WASHINGTON — “The money we devote to the entire range of foreign policy programming…amounts to only one percent of the federal budget,” said Secretary of State John Kerry in his written testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in February. “Yet it may impact fifty percent of the history that will be written about this era.”
For this reason, it is important to ensure that the State Department’s valiant efforts to alleviate global poverty and secure global stability are well-supported by transparency and strong accountability mechanisms.
On April 21, 2015, the Senate Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations and Bilateral International Development held a hearing to discuss how to make the State Department more efficient, transparent and accountable to the U.S. taxpayer.
The Subcommittee invited Inspector General Steve Linick from the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General, or State OIG, to talk about the successes and challenges his office has had while attempting to ensure the efficiency and integrity of the State Department.
The hearing focused on three main subjects: obstacles to effectively monitoring the State Department, security concerns and the handling of overseas contingent operation, or OCO, funds.
At the root of Linick’s concerns were the obstacles Stage OIG faced when it would try to monitor the State Department’s actions.
According to Linick, one of the most significant obstacles, if not the most significant, was State OIG’s inability to be “completely separate” from the State Department. Unlike the other Offices of the Inspector General, or OIG, in other departments, State OIG lacked the resources necessary to maintain its own information technology infrastructure.
Consequently, State OIG must rely on the State Department’s IT infrastructure, giving the State Department “unfettered access” to State OIG’s files. Though Linick admitted he was not aware of any cases in which the State Department had abused that access, he still feared that “thousands of administrators [in the State Department]” could theoretically look at State OIG’s files.
The possibility was troubling to Linick because it would make investigating problems in the State Department more difficult. Instead of State OIG monitoring the State Department, the State Department would be monitoring State OIG.
Thus, according to Linick, “a large number of Department administrators [had] the ability to read, modify, or delete any information on [State] OIG’s network including sensitive investigative information and email traffic, without [State] OIG’s knowledge.”
Ultimately, State OIG’s dependence on the State Department’s IT infrastructure could mean that its role as the Department’s “inspection arm” was largely symbolic. That is to say, State OIG could still carry out investigations, but the investigations would be compromised to the point that they were meaningless.
Of course, this point assumes State OIG would even have the chance to investigate issues in the State Department.
“Unlike other OIGs,” Linick said in his written testimony, “my office is not always afforded the opportunity to investigate allegations of criminal or serious administrative misconduct by [State] Department employees.”
Linick went on to explain that “department components, including [the Diplomatic Security Service (DS)], are not required to notify [State OIG] of such allegations that come to their attention. For example, current Department rules provide that certain allegations against chiefs of mission shall be referred to investigation to OIG or DS.”
Even worse, according to Linick, “in exceptional circumstances, the Under Secretary for Management may designate an individual or individuals to conduct the investigation.”
Those State Department policies, Linick claimed, could keep State OIG uninformed of problems in the State Department and even of investigations concerning those problems. Though Linick then argued that “[a]ccordingly, [State] OIG could not undertake effective, independent assessments and investigations of these matters as envisioned by the IG Act,” the claim was made out of politesse.
Much more bluntly, Linick later said, “Particularly when senior officials are involved, the failure to refer allegations of misconduct to an independent entity, like the OIG, necessarily creates a perception of unfairness, as management is seen to be investigating itself.”
For Linick, the most exasperating part of the policies was that the policies were incongruent with the policies governing other OIGs. Other OIGs have policies in place meant to avert the abuses that could potentially occur in the State Department. Meanwhile, State OIG had to ask State Department for “months” to not look at State OIG files.
Because of all these obstacles, Linick made two requests: one, that Congress provide State OIG with the resources to be completely separate from the State Department; and two, that Congress make State OIG’s policies match the policies of other OIGs.
These reforms to State OIG were necessary, given the problems in the State Department that State OIG had noted, repeatedly in some cases.
One of these problems was ensuring the safety of State Department employees in foreign embassies. Referring to a 2013 Accountability Review Board, or ARB, report written by State OIG, Linick noted that out of the 126 recommendations made between 1998 and 2012, “40 percent” were repeat recommendations “pertaining to security, intelligence gathering, and training.”
The repeat recommendations included the following:
- Having a “defined, attainable, and prioritized mission.”
- Having a “clear-eyed assessment of the costs and risks involved.”
- Having a “commitment of sufficient resources to these costs and risks.”
- Having “an explicit acceptance of those costs and risks that cannot be mitigated.”
- Paying “constant attention to changes in the situation, including when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.”
- Obtaining “sufficient funding for capital building programs and for security operations.”
Linick attributed the repeat recommendations to a “lack of sustained commitment by [State] Department principals [to] mak[e] sure recommendations were implemented.”
