Overseas Security:

State Department Has Not Fully Implemented Key Measures to Protect U.S. Officials from Terrorist Attacks Outside of Embassies

GAO-05-642: Published: May 9, 2005. Publicly Released: May 9, 2005.

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U.S. government officials working overseas are at risk from terrorist threats. Since 1968, 32 embassy officials have been attacked--23 fatally--by terrorists outside the embassy. As the State Department continues to improve security at U.S. embassies, terrorist groups are likely to focus on "soft" targets--such as homes, schools, and places of worship. GAO was asked to determine whether State has a strategy for soft target protection; assess State's efforts to protect U.S. officials and their families while traveling to and from work; assess State's efforts overseas to improve security at schools attended by the children of U.S. officials; and describe issues related to protection at their residences.

State has a number of programs and activities designed to protect U.S. officials and their families outside the embassy, including security briefings, protection at schools and residences, and surveillance detection. However, State has not developed a comprehensive strategy that clearly identifies safety and security requirements and resources needed to protect U.S. officials and their families abroad from terrorist threats outside the embassy. State officials raised a number of challenges related to developing and implementing such a strategy. They also indicated that they have recently initiated an effort to develop a soft targets strategy. As part of this effort, State officials said they will need to address and resolve a number of legal and financial issues. Three State initiated investigations into terrorist attacks against U.S. officials outside of embassies found that the officials lacked the necessary hands-on training to help counter the attack. The investigations recommended that State provide hands-on counterterrorism training and implement accountability measures to ensure compliance with personal security procedures. After each of these investigations, State reported to Congress that it planned to implement the recommendations, yet we found that State's hands-on training course is not required, the accountability procedures have not been effectively implemented, and key embassy officials are not trained to implement State's counterterrorism procedures. State instituted a program in 2003 to improve security at schools, but its scope has not yet been fully determined. In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, Congress earmarked $29.8 million for State to address security vulnerabilities against soft targets, particularly at overseas schools. The multiphase program provides basic security hardware to protect U.S. officials and their families at schools and some off-compound employee association facilities from terrorist threats. However, during our visits to posts, regional security officers were unclear about which schools could qualify for security assistance under phase three of the program. State's program to protect U.S. officials and their families at their residences is primarily designed to deter crime, not terrorism. The Residential Security program includes basic security hardware and local guards, which State officials said provide effective deterrence against crime, though only limited deterrence against a terrorist attack. To minimize the risk and consequences of a residential terrorist attack, some posts we visited limited the number of U.S. officials living in specific apartment buildings. To provide greater protection against terrorist attacks, some posts we visited used surveillance detection teams in residential areas.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should include in the current development of a comprehensive soft target strategy information that determines the extent of State's responsibilities for providing security to U.S. officials and their families outside the embassy.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its June 2005 report to the Senate Appropriations Committee (regarding Senate Report 108-344) State reported that its strategy for addressing soft target threats is a combination of programs the Department has had in place for years to protect personnel from terrorist attacks, including outreach programs to the private sector and the development of several new initiatives. These initiatives include the Soft Targets Program, focusing on overseas American schools, post housing, and State sponsored employee recreational facilities. With regards to the extent of State's responsibility for providing security in the strategy, State reported to GAO in August 2009 that the Department's primary authorities to provide physical security for persons overseas are set forth in section 103 of the Diplomatic Security Act (22 USC 4802(a)(2)) and in 22 USC 2709. In addition, the Department has other limited but relevant authorities, for example, sections 29 and 31 of the State Department Basic Authorities Act (22 USC 2701 and 2703), which authorize certain assistance to schools and employee service facilities, and section 4 (22 USC 2671), which authorizes evacuations of American citizens when their lives are endangered by war, civil unrest, or natural disasters. State reported that the Department has no legal or financial authority to provide facilities security or personal protection to private U.S. citizens traveling or residing in foreign sovereign countries.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should include in the current development of a comprehensive soft target strategy information that addresses the legal and financial ramifications of funding security improvements to schools, places of worship, and the private sector.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, State reported to GAO in August 2009 that the Department's primary authorities to provide physical security for persons overseas are set forth in section 103 of the Diplomatic Security Act (22 USC 4802(a)(2)) and in 22 USC 2709. In addition, State indicated that it has other limited but relevant authorities, for example, sections 29 and 31 of the State Department Basic Authorities Act (22 USC 2701 and 2703), which authorize certain assistance to schools and employee service facilities, and section 4 (22 USC 2671), which authorizes evacuations of American citizens when their lives are endangered by war, civil unrest, or natural disasters. Specific authorities and funding are also provided in annual appropriations legislation. State reported to GAO in August 2009 that it has no legal or financial authority to provide facilities security or personal protection to private U.S. citizens traveling or residing in foreign sovereign countries. By contrast, State reported that under 22 U.S.C. 2701, the Department has legal authority to fund security upgrades at educational facilities designed "to meet the needs of children of United States citizens stationed outside the United States who are engaged in carrying out Government activities." However, the Department's Soft Target program does not address schools unless they enroll, or are about to enroll, US government dependents. State further indicated that because the Department's authority and funding is directed toward the protection of US government officials and their dependents, the Soft Target program does not fund rapid response teams, security guards, school buses, night clubs, hotels, restaurants, churches, sporting facilities, colleges, universities, or other places Americans may gather.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should include in the current development of a comprehensive soft target strategy information that develops programs and activities with Foreign Affairs Manual standards and guidelines to provide protection for those areas for which State is deemed responsible for.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, State reported in August 2009 that it has provided guidance for soft targets protection for overseas schools through a series of cables starting in 2003 through early 2009 that were sent to all diplomatic and consular posts. The cables outlined the different security requirements for the soft target programs at schools. In addition, State reported that it has issued requirements in its Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) with regards to the safety of US government personnel overseas. 13 FAM 320, which was updated January 2007, lists the training required by US government personnel and their families prior to overseas deployment.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should include in the current development of a comprehensive soft target strategy information that integrates into the embassy emergency action plan elements of the soft targets program.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, State reported to GAO in August 2009 that guidance to add schools to the Emergency Action Plan (EAP) was codified November 30, 2005 in the 12 FAH-1 Emergency Planning Handbook. The relevant section of the handbook states the requirement that "posts must briefly describe the security procedures and measures at schools." This includes describing security features, drills, vulnerability assessments, and security plans, at schools attended by mission family members.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should mandate counterterrorism training and prioritize which posts, officials, and family members should receive counterterrorism training first.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, State reported in August 2009 that while the Bureau of Diplomatic Security is concerned about the security of Americans living and working abroad, resources are limited to provide counterterrorism training to all posts and personnel. However, State indicated that, since GAO's report, it is currently mandating the Foreign Affairs Counter-Threat (FACT) course training for all U.S. government employees serving under Chief of Mission authority in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The course is also mandatory for adult family members who will be present in Saudi Arabia for more than 90 days in one calendar year. State further reported that the Diplomatic Security Training Center has evaluated offering FACT to all employees under Chief of Mission authority and concluded that such action will require an intensive investment in infrastructure and staffing. State indicated that for those staff not traveling to a post where fact is mandatory, the Foreign Service Institute provides other security courses to prepare employees and their family members for living and working abroad. State also reported in August 2009 that it sends out reminders for security training for all staff under Chief of Mission authority, regardless of agency but that personal security is each employee's responsibility. In a February 2008 cable, State reminded all staff under Chief of Mission authority abroad that "staff can take active, positive steps towards enhancing their own personal security by ensuring that they, their family members, and all those who form a part of the usual household enroll in security training offered by the Foreign Service Institute."

