GAO study faults State Department for lax security practices overseas

Updated 9:46 PM EDT, Thu July 9, 2015

Story highlights

The study cites multiple "vulnerabilities" in high threat areas

The GAO reviewed how the State Department assessed risk to diplomatic posts and "soft targets"

(CNN) —  

State Department efforts to protect thousands of diplomatic personnel and their families at residences, schools and other soft overseas targets has been weak, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found in a new study released Thursday.

The study cites multiple “vulnerabilities” in high threat areas. The State Department has built many new embassies and consulates, and enhanced security measures at others, since the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania East Africa. But the increased security at U.S. diplomatic posts has made areas where diplomatic personnel and their families congregate, such as residences, schools and churches, more attractive “soft targets” for terrorists.

The GAO reviewed how the State Department assessed risk to such targets, the security standards in place and how State managed those risks and addressed vulnerabilities. On Thursday, it issued an unclassified version of the classified report it completed in June.

Although the State Department has allocated nearly $200 million for security upgrades for residences, schools, and off-compound employee association facilities, the GAO found “vulnerabilities at many of the residences we reviewed and a number of gaps or weaknesses in State’s implementation of its risk management activities.”

The report found that more than half of the 68 diplomatic residences reviewed in did not meet all the security standards. It cited “gaps and inconsistencies” in risk management practices which are “complicating posts’ efforts to determine and apply the appropriate security measures and potentially leaving some residences at risk.”

Moreover, the GAO said that security weaknesses were not quickly reported. A quarter of the residences surveyed had problems with required security surveys of diplomatic residences.

Updating security standards for all diplomatic posts overseas has also been slow, the study found. Although updating security standards for diplomatic residences should take 75 days, the three updates since 2005 have taken more than three years to complete, the study found. As a result, it warned the State Department “lacks full awareness of the vulnerabilities that exist at residences.”

“State lacks key information that could provide it with a clearer picture of security vulnerabilities at residences and enable it to make better risk management decisions,” the study said.

The study also found the State Department was lax in leveraging resources for securing schools and other soft targets and failing to communicate information about utilizing such resources to officials at overseas posts.

“Each of these issues is problematic on its own, but taken together, they raise serious questions about State’s ability to make timely and informed risk management decisions about soft targets,” the study found. “Until it addresses these issues, State cannot be assured that the most effective security measures are in place at a time when U.S. personnel and their families are facing ever-increasing threats to their safety and security.”

The GAO recommended that the State Department institute procedures to complete its security surveys, identify weaknesses and report them more promptly. It also recommended the agency take steps to ensure all diplomatic posts have the tools they need for security of school and other soft targets.