State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program Has Serious Deficiencies, Says Ros-Lehtinen; Findings Revealed in GAO Report Commissioned by Ros-Lehtinen and Deutch

Oct 4, 2017

State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program Has Serious Deficiencies, Says Ros-Lehtinen; Findings Revealed in GAO Report Commissioned by Ros-Lehtinen and Deutch

“Perhaps more troubling, while GAO was making inquiries of ATA officials, ATA identified a further 20 former participants that DHS had no indication departed from the United States”

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, made the following statement today at a hearing entitled “State Department’s Antiterrorism Assistance Program: The GAO Review.” The subcommittee received testimony from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding its report commissioned by Ros-Lehtinen and the subcommittee’s Ranking Member, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), entitled “State Department Should Improve Data Collection and Participant Oversight.” The GAO report was publicly released today and can be found here.

Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:

“The Antiterrorism Assistance program (ATA) is one of the State Department’s key tools in advancing some of our national security interests. Its primary mission is to enhance the capabilities of foreign partner nations with the goal of allowing them to better detect, deter and prevent acts of terrorism. The program also gives our partners the tools, the skills and training required to respond to acts of terror and to apprehend and prosecute the individuals responsible for these atrocious acts.

According to the State Department, since the program was first implemented in 1983, 84,000 personnel from 154 countries have been provided training and the United States has provided bilateral ATA assistance to 34 partner nations. And while the majority of the ATA training occurs in host countries or at regional facilities, we do perform a considerable amount of activities here in the U.S. This domestic training includes tactical training, which State has subcontracted out to just two facilities – one in Virginia and the other in North Carolina. And it was concerns that there may be lax security and oversight in at least one of these facilities that had led to the report that GAO is here to testify on today. So we welcome you.

In late 2015, a South Florida reporter approached Ranking Member Deutch and me with some very concerning allegations regarding the security measures in the Virginia facility. There were also allegations from the local residents near this facility that some of the trainees were taking unauthorized departures from training. The reporter filmed herself driving into the facility, no questions asked. And worse, she walked up to an explosives storage area undeterred and undetected.

When Mr. Deutch and I viewed this, we asked GAO to conduct a review of the security measures at the domestic facilities and to document how the State Department selects, screens and vets potential students, particularly those who come to the United States. And what we found as a result of this review is a mixed bag: Vetting procedures are in place and appear to have been followed and implemented; The domestic facilities had proper documentation – and likely as a result of the reporting, took voluntary measures to make their facilities more secure;

But then we run into many of the same issues we have repeatedly heard from these GAO reports when it comes to program management at State; Most concerning is that we have incomplete, or even worse, inaccurate participant data. This is troubling for several reasons: First, if we don’t have complete or accurate data on the participants, we won’t be able to follow up then on measures or measure the success of the program. And second, if we have incomplete or inaccurate data, how can we be sure that these individuals were indeed fully and properly vetted?

That issue becomes compounded when looking at another GAO finding, and that is that there have been unauthorized departures from the ATA program. Perhaps more troubling, while GAO was making inquiries of ATA officials, ATA identified a further 20 former participants that DHS had no indication departed from the United States. So who are these people, where did they go, and why is there such a gap in communication between ATA and DHS? There was no formal process of actually following up and ensuring that these participants actually got on a plane and returned home. This might be a small number of participants, but given what we know, I suspect that if a deeper dive was done we might find more unauthorized departures.

It is frustrating for us – we know that there are important programs that are vital tools our State Department can use to further our interests – but when we see, time and again, serious deficiencies when it comes to program management and oversight, you have to start asking the hard questions. State Department has obligated nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars for the ATA program for fiscal years 2012-2016. But ATA has had difficulties even getting that money out the door – GAO reported that there was about $172 million in unobligated balances for the ATA program for those years, and worse, $36 million has expired.

And in some cases, when we do get that money out, we have no way of following up, as a recent audit by the State Inspector General’s office reported. That audit finds that there was an absence of performance reporting in Pakistan that prevented ATA from measuring the effectiveness of that program because our people were not being given the visas or access to travel around the country as would be required for proper oversight. I would imagine that we will see more of that across the ATA program.

So how do we begin to address the shortcomings so that we can ensure that this key program is as effective as it can be? That is what we are here to discuss with GAO, and we look forward to hearing more from our witness.”