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Challenges Facing Diplomatic Security

STAFFING SHORTAGES, inadequate facilities, and language deficiencies are just a few of the problems plaguing the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) at the State Department as it struggles to meet the challenge of securing U.S. embassies and diplomatic personnel around the world, according to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

DS’s resources have substantially increased since 1998, when thousands were injured and hundreds were killed in terrorist attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa. Back then, the bureau had a $200 million budget; by 2008, the budget was $1.8 billion, according to the GAO. Still, the report expressed concern over DS’s ability to meet its current and future challenges, given that DS will have some unique situations to contend with over the next few years, such as the ongoing military and civilian surge in Afghanistan.

At a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on the issue of embassy security, Sen. Daniel Akaka (DHI) noted that the number of civilian State Department workers posted to Afghanistan would triple to more than 900 people next year. Diplomatic personnel in Afghanistan will be expected to participate in nation building there, and it may be a volatile environment requiring high-level security.

One advantage in the Afghanistan situation, at least compared to what the State Department had to deal with in Iraq, is that DS had more advance notice and, thus, more time to prepare, Eric Boswell, assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, told the committee. He said that there is a plan in place for Afghanistan that is reflected in the 2011 budget request.

DS will also, however, face increasing demands in Iraq as the U.S. military presence there winds down. The military currently provides frequent security and travel escorts for State Department personnel. When the military leaves, the State Department will have to pick up the slack, notes the GAO report.

The department will also be responsible for other duties, such as training police, according to Boswell. The State Department will likely set up new consulates in Iraq as the military withdraws; the department is outlining security plans to address that right now, he says.

With regard to language deficiencies, the GAO report found that 53 percent of regional security officers don’t speak or read the language at the level required by their positions. Experience is also lacking: 34 percent of DS positions (outside of Baghdad) are filled with officers who have not been promoted to the grade that is designated for that position. According to the testimony of Susan R. Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, “Lack of experience…increases security risk at the personal and mission level.”

The GAO also discussed the high percentage of outside contractors who work for the State Department. It pointed out that 90 percent of security positions are filled by outside hires and that more mission-critical posts are being filled by contractors due to the lack of direct-hires.

For example, the protective security specialists that provide guard details in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan have typically been provided by third parties; a program to change over to direct-hires is still under development. It has been speculated in the press that it is hard to fill those positions because the government cannot compete with private sector salaries.

Boswell stated during the hearing that the number of contractors in protective positions will not likely change and that, instead, the State Department would start to move more into direct-hires for administrative positions. He added that using third-party security providers who draw from the local labor pool for positions is often cheaper than employing direct-hires.

The GAO report further criticized the State Department for being reactive to events, rather than strategic in its planning and use of resources. GAO recommended that “The Secretary of State—as part of the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) or as a separate initiative—should conduct a strategic review of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to ensure that its missions and activities address the department’s priority needs.”

Boswell said that the GAO “review of my bureau correctly assesses that DS must do more to anticipate potential and emerging global security trouble spots in order to create risk management and mitigation strategies that best focus on our limited resources and prioritize security needs.” Boswell also said that DS was working on the quadrennial review, which is expected to be completed later this year.