Expanding mission of State’s Diplomatic Security Bureau concerns lawmakers, GAO

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

December 9, 2009

Both the Government Accountability Office and lawmakers are concerned about how the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau is handling a rapid acceleration of responsibilities during the past decade.

At a hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia on Wednesday, GAO presented the results of a recent audit showing the security service faces significant challenges as a result of the considerable growth in its mission since 1998.

Jess Ford, GAO director of international affairs and trade, told lawmakers the bureau's presence in an increasing number of dangerous posts overseas requires additional resources, even though Diplomatic Security's budget has grown almost tenfold during the past 10 years.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, expressed concern that the extra resources have not guaranteed the bureau's readiness, particularly given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent statement that the number of American civilians in Afghanistan will triple by early next year.

"Diplomatic Security must be fully prepared to support an even greater role in protecting our civilians," Akaka said.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said most pressing is the second challenge GAO identified -- staffing shortages and challenges such as language deficiencies and experience gaps. According to Voinovich, 53 percent of special agents do not speak or read at the foreign language level their position requires.

Both senators said the bureau must do more to balance the increasing reliance on contractors and properly manage them. Almost 90 percent of Diplomatic Security's workforce needs are met by contractors, and GAO found that some employees are not prepared to manage such a large private sector workforce. Akaka said recent security lapses at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, which resulted in State's decision not to renew a contract with ArmorGroup North America, illustrate the need for stronger contractor oversight.

According to Ford, Diplomatic Security is missing out on important benefits that would come from a strategic review and guidance.

"Although some planning initiatives have been undertaken, neither State's departmental strategic plan nor Diplomatic Security's strategic plan specifically addresses its resource needs or its management challenges," Ford told the subcommittee. "Diplomatic Security's tremendous growth over the last 10 years has been reactive and has not benefited from adequate strategic guidance."

The watchdog agency recommended the secretary of State conduct a strategic review of the security bureau, either as part of the department's Quadrennial Diplomatic and Development Review or separately, to ensure its missions and activities address priority needs.

Eric Boswell, assistant secretary of State for diplomatic security, said GAO's assessment was on target.

"The recently released Government Accountability Office review of my bureau correctly assesses that DS must do more to anticipate potential and emerging global security trouble spots in order to create risk management and mitigation strategies that best focus on our limited resources and prioritize security needs," Boswell said.

He told lawmakers the bureau is actively participating in the quadrennial review.

Boswell said the military ramp-up in Afghanistan will affect the security service. He said the bureau will double its staff in Kabul and request a "large resource package" in fiscal 2011. He did say, however, that the service's role in Afghanistan is currently limited to Kabul.

"It is fair to say civilian surges in Afghanistan and Iraq -- and in Pakistan -- severely challenged DS from the point of view of stressing us and making great demands on our resources," Boswell said. "But we have done extremely well stepping up to the plate and meeting those challenges."

Where the agency needs to improve, he said, is in providing administrative support for agents in the field.

By Elizabeth Newell Jochum

December 9, 2009