What’s Missing From the Accountability Review Board Reform Act of 2013 (H.R. 1768)

As we have blogged here previously, U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), introduced legislation on April 26, 2013, to increase the independence and transparency of future Accountability Review Boards (ARB). (See HFAC Chairman Ed Royce Introduces “Accountability Review Board Reform Act of 2013” (H.R. 1768)).

The bill currently has 22 co-sponsors and has been referred to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The current regs gave the Secretary of State the authority to appoint four out of five members of the ARB.  Under the proposed legislation, the Secretary of State may now only appoint two members of the Board:

“A Board shall consist of five members, two appointed by the Secretary of State, two appointed by the Chairperson of the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (the CIGIE Chairperson), and one appointed by the Director of National Intelligence.”

On the ARB Staff:

“(2) Staff.–

“(A) In general.–A Board may hire staff to assist the Board, and may have any Federal Government employee assigned or detailed to such Board, with or without reimbursement, to assist such Board. Any such assignee or detailee shall retain without interruption the rights, status, and privileges of his or her regular employment.

“(B) Special rule.–Any individual who is hired, assigned, or detailed to assist a Board under subparagraph (A) shall be subject to the rule relating to the avoidance of conflicts of interest under subsection (a) in the same manner and to the same extent as a Member of such a Board is subject to such avoidance under such subsection.

“(C) Office of the Inspector General.–To the maximum extent practicable, individuals assisting the Board shall be employees of the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of State.”.

Here are the ARB staff that may potentially be affected if the ARB Reform Act is passed by the House, the Senate and signed into law:

  • Under current ARB regs, the ARB Staff Officer is a member of the M/PRI staff appointed by the Director of the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation (M/PRI), an office that reports directly to the Under Secretary for Management
  • An ARB Executive Secretary is also appointed by M/PRI when an ARB is convened.  The Executive Secretary coordinates and facilitates the work of that Board. The Executive Secretary will normally be a senior Foreign Service officer or a retired senior Foreign Service officer who is recommended by DGHR/CDA.  DGHR is an office an office that reports directly to the Under Secretary for Management.
  • Experts, consultants and support staff: As determined by the Board the Department will provide the necessary experts, consultants and support staff to enable the Board to carry out its duties effectively and efficiently.
  • S/ES-EX will provide a full-time dedicated administrative support coordinator (detailee or WAE) to assist the Executive Secretary of the ARB, as formalized in Administrative Notice No.05-02, dated February 22, 2005.

H.R. 1768 also addresses conflicts of interest and recusals:

(c) Conflicts of Interest.–Section 302 of the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act is amended by adding at the end the following new subsections

 “(c) Avoidance of Conflicts of Interest.–

“(1) In general.–The Secretary of State, the CIGIE Chairperson, and the Director of National Intelligence may not appoint any individual as a member of a Board if the Secretary, the CIGIE Chairperson, or the Director, as the case may be, determines that such individual has a conflict of interest concerning a person whose performance such Board reasonably could be expected to review.

   “(2) Declining appointment.–An individual shall decline appointment to membership on a Board if such individual has actual knowledge of a conflict of interest concerning a person whose performance such Board could reasonably be expected to review.

  “(3) Recusal from particular activities.–A member of a Board shall recuse him or herself from any Board activity, interview, deposition, or recommendation concerning a person with whom such member has a conflict of interest. Such member shall promptly notify the other members of such Board of any such recusal, but need not state the basis therefor.

The current regs specifies that the ARB report on its findings and program recommendations to the Secretary of State.  To those who are repeatedly harping why the Benghazi ARB did not interview Secretary Clinton, this might be the best answer.  The ARB is supposed to submit its report to the Secretary of State. Does it make sense for the ARB to interview the Secretary when the report is to be submitted to the same Secretary that convenes the Board?

12 FAM 036.3 also specifies that “The Secretary will, not later than 90 days after the receipt of a Board’s program recommendations, submit a report to the Congress on each such recommendation and the action taken or intended to be taken with respect to that recommendation. Note that the regs did not say the Secretary must provide the ARB report to Congress, only that he/she must report to Congress on the recommendations and the actions taken. There is nothing on the regs that precludes the Secretary of State from sharing the ARB report with Congress, but she is not required to do so under current laws.

On its program specification,  H.R. 1768 changes that and mandates that the ARB submits its findings and recommendations to the Secretary of State and Congress.

“(1) In general.–Except as provided in paragraph (2), not later than 90 days after a Board is convened in a case, such Board shall submit to the Secretary of State and Congress its findings (which may be classified to the extent determined necessary by the Board), together with recommendations as appropriate to improve the security and efficiency of any program or operation which such Board has reviewed.

And that’s all good improvement, but here is what’s missing —

A standing committee within the State Department actually assesses whether an ARB should be convened or not.  Whether the Secretary of State convenes an ARB or not depends on the  the recommendation of this standing committee.  Per 12 FAM 032.1, “the ARB Permanent Coordinating Committee (ARB/PCC) will, as quickly as possible after an incident occurs, review the available facts and recommend to the Secretary to convene or not convene a Board.”

The ARB Permanent Coordinating Committee (ARB/PCC) according to the FAM is composed of the following members:

(1) The Director of the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation (M/PRI), who will chair the Committee; [M/PRI reports to the Under Secretary for Management]

(2) The Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security or the Principal Deputy; [Diplomatic Security reports to the Under Secretary for Management]

(3) The Senior Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research; [INR reports directly to the Secretary]

(4) The Coordinator for Counterterrorism [reports to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights]

(5) The senior deputy assistant secretary (or secretaries, as appropriate) of the relevant regional bureau(s); (regional bureaus report to the Under Secretary for Political Affairs]

(6) One representative designated by and representing the DNI; and

(7) The Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services [Consular Affairs reports to the Under Secretary for Management]

The FAM is clear that the  ARB process is “a mechanism to foster more effective security of U.S. missions and personnel abroad by ensuring a thorough and independent review of security-related incidents. Through its investigations and recommendations, the Board seeks to determine accountability and promote and encourage improved security programs and practices.”

An ARB is convened when there is serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property at, or related to, a United States Government mission abroad, and in any case of a serious breach of security involving intelligence activities of a foreign government directed at a United States Government mission abroad.

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US Embassy, Tunisia

And yet in the aftermath of the 2012 mob attacks of U.S. embassies particularly in Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Yemen where there were significant destruction of USG properties, no ARB was convened.

Why?

The destruction of property was not just the embassy buildings and facilities but also includes a number of  torched armored vehicles. We don’t know what type of armored vehicles were lost during last year’s attacks, but armored vehicles used in Iraq in 2005 cost at least $205,742 each.

Some of these attacks went on for hours with no help from the host country government.  Some embassy employees thought they were going to die and called loved ones to say their goodbyes.

So it makes us wonder — was the ARB/PCC  blind to what happened at these posts, and thus did not make a recommendation to convene a Board?

Or did the the ARB/PCC thought convening an ARB amidst the Benghazi debacle and the Benghazi ARB was a tad too much for the agency to handle that no ARB was recommended?

If Congress must reform the Accountability Review Board to improve its effectiveness and independence, it ought to start with a look  at the Permanent Coordinating Committee, its composition and recommendation process on whether an ARB is to be convened or not.
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