Stopping the Rot at Foggy Bottom, From Benghazi to Afghanistan’s Missing Millions
Can the State Department’s watchdog keep the diplomatic branch from repeating the sins of the past?
In mid-December, the State Department’s top internal watchdog sat down in front of a bank of cameras at a high-profile House hearing on Benghazi and bluntly told lawmakers that the department hadn’t done enough to ensure that another American diplomatic facility wouldn’t suffer the same bloody fate.
Steve Linick, a soft-spoken former prosecutor, calmly detailed how the department had yet to fully implement a number of security recommendations made in the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya. In some cases, Linick said, the changes proposed mimicked ones that had already been suggested after the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, which killed 12 Americans and 32 Kenyans working for the State Department there. The State Department failed to implement the changes then, and in some cases, has failed to implement them again since Benghazi. Among the issues left unaddressed: The department’s lack of any formalized method of deciding when to place Marine security personnel at some high-risk outposts and when to leave the facilities without American troops.
“They simply just didn’t have the processes and procedures that one would normally think you would have,” Linick told the committee.
The straight talk was nothing new from Linick, who has surprised many inside and outside the State Department by his willingness to publicly bash the department for lapses ranging from Benghazi to its mismanagement of millions of dollars of U.S. reconstruction money in Iraq and Afghanistan. Linick is also an unusually active inspector general: His office has issued dozens of reports this year, including seven audits in the month of December alone.
John Sopko, the congressionally created watchdog for Afghan reconstruction, called Linick “a breath of fresh air” for the department. “Steve brings that view that he is supposed to be independent and he’s supposed to speak truth to power,” Sopko said.
And the high tempo is no accident: Linick is in a literal sense making up for lost time. When he took his post in late 2013, the inspector general position had been vacant for an eye-opening five and a half years, leaving the department without an independent and Senate-confirmed watchdog during a period marred by some of the worst miscues in the State Department’s recent history. The void spanned the entire length of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and was at the time the longest in the history of any federal department.
The absence of a full-time watchdog meant that the post had been filled by an interim inspector general, Harold Geisel, a senior State Department official and former ambassador to Mauritius. Geisel’s independence was called into question by members of Congress, State Department employees, and government oversight groups, many of whom saw his long stay in what was supposed to be an interim position as proof that the Obama administration had little appetite for serious examinations of State’s failings.
“It sent a message this administration was not committed to oversight,” Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy. “You always need an independent top cop on the beat at State and he needs to be in that position as the inspector general.”
Royce was one of the first to raise questions about Geisel’s unusually long tenure in the watchdog role, but said bipartisan pleas for a Senate-confirmed IG without previous ties to the State Department went virtually ignored for more than 2,000 days. Royce was particularly concerned by a number of investigations conducted in 2012, when the inspector general’s office looked into allegations that an American ambassador had solicited a prostitute in a public park near his embassy and the OIG labeled the incident a management issue rather than pursuing misconduct charges.
“Tough oversight of State Department programs is necessary to protect taxpayer resources and keep our diplomats safe,” Royce said. “When individuals are too close to those they oversee, that’s when malfeasance happens.”
The IG position, mandated by federal law, is the government’s only way to track misconduct, fraud, and wasteful spending at the State Department. The IG has dual reporting responsibilities, to the secretary of state and to Congress. And with State having over 72,000 employees at more than 280 posts around the world, acting as watchdog is a daunting task. As Linick put it in a recent interview with FP, “That’s a lot of real estate and people to protect.”
Linick did not have prior experience at the State Department when he took the job in September 2013, but he was no stranger to the difficult and politically challenging task of telling a federal agency to shape up. Those recommendations can spark pushback from entrenched bureaucracies resistant to change and scrutiny among lawmakers eager to see quick action.
A father of two, Linick graduated from Georgetown University with an undergraduate degree in philosophy before moving to Burkina Faso, where he worked in international development for eight months before returning to Georgetown for a law degree. He kicked off his law career as a district attorney in Philadelphia before spending 16 years in various roles fighting fraud and white-collar crime at the Justice Department. In 2010, right in the middle of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, he was tapped as the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s first-ever inspector general. The agency was created in 2008 to oversee Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which had combined assets of over $5 trillion.
