates. For fiscal year 2016, the list of posts that were late in completing their annual EAP updates included 7 posts rated high or critical in political violence or terrorism.

DS Does Not Fully Review Key Sections of EAPs Submitted by Overseas Posts

The FAH directs DS to review each EAP submitted by an overseas post during the annual EAP review cycle to ensure that EAPs include updated information needed by State headquarters and other agencies to monitor or assist in responding to emergency situations at posts.22 To conduct these annual reviews, DS Emergency Plans Review Officers in Washington use a list of 27 key EAP sections that the Emergency Plans Review Office has determined should be updated each year.23 According to DS officials, Emergency Plans Review Officers spot check these 27 key EAP sections to review and approve each EAP. In addition, DS officials told us that Review Officers consider forms included in key EAP sections that they spot check to meet the annual update requirement if the forms were updated up to 3 years prior to the check.24

DS does not document its annual EAP review process. We requested the results of the Emergency Plans Review Officer reviews, including data on who conducted them and what deficiencies, if any, were found. Federal internal control standards call for agency management to evaluate performance and hold individuals accountable for their internal control responsibilities.25 However, DS was unable to provide copies of the reviews completed because the Emergency Plans Review Officers do not document these results.

Emergency Action Plans Are Viewed As Lengthy and Cumbersome Documents That Are Not Readily Usable in Emergency Situations

While officials from State headquarters and all six posts we met with told us that EAPs are not readily usable in emergency situations, officials at five of the six posts we met with also said there is value for post staff to participate in the process of updating EAPs to prepare for emergencies. The process of updating the EAP, they noted, includes reviewing applicable checklists and contact lists before an emergency occurs, which can help post staff be better prepared in the event of an emergency. Officials at two of the six posts we met with also observed that EAPs contain large amounts of guidance because it is easier for responsible staff at post to complete required updates to their specific sections if all the guidance they need is directly written into each EAP.

The GAO reviewers were told that EAPs are often more than 800 pages long. “Our review of a nongeneralizable sample of 20 EAPs confirmed this; the 20 EAPs in our sample ranged from 913 to 1,356 pages long,” the report said.

One other footnote says that “while each major section, annex, and appendix of an EAP had its own table of contents, the full EAP lacked a single, comprehensive table of contents or index.”

A new system sometime this year?

The State Department is reportedly in the process of developing a new electronic system for overseas posts to draft and update their EAPs to address issues with the current system, according to State headquarters officials. According to the report, the State Department plans to launch the new system in the second half of 2017.

Absent a functioning lessons learned process …

The GAO reviewers talk about lessons not learned:

We learned of several challenges that posts faced in different evacuations in discussions with officials from the six posts with whom we met. Different posts mentioned various challenges, including disorganized evacuation logistics and transportation, unclear communication with local staff, confusion surrounding the policy for evacuating pets, problems with shipment and delivery of personal effects, difficulty tracking the destination of staff who were relocated, poor communication with senior State leadership regarding the post’s evacuation status, difficulties getting reimbursement for lodging or personal expenses related to the evacuation, and other similar challenges.

Absent a functioning lessons learned process, State’s ability to identify lessons learned and to share best practices from staff that have experienced evacuations may be constrained.

Back in 2009, Rep Howard Berman sponsored H.R. 2410 during the 111th Congress to provide for the establishment of a Lessons Learned Center for the State Department and USAID under the Under Secretary for Management.  That bill made no specific provision as to staff composition of the Center or its funding, and it also died in committee (H.R. 2410: Lessons Learned Center, Coming Soon?).

In 2016, the State Department and the Foreign Service Institute marked the opening (reportedly after two years of preparation) of its Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy. Then D/Secretary Tony Blinken said that the Center ensures “that we apply the lessons of the past to our conduct and actions in the future.” Some media outlet called it a ‘lessons learned’ center but its aim is on the study and analysis of diplomatic best practices to study how to effectively apply policy.

