Bureau charged with securing diplomats in Iraq is not yet up for the task

When the U.S. military leaves Iraq at the end of the year, it will be up to the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security to protect the 17,000 contractors and diplomats still stationed at 15 sites around the country.

The bureau that currently employs 34,000 people and is responsible for hundreds of State facilities in the United States and diplomatic missions abroad will have to take on tasks it previously had no experience with, such as recovering downed aircraft, clearing improvised explosive devices, and defending U.S. posts against rocket and mortar attacks.

Although Diplomatic Security plans to rely on Iraqi forces and police to help handle the added responsibility, the bureau is a long way from being prepared for its new job, observers warn.

"As we deploy more civilian federal employees to support democratic reform and self-governance in Iraq, Afghanistan and other high-threat areas, it is critical that Diplomatic Security have the training, resources and support needed to protect them," Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said Wednesday at a subcommittee hearing.

Diplomatic Security was already expected to provide threat awareness training for all employees in high- and critical-threat posts. The bureau's new Iraq assignment means a fivefold increase in the number of employees requiring such training in the coming year.

A Government Accountability Office report, requested by Akaka and released at the hearing, recommended the bureau improve its training practices by:

  • Obtaining participant evaluations of all training efforts,
  • Improving the process that tracks student progress and completion of training, and
  • Developing a plan to increase the number of posts for which foreign affairs counter threat training is required.

State agreed to all the recommendations.

Susan Johnson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, also agreed with the recommendations in the report, but raised additional questions about the broader scope of the transition into Iraq, asking how diplomats will be able to do their jobs safely while questions of security hang in the air.

"There is an inherent conflict between assuring real security, particularly in war zones, and the ability of diplomats and civilians to do their jobs effectively," Johnson said in her testimony. "To find the right balance between the two imperatives is difficult."

Other major concerns came up at the hearing, including how Diplomatic Security would operate if severe budget cuts were made, how it will overcome inadequate training facilities, and how the bureau supports employees and their families and how it would treat them for possible post-traumatic stress disorder.

Currently, the bureau leases and rents 16 different facilities that are not built specifically for its training needs, which causes delays.

Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of State, conceded the lack of a permanent facility is detrimental to training efforts, but said Diplomatic Security currently doesn't have a choice, while the bureau looks at potential sites.

"We'll have to continue to do what we're doing and make do with what we've got," he said at the hearing.

Responding to long-standing charges that Diplomatic Security's lack of strategic planning affects operations, Boswell said planning is not a main weakness, highlighting the bureau's experience protecting the embassy in Iraq for more than a year -- since combat operations ceased.

"For Iraq, we have engaged in a marathon of planning," he said. "This is the most complex planning undertaken by the State Department, and possibly the most complicated for civilian government."

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