The Justice, State and Homeland Security Departments have all made it clear they want to help other countries prevent terrorism. They're not nearly as clear about how they plan to do that.
Such lack of clarity leaves U.S. agencies unsure about their international responsibilities and may have compromised several counterterrorism operations overseas, a new government report says.
The Government Accountability Office cited in its report several examples of U.S. agencies not cooperating, or even communicating, during overseas missions.
- When the State Department launched a program in 2002 to help monitor migration across a terrorist-rich border, planners never consulted U.S. border patrol or immigration officials who have expertise in the field. No terrorists have been prosecuted as part of the program.
- In another unidentified country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were assigned to track special-interest aliens while the FBI was in charge of identifying terrorists trying to enter the United States. Because of poor coordination and communication, both agencies moved in on the same person, possibly jeopardizing several investigations.
- Approval of three full-time U.S. border agents in a terrorist-rich country has been delayed. The ambassador there believes the agents should work alongside locals at airports and immigration offices, rather than at the embassy.
The report credited the FBI for working to recruit more agents into international posts and working more closely with foreign agencies to prevent attacks. A key problem cited in the report, however, is that no agency is in charge of getting everyone to work together. And if one agency is, indeed, in charge, not everybody agrees on which one it is.
The Justice Department said in February that the FBI was the lead agency in charge of terrorism investigations overseas. But the report found that officials working overseas — including in Justice Department agencies — disagreed. They said there was no lead agency coordinating overseas efforts.
Law enforcement working groups based at U.S. embassies only address general issues and do not function cohesively, the report found.
"For example, in one country we visited with an extremely high terrorist threat, an FBI official told us that the law enforcement working group had never been asked to try to identify or disrupt any of the terrorists on the most wanted lists of the departments of State or Defense, or of the foreign nation itself," the report said.
When asked to provide a list of key accomplishments from 2001 to 2005, nobody at State, Justice, or Homeland Security could do so because there is no system for documenting them.
All three agencies responded to the report in writing. State Department officials said it would alert ambassadors to the problems and urge that the matters be addressed. Officials also said State Department counterterrorism programs were underfunded.
Homeland Security officials said they generally agreed with the report's findings but credited its overseas workers with disrupting terrorist networks, even if such disruption could not be measured in prosecutions.
The Justice Department criticized the report's "fundamental misunderstanding" about the roles Justice Department agencies play overseas. While pledging to work with the State Department to coordinate policies, Justice Department officials said it's untrue that overseas officials lack a unified, strategic direction.
"This finding is inconsistent with the fact that Goal 1 in the department's strategic plan is to 'prevent terrorism and promote the nation's security,'" the Justice Department wrote.
Officials at the National Counterterrorism Center — charged with developing an overarching plan to combat terrorism — told government auditors they had drafted a plan that addresses some issues raised in the report. Officials refused, however, to release the plan for review.