Changing the Risk Paradigm for US Foreign Affairs Agencies

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    Ven Suresh

    The American Academy of Diplomacy and the Una Chapman Cox Foundation are collaborating on a project to change the acceptable risk paradigm for Department of State and USAID Officers abroad. They believe the current security climate at many high threat posts is too risk adverse, and have a concept of how to positively change that to allow for more effective operations overseas.

    Project Narrative
    May 17, 2020

    The risk mitigation paradigm currently employed for State Department personnel and those of other civilian US Government agencies at higher threat posts is obstructing the performance of the most basic functions of a diplomat abroad – to influence host governments and other foreign interlocutors, to explain, defend, and advance US policies and objectives, and to gain the information and access needed to analyze political, social, economic and programmatic developments based on first hand contacts and observations in a foreign country. Diplomacy is an incremental business in which numerous contacts and observations contribute over time to generate larger results. Diplomats are analysts, policy influencers, persuaders, and negotiators. Executing their mission only by telephone or an occasional meeting inside secure walls is not a substitute for developing the continuing contacts necessary with local officials and populations. In short, the formulation and execution of national security policy is hindered by the lack of access to foreigner contacts at higher threat missions. While acknowledging there are increased threats and dangers for staff operating in high threat countries, the security vs risk equation for travel outside our missions is too heavily weighted towards eliminating risk to our personnel, often preventing them from successfully fulfilling their mission.
    With the aid of Congress, the Department has made great progress in replacing old, insecure, and highly vulnerable facilities abroad with safe and secure embassies and consulates. The risk of losing an entire diplomatic platform and suffering massive loss of life and heavy injuries has been greatly reduced. Congress has generously funded additional security assets such as security officers, armored vehicles, and bodyguards to enhance mobility and travel outside our secure platforms. The Department has a remarkable record of conducting literally millions of moves outside the secure perimeter at our highest threat posts with few losses, albeit using helicopters or heavily armed and armored convoys. Despite these successes, Foreign Service and USAID officers are rarely allowed to travel to meet sources in less than fully secured areas, nor allowed to move to unscheduled locations or travel outside of secured perimeters. The ability to meet discreetly with subjects and sources is very limited, as is the ability to observe and report on a country they are supposed to know with a high level of expertise. This is not the case with our US military partners or members of our Intelligence Community.
    Among the factors keeping diplomats cloistered is the language and structure of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) requirement in the Omnibus Diplomatic Security Act of 1986. The law is formulated in such a way that it appears the first and overriding requirement is to find someone at fault if there is a security incident involving serious injury or loss of life, i.e. the first determination after identifying whether injury or loss of life is a security issue is whether “the security systems and security procedures at that mission were adequate and who was accountable.” Chiefs of Mission, Deputy Chiefs of Mission, and Regional Security Officers are acutely aware that any decision they make to allow travel outside the mission that results in death or serious injury will be judged in terms of their accountability with the presumption that someone erred in their judgment. Too frequently the decision by COMs, DCMs, and RSOs is to avoid risk by denying a travel request because the deciding officials feel compelled to demonstrate the purpose of the travel outweighs the risk of injury, something that is difficult to do when the request is travel outside the perimeter for normal diplomatic activities.
    The law was written in an era when the Department was ill-equipped to provide adequate security for its overseas personnel, and Congress had little confidence that the Department took security seriously. That is hardly the situation now. Today, security is embedded in virtually every discussion about operations. Security training – doctrine, procedures, and hard skills – are taught from day one in the career of new Foreign Service employees and continued through a career with refresher courses. Security is often discussed as “the highest priority” by our Secretaries of State, often to the detriment of what should be the highest priority, fulfilling our nation’s critical foreign policy functions. Foreign Service personnel today are assigned to embassies and consulates in highly dangerous environments, including active war zones alongside US military elements, but are subject to crippling restrictions that prevent them from carrying out their mission. The Department can no longer afford to be restricted to an almost “no risk” paradigm by an out of date security accountability requirement.
    To move beyond the current risk-adverse paradigm too often implemented at high threat posts today, the American Academy of Diplomacy in partnership with the Una Chapman Cox Foundation and our colleagues in this effort from DOD and USAID believe major changes must take place in two distinct areas.
    First, the Accountability Review Board section of the Omnibus Diplomatic Security legislation needs to be rescinded or altered to send an unambiguous signal to our personnel that Congress supports the Foreign Service taking reasonable risks to accomplish our overall mission. The current ARB framework has played a significant role in pushing US Foreign Affairs operations toward an unacceptable and unworkable risk adverse paradigm. Taking risks means accepting that injuries or even casualties may occur to our diplomatic personnel while fulfilling their duties. The consequence should not be an automatic assumption that someone erred followed by the tasking of a high level ARB to find someone accountable and assign blame.
    The mandated ARB process, the single tool available for Chan incident resulting in death or serious injury at a US mission abroad, must be replaced with a more balanced and effective process. The Academy proposes a new process with internal investigation and review procedures similar to those in place for the US Military. The procedures would require an inquiry or investigation to determine what occurred and whether additional steps are necessary or warranted, but without an underlying presumption of error or culpability. Foreign Affairs regulations must be promulgated requiring thorough reviews of serious security incidents, followed by reporting up the chain of command to an appropriate level for review. Suitable oversight can be built into the system by providing annual reports of significant security incidents from the Foreign Affairs Agencies to Congress.
    Second, the Foreign Affairs Agencies will have to take steps to change a culture of risk aversion that has taken hold within our organizations. This will require both education and hard skills training. Senior and mid-level officers, serving domestically and in overseas positions, will require improved education in how to identify and manage threats and risks while balancing the need to fulfill foreign affairs related goals and objectives. These decision makers require new decision tools and confidence in the Foreign Affairs institutions and Congress that the highest priority is fulfilling national security priorities, not solely keeping people safe.
    The Department of State, in consultation with others, must identify best practices and new techniques on how to operate in high threat locations. Certain cadres of officers, to include political officers, consular officers, USAID field and project officers, and others would receive required training in advanced operational techniques that would allow them to fulfill their missions at high threat posts. The advanced training, enhanced operational procedures, and appropriate technical and communications equipment would allow them to operate as safely as possible while accepting levels of increased risk. This will take a joint effort by the Foreign Service Institute, the Diplomatic Security Hard Skills Training Center (FAST/C), and other agencies to determine best practices.
    The Executive Branch of the United States Government, our Congress, and Americans are best served when our foreign policy is well-informed, coordinated, prescient, and timely. The US Foreign Policy triad – the Foreign Affairs Agencies, the Department of Defense, and the Intelligence Community must be present abroad and must work in all environments, to include those where strife and conflict have erupted. DOD elements and our intelligence partners operate with considerably fewer constraints than the Foreign Affairs Agencies, in part because they are expected to take reasonable risks in order to fulfill their mandates. The Foreign Affairs Agencies must be permitted, even encouraged, to find ways to operate in these conditions. This can be achieved with the help of Congress and courageous leadership.

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