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@StateDept Orders Evacuation of US Embassy Banjul Family Members From The #Gambia

Posted: 5:56 pm PT

 

On Saturday, January 7, the State Department ordered the departure of family members of USG employees assigned to the US Embassy Banjul, in The Gambia. It also authorized the departure of all employees who need to accompany those individuals from the country. The evacuation order comes with the new Travel Warning urging U.S. citizens against travel to The Gambia because of the potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future.

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against travel to The Gambia because of the potential for civil unrest and violence in the near future.  On January 7, 2017, the Department of State ordered the departure of family members and authorized the departure of all employees who need to accompany those individuals from the country.

The security situation in The Gambia remains uncertain following December 1, 2016 presidential elections.  On January 10, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the current president’s petition contesting the election results, which is a potential flashpoint that could lead to civil unrest.  The sitting government has begun taking restrictive measures, which include shutting down and restricting radio stations, and making politically motivated arrests.  The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has stated it may intervene if the president does not step down by January 18.

U.S. citizens should consider departing on commercial flights and other transportation options now, as airports and ferry terminals may close unexpectedly in the event of unrest.  All U.S. citizens should have evacuation plans that do not rely on U.S. government assistance.  U.S. citizens should ensure that travel documents (passports and visas) are valid and up-to-date.  Consular services, already limited throughout the country due to very poor transportation infrastructure and security conditions, may be further limited, including in Banjul itself.

U.S. citizens who decide to remain in The Gambia should prepare for the possible deterioration of security:

  • Exercise caution and remain abreast of the security situation.
  • Follow the instructions of local authorities.
  • Stay home or at another safe location.
  • Have emergency supplies of food, water, and medications.
  • Let friends and family know that there might be communication disruptions.

Additional recommendations on emergency preparedness are available on the Travel.State.gov web page “What Can You Do in a Crisis Abroad?

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US Embassy Kinshasa Now on ‘Authorized Departure’ For Non-Emergency Personnel in the DRC

Posted: 6:13  pm PT

 

On September 30, 2016, the State Department placed family members of USG employees in the Democratic Republic of Congo on mandatory evacuation (see US Embassy Kinshasa Now on ‘Ordered Departure’ For Family Members of USG Employees). On December 2, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning and announced the “authorized departure” or voluntary departure of non-emergency personnel by December 10 due to the deteriorating security situation in the country. The Travel Warning also urged U.S. citizens to depart the country before December 19.  Excerpt Below:

The U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa warns U.S. citizens of the potential for large-scale demonstrations and civil unrest on/around December 19, the date on which President Kabila’s term in office was due to end before elections were delayed.

U.S. citizens in the DRC should seriously consider leaving the country in advance of this date. As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the Department of State has ordered family members of U.S. government personnel and authorized non-emergency personnel to depart the country as of December 10, 2016. This replaces the Travel Warning dated October 7, 2016.
U.S. citizens should consider taking advantage of departing commercial flights and other transportation options now.  All U.S. citizens should have evacuation plans that do not rely solely on U.S. government assistance.  U.S. citizens should ensure that travel documents (passports and visas) are valid and up-to-date.  Consular services, already limited throughout the country due to very poor transportation infrastructure and security conditions, may be further limited even in Kinshasa.

U.S. citizens who decide to remain in DRC through December 19 should prepare for the possible deterioration of security:

  • Exercise caution and remain abreast of the security situation.
  • Follow the instructions of local authorities.
  • Stay home or at another safe location.
  • Have emergency supplies of food, water, and medications.
  • Let friends and family know that there might be communication disruptions.

Additional recommendations on emergency preparedness are available on the Travel.State.gov web page “What Can You Do in a Crisis Abroad?

In addition, ongoing instability and sporadic violence continue in parts of the DRC. Armed groups, bandits, and some elements of the Congolese armed forces operate in:

  • North Kivu
  • South Kivu
  • Bas-Uele
  • Haut-Uele
  • Ituri
  • Tanganyika
  • Haut-Lomami.

