State Department: Diplomatic Security Challenges

GAO-13-191T Published: Nov 15, 2012. Publicly Released: Nov 15, 2012.
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What GAO Found

Diplomatic Security's mission and the resources needed to carry it out have grown substantially since 1998. Following the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, Diplomatic Security determined that many U.S. diplomatic facilities did not meet its security standards and were vulnerable to terrorist attack. Diplomatic Security added many of the physical security measures currently in place at most U.S. missions worldwide, such as additional barriers, alarms, public address systems, and enhanced access procedures. From 1998 to 2009, there were 39 attacks aimed at U.S. Embassies, Consulates, or Chief of Mission personnel (not including regular attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad since 2004). The nature of some of these attacks led Diplomatic Security to further adapt its security measures. Moreover, the attacks of September 11, 2001, underscored the importance of upgrading Diplomatic Security's domestic security programs and enhancing its investigative capacity. Furthermore, following the onset of U.S. operations in Iraq in 2003, Diplomatic Security has had to provide security in the Iraq and other hostile environments such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Diplomatic Security faces several policy and operational challenges. First, State is maintaining missions in increasingly dangerous locations, necessitating the use of more security resources and making it more difficult to provide security in these locations. Second, although Diplomatic Security has grown considerably in staff, staffing shortages, as well as other operational challenges, further tax Diplomatic Security's ability to implement its mission. Finally, State has expanded Diplomatic Security without the benefit of adequate strategic planning.

In our 2009 report, we recommended that the Secretary of State--as either part of a State management initiative, the Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Review (QDDR) or as a separate initiative--conduct a strategic review of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to ensure that its mission and activities address State's priority needs. We stated that this review should also address key human capital and operational challenges faced by Diplomatic Security. At the time, State agreed with our recommendation and noted that, although it was not planning to perform a strategic review of the full Diplomatic Security mission and capabilities in the QDDR, the Department was committed to ensuring that Diplomatic Security's mission would benefit from this initiative.

We have subsequently learned that State has not yet conducted the strategic review as recommended. Specifically, Diplomatic Security officials told GAO that the QDDR was not used to conduct such a review. However, Diplomatic Security officials did point to several steps they had taken, including the creation of a Strategic Planning Unit and other efforts to enhance performance management. Diplomatic Security officials also noted that they have undertaken a new effort in response to the rapidly changing security environment encountered over the past year by bringing together subject matter experts from across Diplomatic Security to support scenario planning for future security requirements. We appreciate the steps that the Bureau has taken on its own initiative; however we continue to believe that the Department, and not the Bureau, needs to take action in order to strategically assess the competing demands on Diplomatic Security and the resulting mission implications.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses diplomatic security challenges at U.S. embassies and consulates overseas. The U.S. government maintains more than 270 diplomatic posts, including embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic offices, in about 180 countries worldwide. More than 80,000 U.S. government employees work overseas under Chief of Mission authority, representing more than 30 agencies and government entities. Since the 1998 embassy attacks in East Africa, U.S. civilian officials posted overseas have faced increasing threats to their safety and security, and facilities in high threat locations have faced numerous attacks. In September, the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi, Libya, was breached and sustained mortar fire. Tragically, the U.S. Ambassador and three other U.S. officials were killed.

This testimony today is primarily based on a GAO report that was issued in November 2009, examining the Department of State's (State) Bureau of Diplomatic Security (Diplomatic Security). The Bureau's mission, to ensure 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. This testimony also includes work we have subsequently performed to follow up on the implementation of the report's recommendations. It discusses (1) the growth of Diplomatic Security's missions and resources, (2) the challenges Diplomatic Security faces in conducting its work, and (3) the status of GAO's recommendation concerning Diplomatic Security.

For questions regarding this testimony, please contact Michael Courts at (202) 512-8980 or

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