GAO says Congress is in the dark about anti-terrorism efforts across government

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Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen (far left) talks in August 2008 with Pakistani Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, center, and then-Director General, Military Operations, Major Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha. Pasha now heads the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence agency.

 AP/Navy

The national strategy to fight terrorism puts an emphasis on eliminating safe havens. Since 2006, the State Department has identified terrorist safe havens in its annual terrorism report. Despite multiple reporting requirements, agencies have not provided Congress with full details of all efforts to address terrorist safe havens.

State defines terrorist safe havens as ungoverned areas where terrorists can organize, raise funds, recruit, train and plan operations in general security. Recent events illustrate the threats from safe havens: the 2008 Mumbai, India attacks planned from Pakistan; the 2009 Christmas Day attempted bombing planned from Yemen; and the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

But State and the National Security Council have not addressed Congress’ demands for a full accounting of government efforts to address these dangers, according to the Government Accountability Office.

State’s 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism excluded some of State’s own initiatives that contribute to denying terrorists safe haven, like peacekeeping operations and USAID assistance. The Pentagon’s efforts to train and equip security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and Department of Justice and Treasury training programs to thwart funding efforts by terrorist groups were also absent from State’s report.

Without a comprehensive review of its own activities and those of agency partners, State’s report paints an incomplete of government efforts to address safe havens.

Federal law requests information on host country efforts to eliminate safe havens, the level of their cooperation with U.S. counterterrorism efforts and actions to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. A quarter of State’s assessments in its terrorism report lacked information on countries cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism efforts and none of the assessments included information on the actions by host countries to prevent the sale of weapons of mass destruction.

State officials blamed time constraints and limited staff.

 “A more comprehensive list of U.S. efforts would enhance oversight activities, such as assessing U.S. efforts toward the government-wide goal of denying safe haven to terrorists,” the GAO noted.

Development assistance, which can reduce incentives to join terrorism organizations— like increasing economic opportunities, improving education and health services—was also absent from State’s report.

The National Security Council also fell short on its reporting. The Council must complete a report for 2010, but national security staff had not done so by March of this year.

 “Congress has expressed its desire to receive this type of information in order to better understand the status of efforts related to terrorist safe havens and to better assess U.S. efforts to address them…critical details recommended by Congress are not included in these documents,” the GAO said.

FAST FACT: State-identified terrorist safe havens include Venezuela, the Colombia border region, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the South Philippines. Experts consulted by the GAO identified Bangladesh, Nigeria, Kenya, the Caucasus, and Karachi, Pakistan as areas at risk of becoming terrorist safe havens in the next five years.

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