These groups kill, rape, kidnap, pillage, steal vehicles, and carry out military or paramilitary operations in which civilians can be indiscriminately targeted.  Kidnapping for ransom is common, particularly in areas north and west of Goma, North Kivu.  Congolese military and United Nations forces continue to operate throughout North and South Kivu and near the DRC’s borders with the Central African Republic and the Republic of South Sudan, particularly in and around Garamba National Park. Travelers in the region may encounter troop movements, armored vehicles and attack helicopters.

Travelers are frequently detained and questioned by poorly trained security forces at official and unofficial roadblocks and border crossings throughout the country, especially near government buildings and installations in Kinshasa.  Be cautious when stopped by security forces.  Requests for bribes are extremely common, and security forces have occasionally injured or killed people who refuse to pay.  In the past year, several U.S. citizens have been illegally detained by government forces or robbed of their valuables while being searched.

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#HurricaneMatthew Closes US Embassies in Haiti, Jamaica, and The Bahamas; USAID Activates DART

Posted: 1:44 am ET

 

Due to Hurricane Matthew, the State Department has authorized the voluntary evacuation of authorized family members of U.S. government employees from the The Bahamas, Jamaica, and Haiti. A Travel Alert for Cuba recommends that U.S. citizens defer travel to eastern Cuba.

Alert October 3, 2016 Cuba Travel Alert
Warning October 2, 2016 Haiti Travel Warning
Warning October 1, 2016 Jamaica Travel Warning
Warning October 1, 2016 The Bahamas Travel Warning

 

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@StateDept Extends Evacuation Status of Family Members of USG Employees in Turkey Through September 23

Posted: 3:49 am ET

The State Department has issued an updated Travel Warning for Turkey. The warning dated August 29 announced the extension of the authorized departure status for family members of employees at US  Embassy Ankara and USCG Istanbul through September 23. It also extends the ordered departure status of family members of U.S. Consulate Adana employees and family members of U.S. Government civilians in Izmir province until September 23, 2016. Below via state.gov

The U.S. Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey and to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey. On August 23, 2016, the Department of State extended voluntary departure of family members assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul through September 23, 2016.  The decision to authorize departure followed an attempted coup and the subsequent declaration of a 90-day state of emergency by the Turkish Government.  The decision to approve voluntary departure status was taken, in part, to allow the Department of State to monitor the effects of the July 15 coup attempt and subsequent declaration of a state of emergency on the security situation in the country.  The Department continues to monitor the effect of these developments as well as recent terrorist incidents in Ankara, Istanbul, and Gaziantep, recurring threats, a visible increase in police or military activities, and the potential for restrictions on movements.  U.S. citizens should carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time.  In addition, we have recently experienced delays securing consular access to U.S. citizens, some of whom also possess Turkish citizenship, detained or arrested by security forces.

Foreign and U.S. tourists have been explicitly targeted by international and indigenous terrorist organizations in Turkey. As stated in the Worldwide Caution dated March 3, 2016, extremists throughout Europe have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, aviation services, transportation systems, and public venues where people congregate as well as religious sites and high-profile events. Most recently, they have threatened to kidnap Westerners and U.S. citizens. U.S. citizens are reminded to review personal security plans, monitor local news for breaking events, and remain vigilant at all times.

U.S. Government personnel in Turkey remain subject to travel restrictions in the southeastern provinces of Hatay, Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Sirnak, Diyarbakir, Van, Siirt, Mus, Mardin, Batman, Bingol, Tunceli, Hakkari, Bitlis, and Elazig.  U.S. citizens should avoid areas in close proximity to the Syrian border.

The Department of State is also extending its March 29, 2016, ordered departure of family members of U.S. Government personnel posted to the U.S. Consulate in Adana and family members of U.S. Government civilians in Izmir province until September 23, 2016. The U.S. Consulate in Adana remains open and will continue to provide all routine consular services.

