Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Watchdog Reports Security Weaknesses at State Department

Months after a federal Accountability Review Board (ARB) advised the Department of State on ways to prevent future tragedies like the deadly September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, State has yet to implement many of the recommendations, according to the Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).

“Many of [the recommendations] have worldwide applicability and remain to be fully institutionalized,” the Inspector General said in a September report. In response to questions concerning the OIG’s report, the State Department referred the Project On Government Oversight to a statement that details the Department’s application of the Benghazi ARB’s recommendations.

In part, the OIG praises former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for taking charge of the implementation process after the Benghazi ARB issued its recommendations. The OIG says Clinton’s successor, John F. Kerry, shared her concern for the reforms proposed by the ARB.

However, the report also details numerous State Department security deficiencies that would have been corrected years ago had the Department responded appropriately to a series of ARBs convened over the course of 14 years in response to earlier attacks.

One of the Benghazi ARB’s findings was that the State Department should be less reliant on host governments for security of overseas diplomatic missions. The OIG “did not find evidence that the Department is developing a systematic approach for accomplishing this for the 27 posts designated high-risk, high-threat posts.”

In addition, the OIG raised concerns about the State Department’s reaction to “tripwires,” events that pose a threat and ought to trigger a response. Due to weaknesses in State’s risk-assessment process, embassy reactions to tripwires lack coordination and too often undervalue the threat to the facility, leaving American civil servants in jeopardy, according to the OIG report.

Another of the OIG’s findings was that the Department’s safety equipment was insufficient, training was inadequate, and guard force was overextended, concerns raised by POGO in our January report about security at the embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The OIG report also highlights a larger concern with the State Department: issues raised in the report have been raised before, with no results. The report contains four pages of charts showing recommendations from a 1998 ARB report on attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam and the 2012 Benghazi report side by side. They are nearly identical. Like the Benghazi ARB, the Nairobi ARB called for a more coherent threat-assessment system, increased personnel, upgraded technological systems, and better sharing of information across the State Department.

“The members of the Benghazi ARB echoed the concern expressed by the Board chair of the Nairobi/Dar es Salaam ARBs 14 years earlier, when he said that both the Department of State and Congress had failed to take enough action to reduce the vulnerability of U.S diplomatic missions adequately,” the report said.

In its statement, the State Department described steps it has taken to implement the Benghazi ARB’s recommendations. For instance, State said that it has made efforts to address the concern about an overreliance on host governments for security by creating “a Deputy Assistant Secretary…who is responsible for ensuring that [posts in high risk areas] receive the focused attention they need.” The Department said that “[h]ard decisions must be made” on “whether the United States should operate in dangerous overseas locations.” State also said that it has worked to form a more coherent reaction to tripwires by establishing “a Washington-based ‘Tripwire Committee’ to review tripwires upon breach.” (The exact role and responsibility of this committee is unclear.) In addition, the Department said it has “ensured that all high-threat, high-risk posts have adequate fire safety equipment” and is “upgrading and procuring additional personal protective equipment.”

In some cases, the lack of follow-through on security recommendations may be beyond the State Department’s control. Many of the recommendations that ARBs have made over the years would require increased funding and acts of Congress.

Other fixes are squarely within the State Department’s purview. For instance, a panel of senior State Department officials, called the Permanent Coordinating Committee, is supposed to meet annually to “ensure that any necessary changes are effected,” the OIG report says, citing the Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual. But the OIG found that hasn’t happened: “Over the past three years, PCC annual meetings were not called as required.”