Agents say Diplomatic Security Service riven by mismanagement and failing key missions

Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks around the outside of the State Department headquarters to thank the Security Guards for their service and to wish them a happy holidays on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022 at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf) Kevin Wolf/AP

Agents say Diplomatic Security Service riven by mismanagement and failing key missions

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A mix of five active and recently retired Diplomatic Security Service agents said that the State Department’s primary security service is failing its criminal investigation mission and is beset by chronic mismanagement and poor morale. Without reform and greater resources, they said the agency and its various missions face a dark future.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity, referencing what the Washington Examiner believes is a credible fear of retribution.

Two sources said that as of Nov. 1, DSS’s New York field office had made no arrests in 2022. They said this contrasts with the office making 100-plus arrests in previous years. This is a consequence, they said, of three factors: poor leadership, DSS’s ever-expanding protection mission, and a cultural lack of interest by DSS leaders in traditional criminal investigations such as those involving visa and passport fraud.

STATE DEPARTMENT MEMO OUTLINES HIGH COST OF PROTECTING POMPEO AGAINST IRAN ASSASSINATION THREATS

When it comes to protective operations, DSS is responsible for protecting the secretary of state, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, U.S. diplomats abroad, and visiting foreign dignitaries other than heads of state (who are protected by the U.S. Secret Service). But as the Washington Examiner has previously reported, DSS’s protection missions have grown significantly over the past two years amid Iranian government assassination plots.

All five sources said the DSS has a significant leadership problem.

One source with direct knowledge of the situation claimed that senior leadership in the New York field office only came into the office around three times a week. Two sources told the Washington Examiner that a recently serving former DSS assistant director for domestic operations improperly attempted to influence an internal investigation into a subordinate with whom he was having a romantic relationship. The agent was operating under the assistant director’s chain of command. The assistant director later quietly retired, the sources said, without any apparent sanction. Three of the sources lamented what they said is a DSS management culture at ease with imposing arbitrary restrictions on lower-ranking agents who raise mission concerns.

Two sources said that another concerning leadership incident occurred in May 2019, when DSS’s elite Mobile Security Deployments, or MSD, tactical unit moved to clear the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, D.C. MSD’s assignment was to remove protesters loyal to Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro in support of interim President Juan Guaido, who had been recognized by the Trump administration, which was then still in office.

The sources said that although the then-chief of the MSD did not attend the mission briefing or associated training, he nevertheless turned up at the mission staging point in full tactical gear. They said that this ranking agent then became separated from the rest of the MSD unit within the embassy compound, requiring the unit to alter its deliberate action plan to recover him. These circumstances represent a major breach of tactical operations procedures.

Jim Reese, a retired lieutenant colonel and former officer with the Army’s elite Delta Force unit, told the Washington Examiner that “being a strategic leader in charge of an operation and not being integrated into the operational plan is a lesson learned for leaders as they climb the ladder of responsibility.”

All five sources said DSS’s leadership selection process is fundamentally flawed. One source bluntly described the DSS employee evaluation report system as a “b***s*** process” in which agents are judged on their ability to “shine” their resume and earn favor from higher ranks. All five sources said personal rapport with those responsible for deciding on assignments is critical. They claimed promotion is rarely based on skill or suitability but far more often on an agent’s ability to secure a good “corridor reputation” with senior ranks and “not make waves.” They offered repeated anecdotes of supervisory and even more senior agents sitting on selection boards for promotions, even when they had apparent conflicts of interest involving those applying for the respective roles. Some sources drew a contrast between the DSS selection/promotion process and that of the FBI, which centers on intensive interviews and experience specifically relevant to the position being applied for. All sources agreed that the DSS promotion process needs a wholesale review.

The effective fulfillment of DSS’s protection mission remains another challenge.

Four sources decried a reticence among senior agents to volunteer for short-term protective assignments, such as those supporting the visit of a foreign dignitary. Supervisors often assign other agents to perform these unsociable missions to avoid participating themselves, the sources said. Four sources pointed to particular resource challenges associated with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s continued protection. This challenge is exacerbated by sustained threats against Pompeo. Two sources described an incident in which a supervisory agent was removed from front-line duties in Pompeo’s detail after a Pompeo aide complained about a comment the agent had made about having to carry bags. Protection agents will sometimes assist with such bag-carrying duties but dislike doing so for fear it will reduce their protective readiness.

Three sources further suggested that DSS protective tactics and assignments are too rigid.

One source with firsthand knowledge of prior threats against a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. — the Washington Examiner is not disclosing the name — queried why their security arrangements received lower priority than others. That source and two others argued that DSS could be more flexible with its tactics. One said relying on “black suburban” vehicles and other highly visible protective measures was unhelpful when escorting less recognizable protectees. Sources also lamented a State Department perception that Regional Security Officers, DSS agents in charge of security at U.S. embassies, excessively restrict requests by State Department personnel to travel outside embassy compounds. The sources suggested that DSS leadership must be more willing to support American diplomacy even when it means more risk to diplomats in the field.

Fixing these things matters, a source said, because while the DSS is only “a small part of [the State Department mission], without us, you would have a lot more dead American diplomats. Plain and simple.” The sources expressed concern that unless these issues are resolved, another Benghazi-type incident will eventually occur, and DSS may cease operation as a result.

The Diplomatic Security Service declined to comment.

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