State/OIG on Diplomatic Security’s Special Investigations Division – The Missing Firewall

State’s OIG recently posted online its review of the three divisions in Diplomatic Security’s Directorate of Domestic Operations:  1) the Special Investigations Division (SID), 2) the Criminal Investigations (CR) Division, and 3) the Computer Investigations and Forensics (CIF) Division.

Here are the key findings:

  • The Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Investigations Division (SID), which investigates allegations of criminal and administrative misconduct, lacks a firewall to preclude the DS and Department of State (Department) hierarchies from exercising undue influence in particular cases.
  • DS does not have a comprehensive, up-to-date manual with approved policies and guidelines on how to conduct investigations.
  • DS’s quality assurance measures are not sufficient to ensure that investigations comport with law enforcement standards and powers. DS should use peer reviews to help correct flaws and identify best practices.
  • Frequent agent turnover in DS investigative offices reduces long-term, specialized expertise and hampers complex criminal investigations.
  • The Criminal Fraud Investigations (CFI) branch of the Criminal Investigations (CR) Division should become a new division.
  • DS and the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) have not completed a long-pending memorandum of understanding regarding CA’s Consular Integrity Division (CID).
  • Inspectors found personnel in the three Office of Investigations and Counterintelligence (ICI) divisions to be professional and dedicated to their jobs.

If you ever wonder why “it depends” is a common enough mantra over there, take a look:

The absence of a comprehensive, up-to-date manual increases the potential for errors, particularly for new agents who are forced to rely on on-the-job training. Inspectors discovered uncertainty among SID agents about which warnings to provide subjects prior to their interviews in investigations, though the wrong choice of warning can ruin a potential criminal prosecution. Inspectors were told that SID supervisors have sometimes pursued investigations excessively against other DS agents and that some supervisors have chosen to open cases on every allegation, including for those types of workplace issues that Department managers should ordinarily attempt to handle via other means. The likelihood of such problems increases when clear guidelines are lacking and individual preferences prevail.

Now, it’s not like this is a newly established office where folks are working from scratch. This office has been around forever investigating criminal and admin misconduct. It is utterly absurd  that it does not have an up-to-date manual. The OIG report mercifully did not say which version of the manual this office is operating under;  save folks the embarrassment of having to explain if the manual dates back to Jesse Helms days.

On independence, credibility, external influences and pressures:

 In all matters relating to investigative work, the investigative organization needs to be free, in fact and appearance, from impairments to independence in both organization and attitude. Such independence is essential so that an organization’s decisions about obtaining evidence, conducting interviews, and making recommendations will be impartial and viewed as such by knowledgeable third parties. The credibility of the Department’s investigative organizations and disciplinary system depends on that independence, yet the perception exists among knowledgeable parties that external influences have negatively affected some SID investigations.

SID is one of many offices that report up the normal chain to the principal deputy assistant secretary and director of the Diplomatic Security Service. Foreign Service special agents in SID, 80 percent of whom are junior in rank, ordinarily serve only one tour as an investigator. Subjects of their investigations may include more senior DS agents; other senior DS agents are sometimes hostile witnesses for interviews. The SID supervisors also are in the DS mainstream and subject to regular “up or out” assignment and promotion processes. During inspection interviews, nearly every SID special agent acknowledged being aware that one or more suspects, witnesses, or senior Department officials could one day serve on a promotion board or on a DS assignment panel that would decide the investigator’s career prospects. Although most investigators said that they had not experienced career pressure in any particular cases, some had indeed felt such pressure. Several special agents in SID observed that Civil Service agents with sufficient rank are less susceptible to such pressure, as their careers do not depend on DS assignment panels or Foreign Service promotion boards.

It turns out that the SID chief is an FS-01 position, which, according to the OIG report “leaves any chief who aspires to the Senior Foreign Service vulnerable to pressure from above.”  Unnamed sources also suggested to the OIG team that “having three bureaucratic layers between the SID chief and the DS Assistant Secretary makes sensitive cases vulnerable to multiple types of interference and the leaking of information.” 

The OIG recommends that the Office of the Deputy Secretary (presumably the incoming D/MR who succeeds Mr. Nides) should “restructure the investigative responsibilities currently assigned to the Special Investigations Division. The outcome should include safeguards to prevent any Department of State or Diplomatic Security official from improperly influencing the commencement, course, or outcome of any investigation.”

Let’s see if that happens.

Should have been interesting to know which cases were alleged to have been interfered with, wouldn’t it? That would have been a scream.

Apparently, according to the Dead Men Working blog, “CFSO and AFSA both told State’s OIG that DS investigations into allegations of mis-or-malfeasance by Foreign Service members were subject to outside influence and were occasionally unprofessional.”

They told the OIG seven years ago. Yay!