U.S. diplomats fear al-Qaeda but they also fear their own Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Little known outside of the State Department, the Bureau or “DS,” is a massive internal security force. It reportedly has an annual budget of more than $2 billion and employs thousands of agents and security contractors (whom some refer to as private mercenaries). Its tentacles now extend into virtually every State Department function, with some arguing that security has eclipsed diplomacy as the Department’s primary function. DS controls virtually all diplomatic activities in many U.S. Embassies and it has the authority to arbitrarily suspend any diplomat’s security clearance for any reason. In some cases it uses that power abusively. A U.S. diplomat stationed overseas who has his or her clearance suspended must immediately return to the United States, where they languish in bureaucratic limbo sometimes for years. With no internal or external checks and balances DS’ authority has been repeatedly misused in order to protect the Administration from embarrassment and to enforce a policy of political loyalty and silence. The consequences are a largely silenced Foreign Service. In September 2009, Susan Johnson, President of the Association of Foreign Service Officers, lamented to Nicholas Kralev of the Washington Times that the State Department’s “dissent channel” was virtually dead, a position echoed by more than a dozen other diplomats that Mr. Kralev interviewed, including veteran diplomat Thomas R. Pickering.
This enforced silence within the State Department permits a wide range of illegal practices to flourish:
sole-source contracts are awarded to politically connected consultants;
unsuccessful foreign aid projects are allowed to continue;
Hatch Act (Civil Service) violations are not reported;
politically favored Ambassadors are permitted to overstaff their embassies, with no consequences;
new embassy construction costs are allowed to balloon, with no one willing to object;
defective Embassy safety equipment is ordered, and no one is told;
substandard body armor is supplied, with no one protesting;
critical foreign language and dialect skills are permitted to decline, with no dissent; and
information on terrorists is discovered, but not followed up.
In addition Secretary of State Clinton can meet with Uzbekistan’s Foreign Minister at the State Department last week, at the same time that President Obama is having a friendly telephone conversation with brutal Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov, and no one in the State Department dares object. Uzbekistan is one of the top five human rights abusers in the world and its NSS secret police is widely feared. Secretary Clinton can make a grand speech one day supporting the Arab Spring, while the next day, behind closed doors she signs a sordid bargain that denies freedom to the Uzbek people, and such hypocrisy is met with silence in the halls of the State Department.
Over the years a few courageous Foreign Service Officers have spoken out against DS and State Department abuses. Leading the debate is an organization called “Concerned Foreign Service Officers” (CSFO) who have a website at www.worldcrafters.com. They contend that there is an “above-the-law” culture within DS. This is similar to what Justice Department prosecutor Kenneth Kohl found when he investigated DS misconduct in Iraq. He told Daniel Schulman of Mother Jones.com in March 2010, that he experienced “an undercurrent of obstruction” by DS officials.
Most recently Peter Van Buren, a Foreign Service Officer for 23 years broke his silence with his new book “We Meant Well, How I Helped Lose the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” It documents his year directing a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, a program he detailed as largely a failure.
Most DS failures are never revealed but a few have come to light:
1. In 2006, it was reported that Chinese intelligence agents had hacked into the State Department’s computers and stolen a huge amount of confidential information. The State Department has never revealed the full extent of this massive security failure.
2. For years DS agents failed to properly oversee Blackwater security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul who were violating the State Department’s “deadly force” policy, even though DS officials had known for years about Blackwater improprieties, including its use in Iraq of illegal ammunition. This lax oversight contributed to the September 2007, Nisoor Square massacre in Baghdad by Blackwater guards in which more than 18 Iraqi civilians were gunned down in cold blood. According to James Risen of The New York Times, Justice Department prosecutors discovered that DS agents in Iraq had attempted to cleanse the scene of incriminating evidence in order to protect Blackwater. The agents were never charged with obstructing justice. The Blackwater guards were later charged with the murder of the Iraqi civilians but the case was dismissed due to DS misconduct, which included offering the guards immunity, which DS agents are not authorized to offer, Again, no DS agents or officials were ever prosecuted.
3. In 2009, FBI agents uncovered a Cuban spy ring operating within the State Department and arrested several individuals including Walter Ken Myers. It was excellent detective work by the FBI that broke the case, with a hapless DS sitting on the sidelines.
4. Also in 2009, the ArmorGroup North America scandal erupted. Dominating the international newspapers for over a month was a sordid tale of binge drinking and sex partying by security contractors for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The scandal was allowed to happen due to lax DS oversight, for which no DS officials were apparently disciplined.
5. In 2010, the State Department suffered another embarrassing security failure with the theft of more than 250,000 confidential and secret cables, which were then published by WikiLeaks. This theft was easily preventable as U.S. soldiers in Iraq should not have had access to the State Department’s cable database, but no one in DS was ever held responsible.
