Fine Print: Diplomat security becomes major State Department expense

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

If you apply the adage "Follow the money," the security of our diplomats has become almost as important as the diplomacy they practice.

State Department appropriations for the next fiscal year -- part of the $447 billion spending measure Congress passed this weekend -- include $8.2 billion for diplomatic and consular programs. Of that, $2.7 billion is for human resources, i.e., people; $2.5 billion is for overseas programs that directly support them, including locally employed foreign staff; and $1.5 billion is for security programs.

Add to that security figure $847 million for priority security upgrades for embassies, missions and other facilities, and you get $2.3 billion. The construction money devoted to security represents almost half of the State Department's $1.7 billion budget for construction, maintenance and operation of all its buildings.

But today let's look at an idea raised last week before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs oversight subcommittee: whether "the best security possible for State's diplomatic corps has at times been in tension with State's diplomatic mission." Those words came from Jess T. Ford, a Government Accountability Office official who was testifying about challenges facing State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

He spoke of some State public affairs officials who expressed concern that security measures discourage foreign visitors from attending U.S. embassy events. He also mentioned that "new embassies and consulates with their high walls, deep setbacks and strict screening procedures have evoked the nickname 'Fortress America.' "

Since the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the budget for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security has gone from about $200 million to $2.3 billion for all diplomatic security functions. Before the bombings, State had 50 armored vehicles, mainly for ambassadors overseas. Now, according to the GAO, the department has more than 3,600, including 246 for mission chiefs around the world.

In 2008, according to the GAO, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's direct-hire personnel totaled about 3,000. But 90 percent of State's security personnel are contractors, who in 2008 numbered 37,566, according to the GAO. Only 2,000 of these provide the publicized protective services for State officials and dignitaries in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Israel. The bulk are guards protecting not only U.S. embassies and missions but also the homes of some Foreign Service personnel.

In addition, according to the GAO, "over 1,000 contractors . . . provide administrative functions." Some new money will provide key civil service positions to replace some contractors, the GAO said, but not many.

A snapshot look at the Iraq situation in August by State's inspector general shows that estimated security spending by the embassy in Baghdad for the current year is $675 million, more than the $540 million that is estimated will be spent on that embassy's diplomatic operations and the logistics to support them.

Around 90 Bureau of Diplomatic Security agents serve as the regional security office, supervising about 1,300 contractors who provide protective services. There are 1,900 more static guards who maintain the embassy's perimeter security, according to the report, which focused on planning for the reduced U.S. military presence in Iraq.

What it found was that State needed to plan for even more security personnel -- for example, to provide convoy security for "appropriately refined" fuel for embassy vehicles that must be imported from Kuwait. U.S. military personnel have provided such security, but they will leave with the drawdown.

Another issue raised in the report was the ability to fly into and around Iraq. Under the security agreement with the Iraqis, U.S. military aircraft are no longer allowed to carry non-Defense Department personnel into and out of the country. Although State personnel continue to use military aircraft, the U.S. military command "has expressed concerns about this technical violation," according to the report.

Another problem is flying within Iraq. State and the U.S. Agency for International Development have contracted for aircraft, but up to now there has been space available on military flights. A Baghdad embassy working group has talked of using commercially available flights; that "would help develop Iraq's commercial air travel industry," the report said. But that idea has raised security issues.

According to the inspector general's report, the embassy and the U.S. military are exploring with Iraqi airport personnel to develop better passenger and baggage screening mechanisms and a badge system for airport personnel, and to identify processes that would "fund, book, and logistically support commercial travel."

One other issue, the report noted, is whether the ambassador "should be authorized to fly routinely on aircraft with countermeasures equipment" -- devices that can warn of and perhaps divert incoming missiles.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company