Securing the Danger Zone

Diplomatic Security chief Eric Boswell is on his second tour in the job, and much has changed.

Since Eric Boswell last led the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security from 1996 to 1998, a lot has changed. Boswell, who was sworn in for the second time in July 2008, recently told lawmakers that the bureau was far more capable now than it was the last time he was in charge, and the assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security sat down with Government Executive to explain why.

On what has changed during the past decade:

I'm in a unique position to be able to tell the difference of what's happened in the last 10 [plus] years since the bombings at the embassies in Nairobi [Kenya] and Tanzania in 1998, then Sept. 11 and how DS has changed in the intervening 10 years, and it's really quite striking. We've tripled the number of agents we have, we have a budget of $2 billion plus, depending on how you count it, which is vastly larger than it was 10 years ago. But more than anything else, the way our mission has changed is that we are now protecting very large numbers of U.S. federal employees, very large embassies in zones of active combat. That's the huge difference.

The bureau has responded extremely well to new challenges; we got a lot of support from Congress with the budget and we got a lot of support from the rest of the building. We greatly increased intake of staff. When I say capable, I mean also we've got a lot of resources. When I was last in DS in 1998, we probably had between 100 and 125 armored cars, now we've got more than 3,000. Everything in Iraq is armored, everything in Afghanistan is armored, almost everything in Pakistan is armored. So there's been a huge expansion in capabilities in that sense, the physical equipment.

On sticking around when things get bad:

Ten years ago if there'd been a security situation as there was in Iraq two years ago, we would have closed the embassy. When the security situation in Beirut [Lebanon] got so acute that we didn't feel we could protect our embassy, rather than throw in the Marines, we simply just pulled the plug and went offshore. We don't do that now. That was a decision during the Bush administration that it was in the national interest to keep our embassies open as part of the transformational diplomacy, to keep them open and functioning in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

We're operating a very large embassy in Islamabad [Pakistan], which is not a war zone but is a very, very dangerous place to be. The most dangerous post in the world we have is Peshawar, Pakistan. We have a substantial presence there, which we would not have had years ago. Protecting all these people is very difficult; it's a huge challenge. A lot more people mean a far greater integration of the security functions into normal operations and the mission. In Baghdad, folks do not go for a drive, they do not go for a meeting unless they have protection, and in order to have protection they have to file a request in advance and get everything lined up. It's pretty close to the same in Afghanistan. So it means a lot more people.

On hiring:

We've always had an easy time recruiting for DS agents; it's an attractive career in government and law enforcement. There's always been a good queue of people who want to be DS agents; it combines a law enforcement function with an overseas protective function, which is very attractive. They are criminal investigators on one side, security experts on another side and diplomats on the third side. I don't want to undersell the diplomat part. They speak foreign languages-I know we got tagged on the [Government Accountability Office] report [that cited "pervasive language proficiency shortfalls"]-but, believe me, they speak foreign languages, they can negotiate. I have seen DS agents negotiate international agreements. They are engaging with their host country counterparts in a massive way, not just police but at the ministerial level, frequently.

On retaining employees:

We have a very high retention rate. The Foreign Service as a whole-and DS is a part of the Foreign Service-has a very high retention level despite everything people go through now. The Foreign Service as a whole is very different than it was 10 years ago; people can expect to go to unaccompanied posts-places where you can't bring a spouse or family or kids-once or twice or more during their career, which was unheard of 10 years ago. There were very few unaccompanied posts 10 years ago, but now there are many.

We have a substantial program to adequately train the large number of new agents we have on board but also we train, from a security point of view, officers and employees and even family members who are going to high-risk posts like Afghanistan and Iraq. Right now our training is widely distributed. We do training in something like 19 different locations, and we're hoping to consolidate most of those in a new training facility, which we are in the process of acquiring.

On whether the expansion of Diplomatic Security is permanent:

It's very hard to predict the future, but I'd say DS will continue to have a role of this size and scope. We have the flexibility to expand and contract precisely by the use of contractors. That's what the contracting mechanism is all about. So I don't see the number of DS agents changing dramatically up or down in the coming years as it has over the last 10, but I can see the use of contractors changing dramatically, depending on what the security situation is like overseas, both up and down. It takes four years to train a DS agent to get in the field. That's not the kind of flexibility we need to rapidly move to a contingency.

On off-the-radar responsibilities:

We've also increased staffing on the domestic side, on the criminal investigations side. That's a very, very important, and not very well-known, part of the DS function. We are responsible for that piece of the law enforcement world that deals with passport and visa fraud, [which] is big criminal work. It's narco-related, it's terrorist-related. If there is another Sept. 11, God save us, I'll bet you dollars to dimes that there will be document fraud in there somewhere and that's a responsibility DS has. We work with the Justice Department and the FBI, but that's the specific piece of the law enforcement pie we have domestically.

On the need for more strategic planning identified by GAO: The [State Department's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review] is a very important strategic planning mechanism for the department as a whole, and we're part of it. We do need to do better strategic planning, and we will. But the world is a very unpredictable place and we will always have to be flexible to respond to unforeseen crises and events-unforeseen and probably unforeseeable.

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