Diplomatic Security:

State Department Should Better Manage Risks to Residences and Other Soft Targets Overseas

GAO-15-700: Published: Jul 9, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 9, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The Department of State (State) conducts a range of activities to assess risks to residences overseas. For instance, State tracks information on overseas residences in its property database, establishes threat levels at overseas posts, develops security standards for different types of residences and threat levels, and requires posts to periodically conduct residential security surveys. However, 17 of the 68 surveys for residences GAO reviewed were untimely or missing. Without up-to-date security surveys of all its overseas residences, State's ability to identify and address vulnerabilities or make informed decisions about where to allocate resources for security upgrades is limited.

Examples of U.S. Principal Officer Residence and Multifamily Staff Residences Overseas

Examples of U.S. Principal Officer Residence and Multifamily Staff Residences Overseas

State has taken steps to update its residential security standards; however, these updates have not been timely, and the standards are difficult to use. According to State officials, updating residential security standards should take about 75 days, but all three updates since 2005 took more than 3 years each. State is making efforts to improve the timeliness of such updates in response to a prior GAO recommendation. In addition, while federal internal control standards state that policy standards should be clear and consistent to support good decision making, State's standards and other security-related guidance for residences have gaps and inconsistencies, complicating posts' efforts to determine and apply the appropriate security measures and potentially leaving some residences at risk.

State addresses security vulnerabilities at residences by installing various upgrades intended to help residences meet security standards, but 38 of the 68 residences GAO reviewed did not meet all applicable standards. For example, 8 residences did not meet the standards for perimeter barriers. When residences do not and cannot meet all applicable security standards, posts are required to request exceptions, which identify steps the posts will take to mitigate vulnerabilities. However, State had an exception on file for only 1 of the 38 residences that did not meet all applicable standards. As a result, State lacks key information that could provide it with a clearer picture of security vulnerabilities at residences and enable it to make better risk management decisions.

State manages risks to schools and other soft targets overseas in several ways, but its efforts may be constrained by limited awareness of relevant guidance and tools. In fiscal years 2010 through 2015, State awarded almost 400 grants in total for security upgrades at schools and other soft targets. While federal internal control standards call for timely communication of relevant information to staff responsible for program objectives, officials at most of the posts GAO visited were unaware of some guidance and tools for securing schools and other soft targets. As a result, State may not be fully leveraging existing programs and resources for addressing security needs at these facilities.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since the 1998 East Africa bombings, U.S. diplomatic personnel working overseas have faced increasing threats to their safety and security. State has built many new embassies and consulates since 1998 and enhanced security measures at others. Increased security at such facilities has raised concerns that residences, schools, and other places where U.S. diplomatic personnel and their families congregate may be viewed by terrorists as more attractive “soft targets.” GAO was asked to review the security of residences and other soft targets overseas. GAO evaluated (1) how State assesses risks to U.S. diplomatic residences overseas; (2) the timeliness, clarity, and consistency of residential security standards; (3) how State addresses security vulnerabilities at residences; and (4) how State manages risks to other soft targets. GAO reviewed agency documents; met with officials in Washington, D.C.; and conducted fieldwork at a judgmental sample of seven higher-threat, higher-risk posts in four of State's six geographic regions. This is the public version of a sensitive but unclassified report issued in June 2015.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that State, among other things, institute procedures to ensure residential security surveys are completed as required, clarify its standards and security-related guidance for residences, develop procedures to ensure residences either meet standards or have exceptions on file, and take steps to ensure posts are aware of existing guidance and tools regarding the security of schools and other soft targets. State concurred with all of GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Michael J. Courts at (202) 512-8980 or courtsm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: To improve posts' compliance with residential survey requirements, State is developing a global standardized residential survey program that, according to DS, will give DS officials at State headquarters and security officers at posts the ability to access and audit security surveys for all residential holdings. As of April 2017, DS estimated a 12-month development cycle for this program beginning in February 2017. We will continue to monitor State's progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to manage risks to residences, schools, and other soft targets overseas, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) to institute procedures to improve posts' compliance with requirements for conducting residential security surveys.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: State conducted a review of existing standards and identified numerous gaps, inconsistencies, and standards receiving exceptions more than being followed. As of April 2017, State was in the process of updating these standards. We will continue to monitor State's progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to manage risks to residences, schools, and other soft targets overseas, the Secretary of State should direct DS to take steps to clarify existing standards and security-related guidance for residences. For example, DS could conduct a comprehensive review of its various standards and security-related guidance for residences and take steps to identify and eliminate gaps and inconsistencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: To ensure residences meet applicable standards, State is developing a global standardized residential survey program that, according to DS, will give DS officials at State headquarters and security officers at posts the ability to access and audit security surveys for all residential holdings. DS has estimated a 12-month development cycle for this program beginning in February 2017. As of April 2017, DS had also launched a system to track exception requests and approvals. We will continue to monitor State's progress in implementing this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to manage risks to residences, schools, and other soft targets overseas, the Secretary of State should direct DS to develop procedures for ensuring that all residences at posts overseas either meet applicable standards or have required exceptions on file.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: In July 2015, GAO reported weaknesses in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's (DS) tracking of exceptions for residential security standards. Specifically, exception requests were being processed by two different offices within DS--the Directorate for Countermeasures and the Directorate for International Programs. These offices were not always aware of exceptions processed by the other office. GAO recommended that State direct DS to ensure that these offices share information with each other on the exceptions they have processed to help DS establish a complete picture of all residential security exceptions on file. DS agreed with this recommendation and responded by transferring responsibility for residential security to a single office in October 2016. In February 2017, DS launched a shared system for tracking exceptions that is accessible to all DS offices and lists previously granted exceptions as well as new exception requests submitted after the October 2016 consolidation. As a result, as of April 2017, all DS offices now share a common picture of the residential security exceptions on file.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to manage risks to residences, schools, and other soft targets overseas, the Secretary of State should direct DS to ensure that the DS Directorate for International Programs and the DS Directorate for Countermeasures share information with each other on the exceptions they have processed to help DS establish a complete picture of all residential security exceptions on file.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: State concurred with our recommendation. In response, State issued a cable to all diplomatic and consular posts in November 2015. The cable updated policies and procedures for State's Soft Targets Security Upgrade Program for overseas schools and Department-chartered employee associations. The cable focused primarily on overseas schools; however, it also addressed State-chartered employee associations. As a result, important information was distributed to security personnel that were previously unaware of available guidance and information.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to manage risks to residences, schools, and other soft targets overseas, the Secretary of State should direct DS to take steps in consultation with the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) to ensure that Regional Security Officers are aware of existing guidance and tools regarding the security of schools and other soft targets. For example, DS and OBO could modify the Soft Target Program cable to reference the associated Foreign Affairs Manual subchapter.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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