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Report details enduring flaws in State Dept. diplomatic security

Review panel also raises security concerns about the diplomatic building program abroad

WASHINGTON — A confidential government report obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit sharply criticizes the U.S. Department of State’s diplomatic security operations and raises serious concerns about an elaborate embassy construction program overseas.

The report, prepared by a six-member panel of veteran security and foreign service experts, said the department’s most important security arm, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), operates much like a lone wolf. The panel said that DS, also referred to as the Diplomatic Security Service, often withholds vital information from other department bureaus concerned with the security of overseas personnel.

"Some of this is attributed to ‘law enforcement sensitive’ issues," the panel wrote, "but other security information that enhances understanding, cooperation, and coordination should be widely disseminated in a timely way." DS as an organization, the panel said, "has not always been quick to adapt, or been innovative in dealing with overarching strategic foreign policy issues. The culture must be modified."

The panel, created by the State Department in the aftermath of the attack on the special mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012, said the State Department must get its act together or face serious consequences. Referring to previous attacks on U.S. missions, the panel members wrote, "Delay and denial are not options. There will be a next Nairobi, or a Benghazi, and DS and its Department partners must do everything to be ready. Lives are at stake."

The panel also delivered a stiff jab to another State Department entity, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO), which supervises the design and construction of U.S. facilities abroad. The bureau is pushing a new design and building program that, department officials said, enhances the appearance of overseas facilities but also provides essential security for the safety of U.S. personnel.

But, the panel saw things differently. Headed by Grant S. Green Jr., a former under secretary of state for management in the administration of President George W. Bush, the panel said that the new design program would likely increase the risks for overseas U.S. personnel. Fewer embassies would be built and design and construction of new facilities would take longer, the panel said, "leaving more personnel exposed in inadequate facilities for longer periods of time."

In an interview, Green said that security personnel and others interviewed by his panel expressed serious reservations about the design program and its costs. As a result, he said, the panel recommended that the department undertake "a detailed review of the security implications" of the design approach. Green said, "I don’t think the department did any kind of study the way I would define a study."

In an email, a department spokesman said officials revisited the security issues highlighted by the panel and found that "concerns raised over the timeframe were not a substantial concern." The new design approach, he said, "had significant potential" to shorten the time it takes to build an embassy. "Security has been and remains the primary component" of the department’s design initiative, he added.

The new program, Design Excellence, has drawn scrutiny in other government quarters, according to people familiar with the reviews. Investigators in the U.S. Congress are reviewing the program, focused on costs and safety issues related to the glass-cubed $1 billion showplace embassy being built in London and another embassy under development in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Separately, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick’s staff began auditing the costs of the London embassy in February.

Within the State Department, several managers in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, concerned about the focus on Design Excellence, retired recently. They include the former director of OBO’s design and engineering office, according to several people familiar with the retirements.

The Green report on diplomatic security organization and management grew out of the attack on the Benghazi mission that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The attack has prompted a firestorm of criticism directed at U.S. diplomatic officials and led to several internal and congressional investigations.

Not long after the attack, the State Department established an accountability review board, or ARB, to investigate what happened in Benghazi. The ARB, headed by retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, issued a report detailing State Department’s security lapses and recommended that two other panels be convened — one to review high-threat diplomatic missions around the world, the other to report on diplomatic security organization and management. Green, who oversaw the diplomatic security operation as Under Secretary for Management, was named by the State Department to chair the organization and management review.

The State Department has kept both Green’s report and the high-threat review under wraps. The high-threat report became public only after Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit published the report in September. Green’s 41-page report was delivered to Patrick Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, last May. Department officials stamped it "sensitive but unclassified."

Asked why the Green report’s critical review of diplomatic security was not released, the State Department spokesman described it as an "internal" document that contained "information regarding the department’s internal security procedures." He said the department is implementing 30 of the 35 recommendations contained in the report.