The above are just a small fraction of DS failures. There was a report that someone was allowed to walk into the Secretary of State’s outer office and walk out with a stack of classified documents. The suspect was never found by DS. This incident was covered up because it might have resulted in the Secretary of State being fired or potentially even prosecuted for failing to protect classified information. Excessive secrecy has reportedly covered up numerous intelligence failures, including lost classified laptop computers and the bugging of State Department facilities. None of these failures were ever mentioned in DS’s slick annual report of its “accomplishments.”
In 2009, the DS annual report was amateurishly entitled “Confronting the Threat” and it had disturbing praise for a DS driver in Peshawar who was involved in a much-publicized incident on August 24, 2008. The DS driver panicked after a few bullets were fired at his armored Embassy vehicle, none of them apparently hitting the vehicle. In response he drove backwards hitting Pakistani citizen Gohar Ali. The Embassy vehicle then fled the scene retreating to the safety of a nearby compound leaving an injured Mr. Ali lying in the street. The DS report should have been more accurately entitled: “Manufacturing New Enemies for the United States.”
Repeated reports have emerged about unprofessional background security investigations being conducted by DS agents. This process was designed to generate a whole person picture of an applicant for a security clearance. It is supposed to contain both positive and negative information. There are indications that DS has slanted this process into just gathering the negative, as it transforms the process into an exercise through which it can generate a file that it can later use against the individual. Without checks and balances there is nothing to prevent these abuses. On June 25, 2010, it was reported that a DS agent was arrested in Snohomish County, Washington for severely beating his wife (2nd degree assault). He had been under a restraining order for previous threats or assaults but that apparently did not impact either his DS security clearance or security position. The local prosecutor refused to identify the agent and the charges seem to have been quietly dropped, which is disturbing. For further reading see: “Exclusive. GAO Rips State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security” by Josh Rogin for Foreign Policy Magazine (12/7/09), and “America’s Foreign Policy is Crumbling Says Leading Diplomat” by Tom Paulson (2/16/11).
On balance, every organization is a mixture of good and bad. This author met a number of DS agents who were exemplary representatives of the American people and highly dedicated. U.S. diplomats serving overseas have undoubtedly formed their own good opinions of some or all of the agents who provide personal protection to them in hostile environments. Several DS agents have given their lives for this country including Stephen Eric Sullivan and Edward J. Seitz, and their sacrifices should not be forgotten. Unfortunately the State Department’s website has been transformed into a continuing tribute to everything Secretary Clinton says, does and wears, with no room for anything that is not fun and cheerful, such as a listing of the DS agents and other State Department employees who have been killed in the line of duty. The problem with DS in particular and the Department in general is that the bad apples unfortunately tend to taint the whole pool of apples.
The larger issues within the State Department are (1) the eclipsing since 2001, of security over diplomacy, and (2) the rise of DS to a position of disproportionate power. There should be a robust debate within the Department as to whether that should continue. American diplomats overseas increasingly work in fortress-embassies and live in security compounds. Their bubble-existence separates them from the citizens of the host country, which begs the question of why they are even in these countries.
In September 2009, outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe publicly called on U.S. officials to reexamine policies put into place after September 11, 2001. He criticized the “fortress-like” feel of the new American embassies, charging that they are excessively expensive and send an unfriendly message to non-Americans. Ambassador Ashe was replaced as Ambassador to Poland by a political campaign official for Hillary Clinton named Lee Feinstein, who quickly lapsed into “loyal” silence.
Colonel Mark Cancian (Ret.), writing for the January 16, 2010, issue of “Foreign Policy” stated that efforts have to be made to change the mindset of the security guards for the U.S. Embassy. Their mentality is to protect diplomats “at all costs.”
“At all costs means just that; costs to the locals, to the broader counterinsurgency effort, and to relations with the host government are irrelevant.”
The problem is that the DS secret police force has grown too large, too intrusive and operates without any checks and balances. It also has failed too many times without any consequences. It is time that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began to protect her employees from DS abuses. One way to do so is for her to adopt the following four recommendations:
1. Redraft State Department regulation 1 FAM 260, transferring numerous DS functions to other offices and departments, especially all authority over security clearances. DS should be permitted to make a recommendation regarding a clearance, but have no authority;
2. Replace current (DS) Assistant Secretary Eric J. Boswell, with someone who can reform DS and end its abuses;
3. Direct that an independent Internal Affairs unit be formed within DS to investigate abuses of authority and security lapses by DS officials, This would be similar to that which ably functions within major police departments such as in New York City and Los Angeles; and
4. Begin a debate within the Department on the proper role of DS and the impact of its security measures on diplomatic effectiveness. One way to begin that dialog is to instruct State Magazine to publish a full copy of Kenneth Stammerman’s essay for American Diplomacy entitled: “Conducting Diplomacy in the Age of Terrorism,” and then publish responses. Mr. Stammerman was a 27-year veteran of the Foreign Service and his tome on how to balance diplomacy with security is simply brilliant.