Twenty-three of the 68 residences visited did not meet two or more of the mandatory standards, even though many had recently been upgraded.
More than 25,000 U.S. government workers are currently at diplomatic posts abroad. They do important work, but sometimes their work entails significant security risks. Despite this, a new report suggests that while embassies themselves may have ample security, a worryingly high number of places U.S. diplomatic staff congregate, including the residences where they live, may fail to meet the recommended security standards.
The report was conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and made public on Thursday. During the course of its investigation, the GAO team found that more than half of the 68 residences it visited did not meet the mandatory security standards set by the Overseas Security Policy Board. In particular, 23 of the 68 residences visited did not meet two or more of the mandatory standards, even though many had recently been upgraded.
The GAO report notes that often staff at the residences were unable to explain why these security standards had not been met. For example, when accessible windows were found to not have grilles on them at certain vulnerable residences, it was suggested that there had been a desire “to leave certain windows without grilles for aesthetic purposes.”
While the State Department has allocated around $170 million for security upgrades, it was often unaware of what security upgrades were needed to meet requirements. Surveys of the security are due to be made every few years, but when the GAO team visited residences it found sometimes the surveys were missing, outdated, or not completed as required. The report also noted that while residences are supposed to file an exception with the State Department when they did not meet security standards only one of the 38 residences they found with security failing had an exception filed.
Often, the report found, the problems seemed to be caused by confusing guidelines. Some diplomatic staff told the GAO that they found it “challenging to keep track of all the sections where relevant standards and guidance appear.” Sometimes, the staff said, the information was confusingly worded: Some items were worded as if they were mandatory and others were worded as if they were only “recommended” or “should be considered.” In the security guidelines the GAO team looked over, a number of inconsistencies were discovered.
Diplomatic staff overseas have been targeted by terrorists before: In 1998, a series of bombings at U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya killed 224 people, including 12 U.S. citizens. The GAO report argues that threats have only increased since then and that diplomatic staff are often kept in countries with high security risks. However, while the security at embassies has been enhanced, terrorists may view other sites including residences and schools as soft targets. The U.S. government leases or owns more than 15,000 residences worldwide, the GAO report states, and there are around 8,000 U.S. government dependent children stationed abroad.