Friday, July 21, 2000

GAO report says overseas troops
still vulnerable to terrorism

By Chuck Vinch
Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — U.S. troops at overseas bases remain vulnerable to terrorist attack despite three years of steady force protection improvements, according to a new General Accounting Office report released Wednesday.

Haphazard and ineffective antiterrorism plans, inadequate training and especially a lack of funding are undermining the Pentagon’s stated commitment to protecting U.S. troops abroad, said the report by the investigative arm of Congress.

In response to the report, Pentagon officials cited numerous errors and inaccuracies that "do not reflect our strong commitment to combating terrorism."

The report "should not and cannot be used (to) measure the Defense Department’s true antiterrorism posture," said Brian Sheridan, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.

But in visiting 19 bases in Europe, the Pacific and Middle East that were not identified for security reasons, GAO investigators found many instances of faulty force protection situations. Among them:

Overall, the GAO said U.S. forces stationed overseas are better protected than they were four years ago, when a terrorist attack on a U.S. military housing complex in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed 19 troops and wounded hundreds more.

Bases all over the world have taken such steps as putting up new barriers, fences and perimeter lighting; buying more explosives detectors; moving troops into base housing; relocating parking lots; and adding "fragment retention film" to windows to minimize injuries from exploding glass shards.

Base commanders also have set up permanent offices and staff to deal with force protection issues, although the GAO noted that many staff officers are inadequately trained in that area and perform that role as secondary duty.

Despite the improvements, "physical security and procedural problems continue to put U.S. forces at risk at many installations," the GAO said.

For example, some bases still haven’t finished their AT/FP plans almost three years after the Pentagon made that a formal requirement, while plans drawn up by some other bases were sketchy or weren’t being followed, the report said.

Such planning is critical so that all personnel "will know what to do and how to react in any given situation," the GAO said.

Another problem continues to be access control at U.S. bases overseas, the report found. "Some of the installations we visited had no gates and no effective means of stopping vehicles from entering the facility," the GAO said.

Required "vulnerability assessments" are now conducted at U.S. bases overseas, but those reports don’t include specific actions to fix the problems they cite, and there is still no easy way for base commanders to share lessons learned and solutions to common force protection issues.

The biggest issue for U.S. commanders overseas remains a lack of money. "Funding for antiterrorism protection has been significantly less than what commanders require," the report said, noting that the service’s budget plans for fiscal 2001 and beyond seem to promise more of the same.

The shortages for some commands in the services’ original fiscal 2001 budget proposals were so stark that Defense Secretary William Cohen recently added millions more in AT/FP funding for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, U.S. Army Europe and Eighth U.S. Army in Korea.

The GAO report said the service’s current long-range spending plans for fiscal 2002 through 2007 would continue to shortchange the overseas commands on antiterrorism and force protection efforts.

Those plans, which are now being reworked, would leave overseas commands some $700 million short of what they need to make physical improvements, hire more contract gate guards, and take other actions.

The GAO recommended refining the vulnerability assessment process, improving training for AT/FP managers, and increasing congressional visibility of unfunded priorities.

"Congress does not have an accurate picture of the extent of the risk that U.S. forces face from terrorism," the report said.

Sheridan agreed with the first two recommendations and said the Defense Department is improving training for AT/FP personnel, developing two computer-based systems to allow base commanders to swap information and lessons learned, and taking other steps.

But he resisted the idea of closer congressional scrutiny. He said the current planning, programming and budgeting system effectively makes sure that high-priority projects are funded.

The GAO was cool to that response. "We believe this information would enhance congressional oversight and make Congress more aware of the types of risks that servicemembers face every day," the report said.

Despite Pentagon protests to the contrary, the GAO stuck to its basic conclusions that the services are not putting enough emphasis on AT/FP efforts.

Noting the current $700 million budget shortfall over the next six to seven years, the report said "this level of funding challenges the Defense Department’s stated commitment to combating terrorism."

The report can be viewed on the agency’s web site at