Both Linick and the Subcommittee found the repeat recommendations disconcerting because they suggested that the State Department had not done enough to improve security between the Dar es Salaam attack in 1998 and the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.
The State Department’s insufficient efforts played a role in the Benghazi attack. Both the Subcommittee and Linick acknowledged that the State Department committed blunders when it came to securing the embassy in Benghazi.
Linick noted the State Department neither ensured that “firms providing security services for embassy compounds were…fully performing all vetting requirements contained in the contract” nor that the “Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations” did not adequately “address important security needs in a timely manner.”
Acknowledging the Subcommittee’s interest in those details, Linick told the Subcommittee that State OIG would have an ARB report for Benghazi ready in months.
Furthermore, Linick admitted that State OIG did not have the resources necessary to fulfill its obligation to examine foreign embassies every five years. However, he claimed that a better approach to inspections would be to prioritize examinations based on levels of risk faced by the embassies.
In addition to security concerns, Linick testified that the State Department needed better oversights of contracts and grants. Though the State Department handled in 2014 $10.5 billion in contracts and grants ($9 billion in contracts and $1.5 billion in grants), State OIG found that the management process had “systematic weaknesses that ha[d]not been effectively addressed.”
In his 2014 “Grant Management Deficiencies” management alert to the State Department, Linick told the State Department that the grant management processed suffered from a shortage of grant officers, dangerous workloads and significant turnover rates.
In the alert, Linick made clear that the problems all fed into each other. A shortage of grant officers would lead to heavy workloads. In one case, one grant officer had to handle more than 500 grants. Heavy workloads would lead to significant turnover rates; significant turnover rates would lead to a shortage of qualified staff.
The turnover rates created another complication: too many people would end up handling the same grant. Linick noted that due to high turnover rates, grant officers were employed for at most three years. Consequently, long-term projects would have multiple grant officers, leading to a “tremendous lack of continuity” and hampering “the development of institutional memory.”
The lack of continuity was especially harmful in case of reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Linick claimed that in Iraq “[b]oth OIG and the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reported that turnover … contribute[d] to the significant vulnerability to waste and mismanagement of Iraq Reconstruction funds.”
In the case of Afghanistan, Linick wrote in a management alert to the State Department concerning contracts:
“In two joint audits conducting with DoD [the Department of Defense] OIG, we found that, for two task orders valued in excess of $1 billion, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs had neither ensured that the [contracting officer’s representative] for the Civilian Police contract in Afghanistan established or maintained contracting files that were complete and easily accessible, nor finalized and fully implemented standard operating procedures for maintaining COR files.”
To solve these problems, Linick made these recommendations:
- Develop an auditing system based on randomly checking grant and contract files for deficiencies.
- Develop a system that would collect information regarding the number of personnel and amount of resources the State Department would need.
- Ensure that staff have the resources necessary to maintain files in accordance with State Department standards.
According to both Linick’s testimony and the replies to his management alerts, the State Department responded positively to State OIG’s recommendations. Constantly, the State Department concurred and attempted to follow the recommendations. At least in the case of State OIG’s recommendations for grant oversights, State “OIG consider[ed] the recommendation resolved.”
The State Department’s compliance with State OIG’s recommendations are essential, given the fact that the State Department, alongside the Department of Defense, has to handle three major overseas contingency operations, or OCO: Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIL, Operation United Assistance against Ebola in Africa and Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan.
The noteworthy one for Linick was Operation Inherent Resolve, to which Linick was assigned as the Associate Inspector General. For this OCO, State OIG and DoD OIG have been assigned to oversee the use of $5.6 billion. The State Department and the United States Agency for International Development are tasked with humanitarian support.
The FY 2015 Joint Strategic Oversight Plan for Operation Inherent Resolve identifies the challenges for the State Department and USAID:
- Identifying “more informed tradeoffs between risks and rewards in determining which programs to execute.”
- Having “better defined program objectives and metrics.”
- Fostering “increased coordination among programs.”
- Integrating “host-country sustainability…into program design and implementation.”
Both groups are also tasked with reducing corruption and fraud during operations by highlighting “whistleblower protections” and training local auditors “in identifying fraud,” complying with contract requirements and “reporting potential violations to OIG.”
State OIG is specifically tasked with overseeing audits on programs such as Baghdad Life Support Services, or BLISS, medical support services for Mission Iraq and assistance programs to Syrian refugees and opposition forces.
Because of the importance of these responsibilities, Linick reiterated the importance of State OIG having access to more resources and being independent of the State Department.
“[T]he work of our talented staff in reviewing security and leadership at our overseas and domestic posts,” said Linick, “has positive and significant effects on the lives and well-being of employees throughout the Department.”
Linick simply needed Congress’s help to translate State OIG’s zeal into even more significant action.
– Dean Delasalas