State Department:

Diplomatic Security's Recent Growth Warrants Strategic Review

GAO-10-156: Published: Nov 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Dec 7, 2009.

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State Department's (State) Bureau of Diplomatic Security (Diplomatic Security) is responsible for the protection of people, information, and property at over 400 foreign missions and domestic locations. Diplomatic Security must be prepared to counter threats such as crime, espionage, visa and passport fraud, technological intrusions, political violence, and terrorism. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to assess (1) how Diplomatic Security's mission has evolved since 1998, (2) how its resources have changed over the last 10 years, and (3) the challenges it faces in conducting its missions. GAO analyzed Diplomatic Security data; reviewed relevant documents; and interviewed officials at several domestic facilities and 18 international missions.

Diplomatic Security's mission, toensure a safe environment for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, involves activities such as the protection of people, information, and property overseas, and dignitary protection and passport and visa fraud investigations domestically. These activities have grown since 1998 in reaction to a number of security incidents. Diplomatic Security funding and personnel have also increased considerably over the last 10 years. In 1998, Diplomatic Security's budget was about $200 million; by fiscal year 2008, it had grown to approximately $1.8 billion, of which over $300 million was for security in Iraq. In addition, the size of Diplomatic Security's direct-hire workforce has doubled since 1998 and will likely continue to expand. Recently, Diplomatic Security's reliance on contractors has grown to fill critical needs in high-threat posts. Diplomatic Security faces several challenges that could affect the bureau's ability to provide security and use its resources efficiently. First, State's policy to maintain missions in increasingly dangerous posts requires a substantial amount of resources. Second, 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. Finally, Diplomatic Security's tremendous growth has been in reaction to events and does not benefit from adequate strategic guidance. Neither State's departmental strategic plan nor Diplomatic Security's bureau strategic plan specifically addresses the bureau's resource needs or management challenges.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: State agreed with the report's recommendation and initially indicated that it would include its strategic review of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) as part of the 2010 QDDR. However, such a review did not take place as part of the QDDR. Instead, DS pointed to several efforts it undertook to address the specific concerns raised in our recommendation. For example, according to DS officials, DS created a new DS Planning Structure in fiscal year 2010 that includes a strategic planning component and tools managers can use to monitor and evaluate program performance in order to make decisions regarding the allocation of resources. Following the attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, State initiated three separate reviews conducted by outside experts, each of which also addressed specific concerns raised in our recommendation. First, State initiated an Accountability Review Board (ARB) to report on the circumstances of the attack and make recommendations. The ARB made 29 recommendations covering overarching security considerations and staffing of high-risk, high-threat posts, among other issues. For example, the Benghazi ARB recommended that State (1) re-examine DS organization and management and (2) establish a panel of outside independent experts with experience in high-risk, high-threat areas to support DS in identifying best practices and regularly evaluating U.S. security platforms in high-risk, high-threat posts. The resulting reports, the Report on Diplomatic Security Organization and Management and the Report of the Independent Panel on Best Practices, made recommendations concerning DS?s organization, management, training, accountability, and risk management, among other topics. DS has already implemented a number of these recommendations. Furthermore, State has taken the following steps to address the five specific components of our recommendation: 1) Operating domestic and international activities with adequate staff: State created 151 new DS positions for domestic and international operations. In addition, DS created a new DS Strategic Planning Unit that is undertaking a strategic review of DS's personnel allocations domestically and abroad, which they expect to complete and report on in February 2016. 2) Providing security for facilities that do not meet all security standards: To address gaps in security when a facility does not meet all security standards, DS reiterated their policy for processing exceptions to standards and the employment of technical, procedural, and physical mitigation measures to meet security needs. In addition, DS has worked with DOD to activate 35 new Marine Security Guard detachments (17 had been activated as of September 2014) in order to increase security personnel at high-threat, high-risk posts. 3) Staffing foreign missions with officials who have appropriate language skills: The Foreign Service Institute developed Arabic, Urdu, and French language course aimed at giving DS agents at posts overseas the language skills necessary for effectively communicating on security matters. 4) Operating programs with experienced staff, at the commensurate grade levels: State implemented new assignments and temporary duty policies that promote sending more experienced staff to high-threat, high-risk posts. A recent analysis conducted by State indicated that the percentage of at-grade employees filling key positions at high-threat, high-risk posts have increased slightly over the last three years. 5) Balancing security needs with State's need to conduct its diplomatic mission: State developed the High Threat Post Review Board and the Vital Presence Validation Process to assess and manage risk at high-threat, high-risk posts on an annual and ad hoc basis. While we acknowledge all the steps State has taken and has underway to improve the operations of DS, we do not believe they have yet fully addressed our recommendation. We will continue to monitor State's efforts.

    Recommendation: 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. This review should also address key human capital and operational challenges faced by Diplomatic Security, such as (1) operating domestic and international activities with adequate staff; (2) providing security for facilities that do not meet all security standards; (3) staffing foreign missions with officials who have appropriate language skills; (4) operating programs with experienced staff, at the commensurate grade levels; and (5) balancing security needs with State's need to conduct its diplomatic mission.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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