At the center of criticism in Green’s report is DS, the State Department’s diplomatic security and law enforcement agency that protects Secretary of State John Kerry, foreign dignitaries who visit the U.S., and American personnel and facilities overseas.

The panel delivered some tough medicine. The complexity of the diplomatic security mission, the panel said, has "overwhelmed" the ability of the department "to conduct coordinated operations in the most effective and efficient way." The department "must improve its organizational approach to security" to maximize security for all employees, the panel said, "including the ways in which security-related information is obtained, disseminated, and coordinated across the department."

Citing the attack against Benghazi and violence directed at other U.S. missions, the panel said effective physical security and coordination of security information were central to mitigating risks, particularly in dangerous overseas locations. Yet, the panel said, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security often refuses to share information with other State Department bureaus. It said:

Probably the most troubling to the panel was the impression that DS personnel do not think of their organization as an integrated partner with others in the Department. They instead see themselves as a law enforcement organization with loyalty first and foremost to DS rather than the Department.

Morale was yet another problem. Many in DS, the report said, "feel they were made the scapegoat" for the Benghazi management debacle. Several diplomatic security employees expressed concern that the next security crisis "may result in other DS personnel being singled out for punishment."

Within Diplomatic Security, the panel noted, there is a feeling of isolation and a lack of understanding of what other State Department bureaus are up to. The panel explained:

A recurring theme in panel interviews with both DS and other Department personnel is the sense that DS is becoming increasingly isolated from the overseas-oriented culture of the Department and more focused on its law enforcement and para-military functions. As a result, DS personnel do not fully understand what the rest of the Department is doing and why, and others in the Department do not truly understand the range of roles for which DS is responsible.

This trend, the panel said, is not surprising, given diplomatic security’s "rapid expansion in the past decade while building, literally from scratch, very robust security infrastructures for Department operations in...two war zones."

DS also is laboring under a growing workload. "As the world has become more dangerous," the panel said, diplomatic security "has had to take on additional missions and responsibilities that have outpaced even their resource increases of the past decade."

More than 100 people, many from within DS, were interviewed by panel members. Among the issues and recommendations outlined in the report:

  • A "recognized need" for more focus on high threat posts. The panel said it supported the department’s decision to create a deputy assistant secretary for high threat posts but argued that the structure of that office would create "duplication and inefficiencies."

  • The need for "more focused and timely analytical products that pull together incidents, trends, threat reporting, and other information sources…To be effective, such an analysis would need to include knowledge, at the operational level, of defenses and protective measures in place as well as a realistic understanding of their limitations." The panel said it strongly supported DS’ goal of expanding its threat analysis operation.

  • DS should create "a lean and agile office of relatively senior staff" to "address the wide range of threats anywhere in the world, from those of a short-term nature, such as an election in an unstable nation, to threats that may last years."

  • DS "must not lose focus on its most critical core mission: the protection of overseas personnel and operations. This mantra needs to be clearly understood and continually voiced" by the bureau’s leadership.

  • The creation of a DS strategic planning office that would evaluate emerging trends in threats and technology, ensure that important decisions are communicated throughout the bureau, and focus on whether the security service is communicating effectively with other department officials to maximize security.

  • DS trains 10,000 people each year at 19 widely dispersed locations. The department should establish a single, dedicated training center that meets diplomatic security and high threat training standards.

  • The panel called for closer coordination between department’s operations center, which handles crisis-related issues, and the Diplomatic Security Command Center,  which monitors threats against U.S. diplomatic missions, the Secretary of State and American citizens who are overseas.

  • The department should have the DS Directorate of Threat Investigations and Analysis designated as "a member in full standing" in the intelligence community. The panel said that the directorate lacks "true integration with the larger intelligence community," instead relying on the department’s intelligence bureau for access. That recommendation apparently remains under consideration, although the department has expressed reservations about the idea.

