A new government report found that the State Department’s Iran strategy failed to develop a plan to prevent terrorists from entering the United States from the Canadian or Mexican borders, despite Congress’s explicit request that it do so.
The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012 “directed the Secretary of State to conduct an assessment of the threats posed to the United States by Iran’s growing presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere, and to submit a strategy to address Iran’s growing hostile presence and activity in the Western Hemisphere.” The act specified 12 “broad elements” that should be addressed and included the strategy, including strengthening U.S. borders to prevent terrorists from entering from Canada or Mexico.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the strategy report State submitted in June 2013 only fully addressed two of these elements, partially addressed six, and totally ignored four. The four directives it decided not to develop are:
- “a plan to address resources, technology, and infrastructure to create a secure United States border and strengthen the ability of the United States and its allies to prevent operatives from Iran, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its Qods Force, Hezbollah, or any other terrorist organization from entering the United States,”
- “a plan to address any efforts by foreign persons, entities, and governments in the region to assist Iran in evading United States and international sanctions,”
- “a plan to protect United States interests and assets in the Western Hemisphere, including embassies, consulates, businesses, energy pipelines, and cultural organizations, including threats to United States allies,”
- “a plan to address the vital national security interests of the United States in ensuring energy supplies from the Western Hemisphere that are free from the influence of any foreign government that would attempt to manipulate or disrupt global energy markets.”
The act was motivated by the 2011 attempted assassination of the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the United States, which the GAO explains “was directed by elements of the Iranian government to murder the Ambassador with explosives while the Ambassador was in the United States.”
State Department officials told the GAO that “State interpreted the law to mean that if the Secretary of State deemed the Iranian or Hizballah activity a threat to the United States, State would be required to address it in its submission to the relevant congressional committees; if the Secretary of State did not deem it to be a threat to the United States, State would not be required to address it.” Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State both during the passage of the act and the submission of the report.
State also said that some pre-existing documents, like the Department of Homeland Security’s Northern Border Security Strategy, already addressed Congress’s border concerns. GAO noted that State neither summarized nor even mentioned these documents in its 2013 report. The Northern Border Security Strategy was released in June 2012, a full year before the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Strategy was submitted to Congress.
State further said that because of a 2010 memo requiring all reports to Congress to be no more than five pages long, it “issued its classified strategy and unclassified summary of policy recommendations to meet this five-page reporting limitation. According to State officials, this requirement limited their ability to include information to comprehensively address all of the elements identified in the act.”
In addition, the GAO said, “State explained that it did not address matters where the consensus of the intelligence community was that there was not an identifiable threat to counter. According to State, most of the elements we identified as not being adequately addressed in the strategy fell into this category.”
The decision not to develop a plan to protect embassies is perhaps particularly striking, given that the strategy was submitted just nine months after the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, during which Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. State’s explanation was that “plans to protect United States government installations in the region are held at each installation” and that “it is not practicable to include those individual plans in the Department submission.”
The GAO conducted its audit of the strategy because some members of Congress, left unnamed, “raised concerns about the strategy and expressed continued concerns about Iranian activities in the Western Hemisphere.”
Among the elements only partially addressed in the strategy are descriptions of terrorist organizations’ relationships with transnational criminal organizations, analysis of “foreign embassies, charities, religious and cultural centers, and income-generating activities [in the western hemisphere]” that Iranian terrorist groups may be using, and descriptions of terrorist activity related to human, arms, and drug-trafficking that may be present at the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Canadian borders.
The report’s executive recommendation is for the Secretary of State, now John Kerry, to “provide the relevant congressional committees with information that would fully address these elements. In the absence of such information, State should explain to the congressional committees why it was not included in the strategy.”