Key Issues

Frontline Civilian Care: Balancing Mission and Risk in High Threat Environments (Protecting Our Diplomats and Development Professionals)

As prepared for delivery

Nancy, thank you for having me here today. Nancy and I worked together on the Ebola response – she was such a steady and competent leader of USAID’s heroic efforts. So we were sad to lose her as a partner around the table in the Situation Room, but were so pleased that she’d taken the helm here at the United States Institute of Peace to bring about “a world without violent conflict.”

We are so grateful for today’s discussion on physical risk, and the others held by USIP and the Advisory Council on Public Diplomacy. Secretary Kerry has said that “we as a nation need to engage in a larger conversation about the inherent dangers of diplomacy.” Today’s event is a part of that larger conversation.

USIP, and all of you understand that our vital work only happens when a special sort of person steps forward on behalf of their country; someone who volunteers to leave the comforts of home to contend with microbes and monsoons, armed guerillas and unfriendly governments. We call these people frontline civilians because many times, they are required to risk their security in order to advance the nation’s interests. And it’s our responsibility to support them and their families.

Diplomacy and development are our first lines of defense and a good return on investment. As former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said, “We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen,” he said. “We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power …”

An aid worker who helps one village get clean water may stop the next superbug, the next Ebola from emerging. A diplomat who’s able to re-engage quickly on the ground after a temporary evacuation may help preserve a fragile truce. Our efforts to counter violent extremist propaganda and recruitment may steer a potential terrorist down a better path.

But we can’t do any of this; we can’t score if we’re not on the field. That’s why State, USAID, our interagency partners, and Congress, need to continue to work together, on the three-dimensional puzzle of monitoring threats, mitigating risks, and staying engaged on the ground so we can continue to pursue our national security interests and look out for American citizens abroad.

Risk continues to evolve, but it is not new or insurmountable. Today, I’d like to lay out our strategy to manage physical risk – the progress we’ve made, and the work that still lies ahead.

This year, our Diplomatic Security Service marked their 100 year anniversary – so the need to mitigate physical risk is not new. The modern era goes back at least as far as the Inman and Crowe Reports, after the 1983 Beirut and 1998 Kenya and Tanzania bombings. More recently, we’ve drawn on recommendations from reviews following the terrible tragedy in Benghazi.

These recommendations have helped the Department adapt to an evolving threat environment by leveraging updated mechanisms and procedures to make sure we’re appropriately balancing our mission and its risks.

For instance, stabilizing and developing Afghanistan and Iraq, and even places like the southern Philippines and Northern Nigeria, is necessary so they don’t serve as bases for terrorists. Building peace in Colombia is part of stopping transnational crime. Global health efforts help prevent diseases from becoming even more lethal and reaching our shores.

To enable our diplomats and development experts to carry out their mission, we must give people resources, flexibility, and support to do their jobs. Last year, Secretary Kerry unveiled the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, which elevated the need “to understand the dangers we face” and “depoliticize the risks.”

One key effort to emerge from that is a Department-wide Agility Review to identify innovations in policy and operations in high threat environments and institutionalize them.

The Agility Review has identified six priority areas ranging from how we adapt aid programs in changing security situations, to how we deal with transnational challenges like Daesh and Boko Haram, to how we actually get around in dangerous places. The Agility Review will make concrete recommendations and help spread lessons learned and best practices, not just from post to post, but from region to region and Department-wide.

Based on a new, more holistic approach to weighing risks on the ground against our national security interests, we’ve created the High Threat Post Review Board and the Vital Presence Validation Process, or “VP2.” The Board convenes senior officials from across the Department to determine which of our posts are most at risk so that they can receive greater scrutiny and move to the front of the line for security resources. Through VP2, we ensure we are constantly reassessing our presence for our high threat posts and for any other post where changes in the security environment raise concerns.

The VP2 process brings new analytical rigor to identify evolving threats and ensure we spot trends and apply lessons learned.

We’ve instituted a new risk-management policy and are strengthening our security toolkit by growing our Marine Security Guard Program; by expanding an intensive training course for all employees assigned to high threat posts, which features hands-on training in how to recognize, avoid and respond to security situations, and we’re building a new, consolidated Foreign Affairs Security Training Center in Virginia. We’re also developing processes to gather and incorporate lessons from events in the field into our decision-making and training.

I’ve just thrown out a lot of process and bureaucratic-speak, to give you a sense of the nuts-and-bolts of adapting to evolving risks in an organization like ours. But let me boil it down: these tools and processes have enabled us to creatively strike the right balance in the field. Here are two examples:

First, Somalia. We haven’t had an embassy in Mogadishu since 1991, but we’ve never severed relations. Our engagement from Embassy Nairobi allowed us to maintain relationships with Somalis and the international community working there. We ramped up our presence using a phased approach, from day trips to Mogadishu, to longer stays there, to trips to other cities, to more routine rotations between Nairobi and Mogadishu. This allowed us to establish the security needed for a formal diplomatic return, a process Secretary Kerry launched during his historic visit to Mogadishu last year.

Second, Cairo – a key post where our VP2 risk analysis made clear that a significant presence is in our national interest, but that we should be proactive in reducing our footprint where possible. Post reviewed the necessity of performing each function in Cairo, and determined that tasks like administrative support could be moved, which resulted in relocating nearly 20 percent of the staff, without significant disruption to the work.

We have made a lot of progress toward defining acceptable risk, and mitigating it, in actual on-the-ground situations.

And that brings me to where we’re headed – how do we need to continue to evolve in the years to come? Let me highlight two ways: one, how we view and care for the people who take the risks – our frontline civilians; and two, how we foster a more nuanced understanding here in Washington of the risks inherent in the conduct diplomacy.

I’ve outlined the steps we’re taking to ensure we’re appropriately mitigating risk. But we know there’s still more to do before, during, and after deployment, to ensure our people have access to physical and mental health care and peer-support, and that they feel able to use these resources without risk to their clearances or career prospects.

On the second, we must continue the public dialogue like the one here today about the need to balance risk with mission, if we accept the fact that a world in which we lead with diplomacy and development is ultimately a safer one.

Our military and intelligence communities are the first to say that they should not be managing foreign policy alone. But if we are not present that’s what they have to do. And leaders, in turn, must accept that some uncertainty and danger will always be a part of being part of the world.

Our workforce is “cleared for worldwide assignment,” as we say. Our people thrive when they’re having a positive impact on the ground. If we don’t stay engaged, stay at the cutting edge, we could lose our most effective Foreign Service Officers.

Our civilians don’t seek danger, but they’re willing to take it on when our national security demands it. Whether it’s working to stabilize countries in the Middle East and Africa to deny terrorists a haven, containing pandemics or defusing conflicts, America is the one indispensable nation, and we depend on our frontline civilians.

So we have to get this right. We have to strike the balance between mission and risk. And we need your help. Thank you for engaging in this important discussion.

Source: U.S. State Department