Starting an agency from scratch was challenging — Linick didn’t even have an office phone when he first got started — but in his three years at the FHFA he hired 150 people, issued more than 50 reports, and launched a management alert system to inform the public about mismanagement at the agency. His public recommendations put pressure on the agency and drastically lowered CEOs’ salaries at both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and in 2012 returned them both to profitability for the first time since 2008.
So when he got to State in September 2013, he identified what he considered to be the department’s most serious shortcomings — a dangerously weak cybersecurity program, $6 billion in contract files that couldn’t be accounted for, and $1.2 billion in grants at risk of being mismanaged in outposts across the globe — and tried to address them by releasing public management alerts like he had at the FHFA.
“After looking at our reports over the years, I noticed that we are making the same findings, particularly about deficiencies in IT and contract and grant management, year after year,” Linick told FP. “And it dawned on me that what we really need to do is turn the decibel level up to get the department’s attention.”
In those instances, naming and shaming proved an effective way to get results from State.
In the case of cybersecurity programs, the OIG had alerted the department to weaknesses in 2011 and 2012, but it was Linick’s alert in 2013 that prompted State to agree with most of his findings and name cybersecurity weaknesses as a serious deficiency for that fiscal year. And although the department insisted that the missing contract files were a paperwork issue, not an accounting one, it agreed to Linick’s recommendations for enhanced organization of future projects and even requested further help in identifying those responsible for the misplacement of the $6 billion in files that have still not been located.
After publicizing his concerns that State was failing to properly oversee $1.6 billion in grants worldwide, the department, at the watchdog’s formal suggestion, began randomly checking grants and created a new position to keep track of the department’s audits to avoid losing track of any future grants.
The faltering and expensive State Department-led effort to oversee the reconstruction of Afghanistan is one of the depressing examples of complicated projects getting funding without proper monitoring. And as American troops continue to withdraw, Linick said, the State Department’s need to oversee private sector contractors is only going to increase. During reconstruction efforts, some specialized projects relied on contract workers rather than State Department employees for specific skill sets or expertise. But matching poorly trained contract workers with projects in regions lacking proper supervision put American taxpayer dollars at great risk of mismanagement.
In one dramatic example, Sopko identified contractors who overpaid a prison reconstruction company for work that was never completed. And the State Department doesn’t deny that in an effort to make ends meet in recent years, oversight of these often undertrained contractors has been put on the back burner in posts around the globe.
“In the course of the last decade particularly, the State Department’s responsibilities operating in numerous conflict areas does means that our role has grown larger,” a State Department official told FP. “And it’s a challenge particularly that in an age of budget constraints we’re doing more with less.”
In March 2014, on his first trip as inspector general, Linick visited Afghanistan, where the State Department and USAID have spent billions of dollars on reconstruction since 2002. When the Obama administration began withdrawing American troops in 2011, then-Secretary of State Clinton flooded the country with hundreds of diplomatic reinforcements, greatly increasing the size of the American Embassy in Kabul.
Linick’s trip overlapped with a visit by Sopko, and the two formed a close personal and professional partnership. They continue to collaborate to share best practices and avoid evaluating the same projects. Sopko has launched aggressive investigations into an array of U.S. government programs since taking his post in 2012, and has helped expose cases where the State Department has effectively wasted tens of millions of dollars in Afghanistan, including $6 million on communication towers the Defense Department advised it not to build; $3.6 million for mobile television trucks delivered two years late and left unused in Kabul; and millions more on a botched renovation project at Afghanistan’s largest prison, which Sopko credited to two corrupted State Department employees.
“Some of the problems we’ve found in Afghanistan at State are because they did not have a confirmed IG who knew he had to be aggressive,” Sopko told FP. “It was not his job to be liked; his job was to expose problems.”