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U.S. Mission Turkey Now on “Authorized Departure” For Family Members in Ankara and Istanbul

Posted: 2:08 am ET

 

The State Department updated its Travel Warning for Turkey on July 26 announcing the “authorized departure” of U.S. Mission Turkey family members from the US Embassy in Ankara and the Consulate General in Istanbul.

The U.S. Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens of increased threats from terrorist groups throughout Turkey and to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey. The U.S. Department of State is updating this Travel Warning to reflect the July 25, 2016, decision to authorize the voluntary departure of family members of employees posted to the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey. The Department of State made this decision following the July 15 attempted coup and subsequent declaration by the Turkish government of a 90-day State of Emergency. The Department continues to monitor the effect of these developments on the overall security situation in the country and advises U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to Turkey at this time. During this period, U.S. citizens in Turkey may see an increase in police or military activities and restrictions on movement.

Read the updated warning here.

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The State Department has already extended its March 29, 2016 mandatory evacuation order for family members of U.S. Government personnel posted to the U.S. Consulate in Adana and family members of U.S. Government civilians in Izmir province through July 26, 2016.  We expect to hear further extension of that order now that the two other posts in the country are now on authorized departure  following the declaration of a 90-day State of Emergency. See @StateDept Extends “Ordered Departure” Status for Consulate Adana/Izmir Prov Through July 26, 2016.

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U.S. Embassy Dhaka: Now on “Authorized Departure” For Family Members of USG Personnel

Posted: 3:39 am ET

On July 10, the State Department updated its Travel Warning for Bangladesh and announced the voluntary evacuation of family members of U.S. personnel posted to the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka:

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to consider carefully whether you need to travel to Bangladesh, in light of the latest attack in a series of extremist events.  Effective July 10, 2016, the Department of State authorized the voluntary departure of family members of U.S. government personnel posted to the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka.  The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka remains open and will provide all routine consular services.  The U.S. government assesses that the terrorist threat is real and credible.

bg-map

On July 1, 2016, attackers killed more than 20 people in a restaurant frequented by foreigners in Dhaka’s diplomatic enclave, including one U.S. citizen.  Other attacks continue to be carried out against religious minorities, bloggers, publishers, and security forces throughout the country.  Daesh (also referred to as ISIL, or ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) have publicly claimed credit for various attacks since September 2015.

U.S. citizens should take stringent security measures, remain vigilant, and be alert to local security developments.  Be aware that U.S. government officials and their families currently are not permitted to:

  • visit public establishments or places in Bangladesh
  • travel on foot, motorcycle, bicycle, rickshaw, or other uncovered means on public thoroughfares and sidewalks in Bangladesh
  • attend large gatherings in Bangladesh

Read the full announcement here.

 

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U.S. Embassy Bamako: Family Members on ‘Authorized Departure’ From Mali. Again.

Posted: 4:09 am ET

 

In December 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Mail went on “authorized departure” for non-emergency staff and family members.

On March 1, 2016, the “authorized departure” order was lifted.

On July 1, 2016, the State Department updated its Travel Warning for Mali with a notice of an FAA NOTAM for Mali and the authorized departure of embassy family members again:

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens traveling to or residing in Mali of ongoing terrorist attacks and criminal violence in Mali. The security environment in Mali remains fluid, and the potential for attacks throughout the country, including in Bamako, remains high. Additionally, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has revised its advisory NOTAM for Mali advising U.S. civil aviation to avoid flying below 26,000 ft (FL260) over the airspace of Mali. This Travel Warning is being updated to notify U.S. citizens that on July 1, 2016, the Department of State ordered the departure of eligible family members 21 and younger and authorized the departure of their accompanying adult parents from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako.  This notice replaces the Travel Warning issued on April 21, 2016.

Violent extremist groups targeting foreigners, including al-Qa’ida in the Lands of Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al-Murabitoun, have claimed responsibility for multiple terrorist attacks in Mali over the past year, as well as kidnappings in Timbuktu and along the border with Burkina Faso.  Furthermore, violent extremist elements continue to target Malian security forces, resulting in attacks on Malian government outposts and base camps for The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

On March 21, 2016, heavily armed assailants attacked the European Union’s Training Mission (EUTM) headquarters and primary residence in the diplomatic enclave in Bamako.  Although no U.S. citizens were affected by the attack and no EUTM staffs were injured, one Malian security officer was shot and required extensive medical care. AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack.

