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State Department failing to spend foreign language training money wisely

By John Solomon

Wednesday - 5/8/2013, 9:28pm  ET

The State Department, already blamed for lax security leading up to the Benghazi terror attack, is getting some additional uncomfortable scrutiny for the way it spent an estimated $195 million last year training its diplomats in foreign languages.

The department’s internal watchdog reported Wednesday – the same day State officials testified before Congress on last year’s tragedy in Libya – that the department is failing to spend its language training money wisely.

In some cases, the department continues to pay to train diplomats in foreign languages who actually do their overseas work in English, while shorting diplomats in other countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan here foreign language skills are mission critical, the inspector general reported.

Investigators “found that some positions identified as language designated do not in fact require foreign language skills; other positions are not language designated but should be,” the report concluded.

The lack of oversight and risk analysis has both safety and financial consequences because it costs State between $105,000 to $480,000 for each employee it trains in a foreign language, the IG said.

“Given a government-wide need to be more cost conscious, language training costs should be transparent and part of the LDP process,” the department’s chief watchdog said. “Eliminating language training for positions that do not require language skills would free up funds for additional language training elsewhere.”

The issue of how and where State spends money training its diplomats is especially sensitive because the internal review of the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya recommended making sure more diplomats in dangerous regions of the world have the ability to speak the languages of their host country.

The IG said State was failing to adequately assess needs and risks when spending training money, training too many diplomats in English-speaking European countries while shorting diplomats in more volatile posts where foreign language skills are essential.

“There are two language designated general services officer positions in Switzerland, three in France, and four in Italy; however, there are no language designated general services officer positions in Haiti, Thailand, or Indonesia and only one such position in Egypt,” the report said. “The latter four countries all have fewer English language speakers and more difficult working environments

The IG said it had uncovered instances in which the lack of foreign language training in some hotspots had set back U.S. diplomatic efforts.

“In Muscat and Kuwait, language limitations undermined political and public diplomacy outreach efforts,” the IG reported. “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the shortage of language qualified officers limited the missions’ ability to participate in public debates with fluency in local languages.”

The watchdog also talked to State officials who said they intentionally kept languge skill requirement low in certain hotspots because it was hard to find people to serve in places like Iraq, Pakistan and other dangerous locations.

“Some bureaus—NEA, the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and the Bureau of African Affairs in particular—acknowledge that they keep language requirements low to attract bidders,” the report said.

State Department officials did not immediately offer a formal response to the report, which echoes concerns raised by other watchdogs like the Government Accountability Office over the last decade.

The inspector general made numerous recommendations ranging from eliminating some foreign-langauge required posts in Europe and improving cost consciousness to requiring embassies, human resources officers and top leaders in Washington to review and better justify language training needs for every diplomatic outpost.