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should track attendance to determine compliance with this new training requirement.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a July 2005 letter to the Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, State indicated that enrollment and attendance in all Foreign Service Institute training is tracked by the Department's Student Training Management System (STMS). State further indicated that the Diplomatic Security Training Center began using the STMS to record training, effective March 2005. Attendance in counterterrorism training courses, such as the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat course, is recorded in STMS.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should add a "soft target protection" training module to the ambassadorial, deputy chief of mission, and regional security officer training to promote the security of U.S. officials and their families outside the embassy.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While a soft target module has been part of the Basic Regional Security Officer (RSO) training since July 2004, and In-Service RSO training since the beginning of FY 2005, State reported to GAO in August 2009 that the Foreign Service Institute has added a soft targets protection module to both the Ambassadorial and deputy chief of mission training seminars.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should fully implement the personal security accountability system that State agreed to implement in response to the 2003 Accountability Review Board for all embassy officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, the Department of State reported in July 2005 that it had sent a cable in June 2005, directed to the attention of the Chiefs of Missions, regarding responsibility for the security of personnel assigned to their posts. In August 2009, State reported to GAO that the guidance in the 2005 cable, which summarized the changes in personnel security policies in response to the Accountability Review Board recommendations, was still in effect.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State, working with the Overseas Security Policy Board, should develop related accountability standards for the Foreign Affairs Manual that can be used to monitor compliance.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to the GAO recommendation, State reported to GAO in August 2009 that instead of codifying guidance in the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), the Department pursued training to promote security to employees while still in the United States and at posts overseas. State indicated that inherent in the Department's overall strategy for the security of US government personnel is an understanding and acceptance of the principle of personal responsibility and self-reliance, both for individuals and institutions overseas. State reported that it believes the vast majority of its employees are aware of their responsibility take measures to protect themselves, and adhere to established security practices. State further reported to GAO in August 2009 that upon arriving at post, a security briefing from the Regional Security Officer provides post specific practices and guidance, such as the Personal Security Self-Assessment Checklist. At post, leadership and accountability is emphasized to the Chiefs of Missions through numerous means, including Letters of Instruction from the President. State elaborated that every Ambassador and Consul General thoroughly understands their security responsibilities. Regional Security Officers provide updated post-specific guidance as needed, as well as routine security briefings. Finally, State indicated in August 2009 that the security of US government personnel overseas depends on their realization of personal security awareness and to remain vigilant and mindful of practicing good security. State's actions regarding this recommendation did not meet the intent of GAO's recommendations which was to have standards codified in the Foreign Affairs Manual so that personnel would be held accountable for their personal security through their ratings or other means. A checklist and constant reminders does not necessarily mean that the personnel will follow the practices or guidance provided.

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