Inspector General Criticizes U.S. Counterterrorism Coordinator

Report finds problems with morale and management that hampered U.S. counterterrorism initiatives in foreign countries.

State Department counterterrorism envoy Nathan Sales speaks at a press conference.
Nathan Sales, ambassador-at-large and the U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism, speaks during a briefing at the State Department in Washington on Nov. 14, 2019. Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. government office charged with coordinating counterterrorism initiatives around the world has been dogged by management issues and staffing shortages that hamper U.S. efforts to combat foreign terrorist organizations, according to an inspector general’s report issued on Monday. 

The report reviewed the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and found that the top counterterrorism envoy, Nathan Sales, “exhibited decisive leadership” but also “engaged in conduct that negatively affected” the bureau’s morale and productivity. 

The State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG), which wrote the report, cited incidents where Sales “lost his temper” in meetings with both U.S. and foreign officials, and said the bureau did “not provide sufficient policy guidance” or support to U.S. officials overseas working to coordinate counterterrorism efforts with foreign governments.

The inspector general’s report paints a mixed picture of a bureau with a crucial and sweeping mandate for one of the Trump administration’s top national security priorities, particularly as terrorism threats grow in the Middle East and Africa and routine counterterrorism operations are hampered or derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

Read the full report here:

The bureau has responsibility for parts of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition and oversees a range of U.S. funding for counterterrorism programs in foreign countries and tracking of terrorist financing networks to combat a resurgence of the Islamic State and weaken terrorist groups in the Sahel and East Africa. In Iraq, remnants of the Islamic State have stepped up attacks and worked to stage a comeback amid an expected withdrawal of U.S. forces. In West Africa, the number of terrorist attacks have surged in recent years despite efforts from the United Nations, France, and regional militaries to contain the rise of extremist groups in the Sahel. 

In response to the report, the bureau’s management agreed with all 11 of the recommendations that the State Department inspector general put forth to improve its work and in February set up a steering group to implement the recommendations. “We saw the recommendations as an affirmation of changes we’ve been working on a for a while now,” a State Department spokesman said. 

Sales wrote a response on May 1, which was included in the report, saying the bureau was taking action to course-correct and had “fully implemented” five of the 11 recommendations outlined in the report. “We are grateful for OIG’s feedback on what we are doing well and its recommendations on what we might improve. We will use these reports to further refine CT’s effectiveness in executing our mission,” Sales wrote. 

The watchdog report noted that Sales “acknowledged the problem and responded positively” to its suggestions on how to improve. The report also gave high marks to Sales’s deputy, Alina Romanowski, for her leadership and management.

But the bureau was hindered by other problems, including chronic staffing shortages, unclear policy priorities, and turf battles with other State Department bureaus and federal agencies that undercut effective U.S. counterterrorism policies, according to the report. 

As one example, the bureau hadn’t effectively used its regional field coordinators posted abroad to help analyze foreign terrorist threats and build up foreign countries’ counterterrorism capacities. Officials told the State Department watchdog that “they lacked the clear bureau guidance necessary for them to perform their regional responsibilities to coordinate and report on counterterrorism issues and activities.” The State Department inspector general found that of 27 cables prepared by the field coordinators in fiscal year 2019, only one of them addressed regional counterterrorism issues. 

The bureau, which manages $642 million in foreign assistance funds, also did not have in place sufficient internal controls to counter fraud and waste, according to the watchdog. “Without a formal process to identify and mitigate risks, the bureau was at elevated risk of waste, fraud, and mismanagement,” the report concluded. 

The Bureau of Counterterrorism was also “chronically late” in submitting Country Reports on Terrorism, one of its flagship work products that members of Congress rely on to help craft legislation and allocate funding on counterterrorism issues. The bureau has met the statutory deadline to publish the report only once in the past eight years; the report on 2018 counterterrorism activity worldwide, for example, was submitted six months late. “Delays in publishing the reports diminish their usefulness as a source of information and as a diplomatic tool to influence counterterrorism policy,” the OIG wrote. 

The report didn’t offer many specifics on how the management issues hindered specific counterterrorism programs, but the watchdog also produced a classified inspection of the bureau with details of secret information that is not publicly available. The inspector general routinely inspects State Department bureaus and consulates and releases unclassified reports on their findings. 

Officials at State and other agencies appeared torn on the bureau’s effectiveness, with some praising Sales and the bureau as a “highly effective and dynamic” partner. Others criticized the bureau for advancing its narrow agenda “without full collaboration with other partners.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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