The Cable

State Dept's Internal Watchdogs Were Sent Home While Most Others Worked

As hundreds of thousands of federal employees returned to work on Thursday, the headcount at the State Department barely changed thanks to a clever use of rainy day funds preventing mass furloughs. But one office in Foggy Bottom wasn't so lucky: The Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

During the 16-day government shutdown, the internal government watchdog tasked with investigating fraud, waste and mismanagement was reduced to a skeleton crew unlike the vast majority of offices in the building. The disproportionate furlough allotment has led critics to accuse the department of undervaluing the watchdog office, though the department strongly disputes that.

"On day one, they sent home the IG's office without knowing how long the shutdown would last," a Congressional staffer familiar with State's shutdown planning told The Cable. "I think the Department's action speaks for itself about its commitment to transparency, accountability, and oversight." 

But State's IG spokesman Douglas Welty denied the allegation. "OIG does not feel ‘targeted' or ‘undervalued' at all," he said. "While there was certainly a significant impact on OIG operations with about 65% of our staff furloughed due to the government shutdown, work on several priority issues and projects continued."

Unlike the Pentagon, CIA or Treasury, which furloughed hundreds of thousands of employees, the State Department skated by during the shutdown, furloughing only about 340 people. But State's OIG, which has 318 total positions, absorbed the brunt of the furloughs, with only 85 employees working during the shutdown. (The only other offices with furloughs were the International Boundary Commission, the International Joint Commission and the International Boundary and Water Commission.)

The disproportionate furlough treatment is largely due to a quirk in how inspectors general offices receive funding, rather than a desire to punish the internal watchdog. "While a significant portion of appropriations for the department are designated as multi-year funds, most of OIG's funding is designated as single-year," Welty explained. "Without a 2014 appropriation, or a continuing resolution, OIG has little funding for operations."

But the optics of OIG taking a disproportionate share of the furloughs isn't great for an office with a history of being marginalized.

Until this June, the department had no appointed inspector general for five years, the longest such vacancy of any federal agency ever. For years, lawmakers hounded the department about the vacancy and it didn't help that The Washington Post reported in April 2011 that State Department leaders had urged President Obama not to appoint an inspector general.

But the appointment of Steve Linick, the former inspector general of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, eventually surfaced this summer following a bout of a high stakes brinksmanship by the then-obscure Texas Senator Ted Cruz.

Before the junior senator had fixated on shutting down the federal government, he turned his gaze to the State Department where he pledged to place holds on every nomination until the appointment of an IG. "The position has been vacant for almost 2,000 days," said the Republican lawmaker. "This is a crucial oversight position and should be a priority for an agency facing substantial management challenges."

Days later, Linick was appointed for the job. Interestingly, his first day at OIG collided with this month's shutdown madness. "By coincidence,  the shutdown started one day after Steve Linick joined the office as our new inspector general," said Welty. "But he was able to use the opportunity to meet with senior staff and receive thorough briefings on OIG's organizational structure, operations and priority issues."

One of those priorities, say critics, should be restoring the office's reputation for independence, which took a hit this summer following allegations by a former IG investigator Aurelia Fedenisn.

Fedenisn had accused colleagues of influencing, manipulating or calling off investigations into misconduct by State Department employees on everything from using drugs, soliciting prostitutes and having sex with minors. The department denied the allegations, but launched an internal review of its practices.

Now that the IG's office is fully-staffed, following a last-minute deal by Senate Democrats and Republicans, Linick will be able to tackle those issues. But Bob Silverman, President of the American Foreign Service Association, says the shutdown has already caused a significant backlog for the office. "They were widely furloughed and now they're trying to catch up," he told The Cable. "If you're interested in oversight of how our embassies and diplomatic missions run, this was a real hit. They're now trying to catch up and get out of an operational hole."

The Cable

Exclusive: U.N. Uncovers 'Credible' New al-Shabab Terror Plot

The United Nations recently uncovered a "credible" plot by the Somali Islamist group al-Shabab to mount a major terrorist attack against the U.N. compound in Mogadishu, according to senior U.N. officials briefed on the plan. It's another sign that the militant outfit, once thought to be all but expired, has once again become a major force for terror in East Africa.

