State Department's Antiterrorism Assistance Lacks Guidance and Accurate Reporting

By Matthew Harwood

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the State Department's Antiterrorism Assistance (ATA) initiative finds that  the program lacks adequate guidance and assessment, and further faults the agency with "incomplete and inaccurate" reporting of its efforts.

The ATA is the State Department's largest counterterrorism program. It seeks to strengthen the antiterrorism skills of friendly nations by providing counterterrorism training which should, in turn, solidify bilateral ties while respecting human rights. Training covers traditional skills like physical protection, and newer ones, such as defending against cyberterrorism. Since 9-11, the program's funding has quadrupled from $38 million to $175 million.

Two State Department offices are responsible for ATA. The Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) performs the initial assessment to determine a country's needs, while the Bureau of Diplomatic Security's Office of Antiterrorism Assistance (DS/T/ATA) develops country-specific plans.

Practices at both offices, according to the GAO, have harmed the ATA's effectiveness. While the S/CT provides a prioritized list of countries for ATA, that list doesn't include guidance on goals or training priorities that DS/T/ATA could use to implement country-specific programs. Neither office uses assessments or reviews to determine exactly what type of counterterrorism assistance specific countries need, GAO found.

The State Department measures the success or failure of  ATA programs based on their sustainability. Program managers, however differed widely on the definition of "sustainability" and received no guidance on how to measure it within their respective countries, GAO reports.

Finally, GAO discovered inaccuracies in ATA reports to Congress. A 2005 ATA report on Pakistan, for example, stated the program taught 335 students in 17 courses. Those numbers, however, varied widely from supporting tables within the report, which listed 13 courses delivered and 283 students taught. DS/T/ATA officials could not tell the GAO which set of numbers was correct.

GAO recommends that Congress reconsider whether the State Department should have to submit a global counterterrorism assistance report considering how much counterterrorism assistance has changed, on top of the fact that Congress has gone without the report since 1996.

The State Department agreed with the GAO's report and said it would carry through the watchdog's recommendations, including using need assessments and program reviews to develop country-specific plans and clarifying sustainability and providing ways to measure it.

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