The Green report also suggests, quite strongly, that diplomatic security officials had raised concerns, from a safety standpoint, about the department’s decision to focus its overseas building efforts around what the American Institute of Architects calls "new embassies for the 21st century" — the Design Excellence program, which, its proponent say, emphasizes good architecture, safety and security, and energy efficiency.

For years, in the wake of attacks and bombings at U.S. facilities, the department designed and erected its missions under a program known as Standard Embassy Design, or SED. To critics, the SED structures are unsightly and foreboding concrete structures that are not representative of the friendly and welcoming nature of the U.S. society. Those critics include Secretary of State Kerry.

According to Green, a strong advocate for the SED program when he served in the State Department, the panel members favored the SED approach. He said the panel made its feelings quite clear to current department officials.

"I know what worked for us, and it worked well — Standard Embassy Design," Green said in the interview with Al Jazeera. "We had the Congress on our side and we built a ton of embassies. If they want to make them prettier, just change the frigging façade and make them prettier."

In its report, his panel said that officials in the OBO believed that the new Design Excellence program would produce better buildings at equal speed and at similar costs. However, from the viewpoint of DS, the panel said, "there are questions raised by these changes, and while the panel agrees that special consideration for posts in places like London and Paris are warranted, security concerns for many other posts deserve serious consideration."

Security issues raised during its review, the panel said, included the following:

  • The State Department had not produced a business case or cost benefit analysis supporting the Design Excellence approach.

  • Despite assurances, there is concern that fewer facilities can be built in a timely manner.

  • Having unique designs for each facility requires more time for the diplomatic security bureau to review designs and determine necessary countermeasures.

  • As enemies find new ways to attack U.S. facilities, having multiple designs makes developing and deploying countermeasures more difficult.

  • There is also likely to be increased risk associated with constructing some facilities on smaller sites in urban areas to enhance accessibility.

William Miner, the former director of the OBO’s design and engineering office, said the department began using Standard Embassy Design a few years after the East African bombings at two U.S. embassies in 1998. The buildings were constructed quickly and were "very secure, very safe." He explained, "You needed to get people under cover and use a standardized approach to do that. OBO actually designed and built over 100 embassies using that strategy."

On the other hand, Miner said, "we went overboard from a safety and security standpoint." Now, with the transition to Design Excellence, he said he worries that "the pendulum will swing in the other direction with the design issues." The challenge, he said, is to find "the right balance."

Miner said he retired from the State Department in January, as did others who worked for him. He said the changes in the design program and a desire to pursue other professional interests were factors in his decision to leave after 28 years.

Miner said he registered his concerns over the design approach with senior OBO officials. "I was not alone in shouting in the wind," he said. "The office of diplomatic security shouted even more forcefully," expressing the view that the Design Excellence program was "a bad way to go."

Discussing the development of the new London embassy, now under construction, Miner said that the planned curtain wall façade is "fragile," adding, "You don’t want to beg for problems but this façade could be asking for trouble."

Lydia Muniz, director of the OBO, said in an interview with Al Jazeera that the London design meets DS safety and security standards. If there are any problems in testing for blast vulnerability, she said, steps will be taken to rectify the situation. Asked if an earlier test failed, she said, "We are still testing. We don't make any final determinations until the completion of testing, including the full-scale mock-up, which has not taken place yet. I would not say that it failed."

Muniz emphasized that her office won’t allow safety and security to be compromised. She said that all new facilities will be designed allowing for the best technologies and durable materials. "Safety and security are not taking a back seat under this program," she said. "There is no diminishing in any way the security standards that diplomatic security puts forward."

She also said that her office has not scrapped the standardized design approach and will continue using it in the development of some facilities.

Congress has been paying close attention to the design controversy. Led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is primarily focusing on costs and whether safety is giving way to aesthetics, according to people familiar with the inquiry. In February, Chaffetz visited Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and met with U.S. officials there to discuss the new embassy, now budgeted at $100 million, according to the State Department, which said the figure was certain to go higher.

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