The warning, one of several threats against the U.N. in recent months, drove home the harsh risks of life in Somalia for the United Nations nearly three months after the Islamist movement attacked the organization's humanitarian compound in downtown Mogadishu, killing eight U.N. employees. It also reinforced the fact that al-Shabab, which was widely considered to be organizationally spent earlier this year, has regrouped. Late last month, al-Shabab killed dozens at the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

"U.N. premises in Mogadishu may come under direct terrorist attacks," according to a confidential security assessment of Somalia produced jointly by the African Union and the United Nations. The report, which was shared with U.N. Security Council members, said the ongoing "risk of asymmetric attacks has significantly curtailed the mobility of U.N. staff in Mogadishu and hampers delivery of critical UN programs in support of [Somalia's] Federal government."

In response, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this week for the deployment of thousands of additional African troops to take the fight to al-Shabab's strongholds and to reinforce the U.N.'s own security. In a letter, Ban asked the 15-nation Security Council and governments to enhance the U.N. mission's security in Mogadishu. He proposed the "immediate deployment" of a "static U.N. guard unit" to reinforce the security of the U.N. political headquarters at Mogadishu's airport. He also called for the establishment of a "dedicated force" of about 150 Somali police officers to provide security for U.N. convoys, and he urged Somalia to set up a quick-reaction force that can respond immediately to the U.N.'s cries for help.

But can the U.N. be truly safe in Somalia?

J. Peter Pham, a specialist on Somalia at the Atlantic Council, isn't convinced that's possible over the long run.

"Yes, more troops will provide more security for those already present in Somalia," he said. "We can clear out some more space from Shabab-controlled areas. But in a year, we will be asking for more troops and air power. This is a never-ending cycle."

Pham said that the larger problem is that the African Union and the United Nations are supporting a government in Somalia that lacks sufficient political legitimacy among the Somali people. He said the assembly of elders -- that last year elected the country's constituent assembly and parliament, which in turn elected Somalia's president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud -- was "packed with phony elders."

Equally troublesome, he added, is the fact that the U.N. has picked sides in a messy civil and clan conflict, repeating the mistake made by the United States and the United Nations in the early 1980s, when they pursued the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

"The U.N. is not a neutral force in Somalia," Pham said. "I think in a way the United Nations has painted the target on its own back."

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who studies terrorist groups at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the United States, the United Nations, and others frequently have to make hard choices about working with states that are not entirely democratic.

"The question is 'how much is legitimate enough,'" he said, noting that al-Shabab's standing in Somalia has never been lower. Many countries, including the United States and its African allies, "have invested in the idea that it is."

Gartenstein-Ross said that two years ago many analysts were skeptical that African troops possessed the power to dislodge al-Shabab from key urban centers, including Mogadishu and Kismayo. But they did it.

A new military surge, he said, carries risks, but "certainly there is a chance that these operations against Shabab will succeed," he said. "Military operations against Shabab over the past year and a half have been more successful than analysts anticipated."

"Putting people in danger in an environment like Somalia may be worth the cost. That's a judgment the U.N. or the U.S. government makes all the time when deploying people in unsafe environments," he said. "Is it being unwise?… On its face, it seems the only way to build a functioning government is to try to put services and the like in place as ground is captured."

In the meantime, Ban said he has received assurances from the African Union that the African forces in Somalia will continue reinforcing the perimeter of the airport compound they share and provide security for U.N. personnel who travel outside the capital.

Ban has also requested the U.N. Security Council to authorize the expansion of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), which he hopes could free up more African troops to enhance security at the airport until the situation stabilizes in Mogadishu.

"The current security environment directly affects the ability of the United Nations and the international community to support the Somali authorities and people in Mogadishu and the region," Ban wrote. "U.N. personnel must be able to work effectively in Somalia, including to operate alongside Somali counterparts and to move freely in Mogadishu and recovered areas, in order to deliver their mandates," Ban wrote. "This requires additional security adjustments to allow our staff to operate safely."

The U.N. has previously seen its appeal for protection for its personnel rebuffed. Last year, the African Union was asked to develop a guard force composed of 311 troops for the United Nations "to provide security, escort and protection services to personnel from the international community including the United Nations." "However, the mandated guard force has not been deployed as AMISOM became over stretched," the report stated. It was impossible, the report added, to bring in reinforcements to take on the role because the Security Council had imposed a ceiling on the number of foreign forces allowed into the country at one time.

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