In October, Linick reviewed eight internal investigations of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security branch conducted by Geisel in 2012 and found three, including the early halt of the investigation into the prostitution charges, to have the appearance of being wrongly influenced by senior State officials. Linick flagged instances where months passed between reported incidents and the department’s response, and claims by agents attempting to investigate an incident of sexual misconduct by another ambassador that they faced resistance from senior officials.
Although Linick’s office made recommendations for safeguards to prevent undue favoritism and ensure all cases of misconduct are treated equally, State has not yet provided OIG with proof those protocols were implemented.
When Linick testified before Congress in mid-December about the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including then-Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, he credited State with implementing 24 of the 28 main security recommendations made after the attack. But he said two of the remaining ones — the lack of a clear plan for when to deploy Marines and improper vetting and oversight of locally hired guards — posed particular dangers.
“One bad actor with the right position and access can seriously endanger the safety and security of personnel overseas,” he told lawmakers.
The other witness at the hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Greg Starr, argued that the reason four high-threat posts remained without Marine security guards was because the host governments do not allow those compounds to be staffed by U.S. troops. That excuse rang hollow to many lawmakers, who questioned why Americans are posted in high-threat areas to begin with.
“According to Mr. Starr’s testimony, we have four places, very dangerous places of the world where American lives are at stake because we don’t have the proper security in place,” said Alabama Republican Martha Roby.
Embassy compounds aren’t the only State properties Linick needs to protect. Another growing challenge, he told FP, is protecting the State Department’s IT network from hackers around the world. The network has fallen victim to hackers multiple times, including one incident in November when its unclassified email system was reportedly compromised, though no confidential information was leaked. The Pentagon reports more than 1 million attempts to breach its computer networks each day; the State Department also faces an enormous number of attempted attacks.
Linick is also coordinating closely with inspectors general from the Defense Department and USAID to manage the oversight of spending on counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Syria, where the growing threat of the Islamic State has the American government on high alert.
But there are still plenty of departments and agencies lacking permanent IGs, and no one seems able to pinpoint exactly why filling these positions has seemed to be so low a priority for the Obama administration. John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group committed to open government, said the nearly six-year absence of an IG at State “just ended up being this symbol in the government reform community for abject dysfunction.” But Wonderlich said that Linick’s arrival in the post was a relief after such a long absence. “You always want someone playing that role who has an eye to independence,” he said.
The State Department official insisted that the current secretary, John Kerry, moved to have a Senate-confirmed IG in place soon after his appointment in 2012.
“Particularly as a secretary who spent almost 30 years in Congress, he [Kerry] believed this was important,” the official told FP. And it was at Kerry’s request, the official said, that his undersecretaries meet with Linick each week, “even as we recognize that a good IG is an independent, pull no punches pair of eyes on every action we take and every dollar we spend.”
But even if Kerry did request an IG in 2012, it took another year for President Obama to name Linick as a candidate and appoint him to the job. And it then took another year after Linick’s appointment to State for his spot at the FHFA to be filled. The Interior Department, which has been without a watchdog for more than six years, has broken State’s unwanted record for the longest time spent without a full-time inspector general. USAID, with billions of dollars invested in projects around the globe, ranging from West Africa’s Ebola crisis to reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, hasn’t had a permanent IG since 2011.
On Dec. 22, Jon Rymer, the Pentagon’s watchdog, was given an additional role as the special inspector general for Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led mission to fight the Islamic State militants. He named Linick as his associate inspector general, and Linick’s next trip will be to Jordan, where he’ll learn more about State’s involvement in addressing the threat posed by the group.
With Linick already facing a mountain of challenges in getting the State Department to agree to recommendations on grant management and embassy security, adding another layer to his growing responsibilities could be a risk to his ability to oversee existing programs.
And by having Rymer and Linick join forces on a new anti-IS operation, it seems like the U.S. government is stretching already thin resources even thinner as its watchdogs balance thousands of projects across the globe.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images News
Correction, Dec. 31, 2014: In 2012, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick found that three internal investigations had the appearance of being wrongly influenced by senior department officials. An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the investigations had actually been wrongly influenced. The acronym for the Federal Housing Finance Agency is FHFA. An earlier version of this article mistakenly used the acronym HFA.