On November 20, 2015, one U.S. citizen and 19 other foreigners were murdered when heavily armed assailants stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako using gunfire and grenades.  AQIM and al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack.

Following the November 20, 2015 attacks on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the government of Mali increased its security presence in Bamako.  Roadblocks and random police checkpoints, especially between sundown and sun-up, are possible. U.S. government personnel are restricted from traveling outside the Bamako region, and may be subject to other restrictions, as security situations warrant.  U.S. citizens should consider taking similar precautions, are reminded to stay vigilant and aware of their surroundings, and exercise caution throughout the country, especially at night.

Read in full here.

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US Embassy Mali Now on Authorized Departure For Non-Emergency Staff and Family Members

Posted: 6:48 pm EDT
Updated: 12:32 pm EDT

 

The December 1, 2015 Travel Warning for Mali is out. It says it part:

The State Department continues to warn U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Mali.  This Travel Warning also informs U.S. citizens that on December 1 the Department of State authorized the voluntary departure of eligible family members and non-emergency personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako. U.S. citizens already in Mali are encouraged toreview their personal safety and security plans to determine whether they should depart. U.S. citizens are responsible for making their own travel arrangements. The U.S. Embassy in Mali will provide only emergency consular services to U.S. citizens for the foreseeable future.

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We’ve recently posted about the terrorist attacks in Bamako (see US Embassy Bamako Lifts Shelter in Place Advisory After Radisson Blu Hotel Attack in Mali). On December 1, the State Department has reportedly ordered the authorized departure of personnel and family members from Mali. We are presuming that the authorized voluntary departure affects non-emergency personnel and not all personnel at this time.  The Travel Warning for Mali was last updated on May 7, 2015.  We expect that it will be updated with this new development. We will update this post when the new warning is issued.

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State Dept Terminates “Authorized Departure” Status of Embassy Ouagadougou

Posted: 2:40 am EDT

 

On September 21, the U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso went on “authorized departure” status for eligible family members and non-emergency personnel (see U.S. Embassy Ouagadougou Now on Authorized Departure).  On October 9, the State Department announced the termination of the “authorized departure” evac status of U.S. Embassy Ouagadougou. Below is an excerpt from the updated Travel Warning:

This Travel Warning is being issued to inform U.S. citizens that the Department of State on October 9 terminated the “Authorized Departure” status which allowed eligible family members and non-emergency personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou to voluntarily depart the country on September 21. As a result of the termination of “Authorized Departure,” eligible family members and non-emergency personnel who departed Burkina Faso may now return. The decision to allow the return of eligible family members and non-emergency personnel has been made because of improved civil conditions which include the reopening of the airport and the resumption of commercial flights to and from the country. The transnational military and police forces also appear to be, again, firmly in control; and the transitional Government President, Michel Kafando, has been reinstated. This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning issued on September 21, 2015.

U.S. citizens should still carefully consider the risks of travel to the countryand, if already in Burkina Faso, review their and their families’ personal safety and security plans to determine whether they and their family members should remain. There is still the potential for sporadic civil disruptions throughout the presidential and legislative elections period, including demonstrations, which can be spontaneous and occur with little-to-no advance warning throughout Burkina Faso. U.S. citizens who choose to remain in Burkina Faso should remain vigilant and utilize appropriate personal security practices. Try to avoid political rallies, campaign events, polling stations, demonstrations, protests, and other large gatherings in the weeks before and after elections; maintain situational awareness and exercise good judgment; stay alert and aware of your surroundings at all times; and stay abreast of the situation through media outlets. U.S. citizens should maintain adequate supplies of food, water, essential medicines, and other supplies to shelter in place for at least 72 hours should this become necessary.

Read more here.

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