Exclusive: GAO report rips State Department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau

Exclusive: GAO report rips State Department’s Diplomatic Security Bureau

The State Department is tripling its civilian presence in Afghanistan, which will require a huge increase in the amount of security needed to look after those civilians. But State’s bureau in charge of protecting its personnel is already stretched thin and the Afghanistan surge could only exacerbate its administrative and strategic shortfalls, according to a soon-to-be-released GAO report, obtained exclusively by The Cable.

It’s a fact of life that operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are a now a huge part of the mission for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), which protects diplomats all over the world. That’s somewhat a legacy of Condoleezza Rice‘s "Transformational Diplomacy" initiative, which was meant to expand the U.S. diplomatic presence to include more robust efforts in more dangerous places. Outposts that might have been closed have been kept open, such as in Lahore, Pakistan, putting added burdens on the diplomatic security infrastructure, the report states.

Success in Afghanistan depends on improving the Afghan government and "that makes civilian efforts as vital as military operations and of longer duration," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just before last Tuesday’s announcement by the president. "We have begun to elevate diplomacy and development alongside defense in our national security strategy, and we are certainly engaged in doing so in Afghanistan."

But a more robust civilian presence will require a corresponding security footprint, and it’s not clear the DS bureau, whose budget has ballooned from $200 million to almost $2 billion since the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, can handle the increase. The bureau is strategically rudderless, overly reliant on contractors, and short on the skills needed to do the job, according to the new report, which will be the subject of a Senate hearing Wednesday.

"Although Diplomatic Security’s workforce has grown considerably over the last 10 years, staffing shortages in domestic offices and other operational challenges — such as inadequate facilities, language deficiencies, experience gaps, and balancing security needs with State’s diplomatic mission — further tax its ability to implement all of its missions," the report states.

Ninety percent of DS personnel are contractors, at the cost of $2.1 billion since 2000, and DS has 1,000 contractors doing administrative jobs alone, the report says. And while critics of the system blame an over-reliance on private security contractors for recent scandals and problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, for Congress the issue is whether national and taxpayer interests are being protected and whether the bureau’s future is being adequately managed.

According to the report, the lack of planning and management shortfalls at the bureau have consequences both at home and abroad. For example, due to increased needs overseas, in 2008 more than a third of DS’s domestic offices were at least 25 percent vacant. Thirty-four percent of the bureau’s positions worldwide, excluding Baghdad, are filled with officers below the position’s designated grade.

"I would like to see a greater emphasis on strategic planning to ensure that Diplomatic Security has sufficient staffing and resources to meet its missions," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-HI, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.

Akaka will bring all the players into one room on Wednesday for a hearing on the matter. Testifying will be Amb. Eric J. Boswell, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, Jess T. Ford, GAO’s director for international affairs and trade, Amb. Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Akaka’s concerns are shared on both sides of the aisle.

"Despite receiving a significant increase in resources and doubling the size of its direct-hire workforce, I’m concerned that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security remains largely reactive and suffers from the Department of State’s lack of focus on strategic planning," said Sen. George Voinovich, the panel’s ranking Republican.

The senators want State to chart a course for the DS service that will allow it to properly recruit and train the type of highly skilled agents that State will need in perpetuity, not just in warzones.

State has a departmental strategic plan and the DS bureau has a strategic plan as well, but neither specifically addresses the bureau’s resource needs or its management challenges, according to the lawmakers and the GAO.

Earlier this year, the GAO found that 53 percent of regional security officers do not speak and read at the level required by their positions. In one instance, an officer transferred a sensitive telephone call from a local informant to a local employee, which could have compromised the informant’s identity.

The State Department agreed with the GAO’s concerns and responded by saying that Foggy Bottom is examining the issues raised in the report in the context of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). That review is expected in summer or fall of 2010, after most of the new resources for Afghanistan will have already have been deployed.