Combating Terrorism:

U.S. Government Should Improve Its Reporting on Terrorist Safe Havens

GAO-11-561: Published: Jun 3, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 3, 2011.

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Denying safe haven to terrorists has been a key national security concern since 2002. Safe havens allow terrorists to train recruits and plan operations against the United States and its interests across the globe. As a result, Congress has required agencies to provide detailed information regarding U.S. efforts to address terrorist safe havens. In this review, GAO assesses the extent to which (1) the Department of State (State) has identified and assessed terrorist safe havens in its Country Reports on Terrorism and (2) the U.S. government has identified efforts to deny terrorists safe haven consistent with reporting requirements. To address these objectives, GAO interviewed U.S. officials and analyzed national security strategies; State reporting; and country-level plans for the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen.

State identifies existing terrorist safe havens in its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" but does not assess them with the level of detail recommended by Congress. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) requires State to include in its annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" a detailed assessment of each foreign country used as a terrorist safe haven. It also recommends that State include, to the extent feasible, details in the report such as actions taken to address terrorist activities by countries whose territory is used as a safe haven. Since 2006, State has identified terrorist safe havens in its "Country Reports on Terrorism." In August 2010, State identified 13 terrorist safe havens, including the southern Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen. However, none of the assessments in State's August 2010 report included information on one of the four elements recommended by Congress--the actions taken by countries identified as having terrorist safe havens to prevent trafficking in weapons of mass destruction through their territories. Also, about a quarter of the assessments in State's August 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism lacked information on another element recommended by Congress--the actions taken by countries identified as terrorist safe havens to cooperate with U.S. antiterrorism efforts. Including this information in State's reports could help better inform congressional oversight related to terrorist safe havens. The U.S. government has not fully addressed reporting requirements to identify U.S. efforts to deny safe haven to terrorists. In IRTPA and the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010, Congress required the President to submit reports identifying such efforts. State responded to IRTPA with a 2006 report and subsequent annual updates to its "Country Reports on Terrorism." However, efforts identified in State's August 2010 report include only certain efforts funded by State and do not include some State and other U.S. government agency funded efforts, such as those of the Departments of Defense and Justice. For example, our discussions with agency officials and analysis of agency strategic documents identified at least 14 programs and activities not included in State's reporting that may contribute to denying terrorists safe haven in Yemen. According to officials from the National Security Staff, the National Security Council is responsible for producing the report required by the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010. As of March 2011, the report, which was due in September 2010, was not completed. According to agency officials, compiling such a list is challenging because it is difficult to determine if a given activity addresses terrorist safe havens or contributes to different, though possibly related, foreign policy objectives. While we recognize this challenge, a more comprehensive list that includes the efforts of all relevant agencies could provide useful information to Congress to enhance oversight activities, such as assessing U.S. efforts toward the governmentwide goal of denying terrorists safe haven. GAO recommends State and the National Security Council (NSC) improve reporting on assessments of and U.S. efforts to address terrorist safe havens. State concurred with our recommendation on assessments. State partially concurred with our recommendation on U.S. efforts to address terrorist safe havens, citing other reports it completes related to counterterrorism. However, the additional reports cited by State do not constitute a governmentwide list of U.S. efforts to address terrorist safe havens. The NSC reviewed our report but did not provide comments on its recommendations.

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: To improve the information provided to Congress and other decision makers, the Secretary of State should include in the "Country Reports on Terrorism" detailed assessments of identified terrorist safe havens using the provisions recommended by Congress in IRTPA.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In commenting on the report, State concurred with GAO's recommendation and indicated that it was taking steps to implement the recommendation in response to GAO's analysis of its report. In August 2011, State released its Country Reports on Terrorism 2010. We analyzed it and found the terrorist safe havens assessments included in the report contain information on actions taken by countries to prevent the proliferation of and trafficking in weapons of mass destruction.

    Recommendation: To improve the information provided to Congress and other decision makers, the Secretary of State, in collaboration with relevant agencies as appropriate, should include a governmentwide list of U.S. efforts for addressing terrorist safe havens when it updates the report requested under IRTPA.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Open

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, State concurred that reporting on U.S. efforts to deny terrorist safe havens should be more comprehensive. However, State did not agree that such a list should be part of its annual Country Reports on Terrorism.

    Recommendation: To improve the information provided to Congress and other decision makers, the National Security Council, in collaboration with relevant agencies as appropriate, should complete the requirements of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010 to report to Congress on a list of U.S. efforts related to the denial of terrorist safe havens.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: National Security Council

    Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2013, NSS staff indicated that: "Denial of terrorist safe havens is a central pillar to our overall National Strategy for Counterterrorism, released publicly in June 2011. One of the Overarching Goals of the strategy is to eliminate safehavens and as a result, departments and agencies continue to prioritize efforts toward that goal, and these efforts are frequently reviewed in interagency policy forums chaired by the NSS. We would defer you to the departments/agencies in question for the status of submission of specific information to Congress."

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