Opening photo: A Diplomatic Security Service special agent (fourth from right) along with U.S. and Armenian law enforcement officials return a U.S. fugitive wanted for second-degree sexual abuse. The fugitive pleaded guilty in May 2018 and is serving 25 years in the state of Iowa. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service

By Sean Brennan, Joseph Jung, and Ellen Hummel

In August 2021, members of the Jordanian Public Security Directorate Special Branch executed a search warrant at the home of a suspected document vendor in Amman; they seized fake identification documents, reports, and materials used to make counterfeit identification cards and records. 

In July 2021, Albanian law enforcement arrested a U.S. fugitive wanted on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) charges, who is currently awaiting extradition back to the U.S. In the same month, three Americans and a Canadian were held against their will in an addiction rehabilitation facility in Kenya; one victim managed to escape and notified Embassy Nairobi of the situation. The subsequent investigation led to the arrest of the facility’s operators on charges ranging from illegal detention, kidnapping, and mistreatment to dispensing illegal medications.  

Members of the Embassy Guatemala City vetted police unit (center and right) arrest a fugitive wanted for murder in the United States. A Diplomatic Security Service special agent (left) assists with the operation in Guatemala, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service
Members of the Embassy Guatemala City vetted police unit (center and right) arrest a fugitive wanted for murder in the United States. A Diplomatic Security Service special agent (left) assists with the operation in Guatemala, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service

These are just a few recent examples of the investigative results from the Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) Overseas Criminal Investigations (OCI) Division. OCI’s primary function is to manage DSS’ global investigative force and assistant regional security officer-investigators (ARSO-Is). ARSO-Is are DSS special agents embedded in consular sections at 120 posts in 85 countries. ARSO-Is protect the integrity of the U.S. passport and visa system by conducting global criminal investigations and thorough training and liaising with foreign governmental and private-sector entities to build a worldwide network of crime-fighting partners. The end goal is to disrupt criminal and terrorist mobility and actions to protect Americans and U.S. national security. 

ARSO-Is have on-the-ground relationships with an extensive network of U.S. and international law enforcement officials, immigration officers, and governments worldwide. Their investigations, training, and liaison work targets document vendors, smugglers, traffickers, global criminal networks, and terrorists that produce, distribute, or use fraudulent travel or identity documentation.  

ARSO-Is combat crime where it originates rather than waiting for it to cross U.S. borders. When transnational crime does occur within the U.S., or a U.S. case involves an international suspect or crime, ARSO-Is can quickly leverage their extensive global law enforcement network to support their U.S. law enforcement partners. Due to their investigative expertise and long-standing partnerships, each year ARSO-Is help locate and return, on average, more than 300 fugitives to the U.S. to face charges; dismantle major human smuggling networks that exploit individuals and travel systems; help identify criminals involved in child exploitation and pornography; stop international scams that steal from the elderly and Americans with disabilities; disrupt suspected terrorist travel; and so much more.

The OCI Division and ARSO-I program trace their roots back to 1996, when DSS’ former Visa Fraud Investigations Division and the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ (CA) Office of Fraud Prevention Programs initiated a revolutionary experiment. The two offices combined CA’s fraud detection capabilities with DSS’ criminal investigative acumen by embedding DSS special agents with consular fraud teams. DSS and CA kicked off the project at three of the Department of State’s busiest U.S. diplomatic posts at the time: Kingston, Lagos, and Manila. 

The process was simple: the CA Fraud Prevention Manager (FPM) forwarded visa and passport cases suspected to have fraudulent or criminal information to a DSS special agent who was co-located with the CA FPM. The DSS special agent, now called the ARSO-I, investigated the case and initiated a criminal investigation, if warranted. The benefits of this collaboration were immediate, and the positive impact on U.S. national and border security was remarkable.

The Diplomatic Security Service assistant regional security officer-investigator and criminal fraud investigator from the U.S. Consulate General in Cape Town, held a training session for Cape Town International Airport personnel, Sept. 7, 2017. Airline employees learned how to detect imposters and identify authentic security features of U.S. travel documents. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service
The Diplomatic Security Service assistant regional security officer-investigator and criminal fraud investigator from the U.S. Consulate General in Cape Town, held a training session for Cape Town International Airport personnel, Sept. 7, 2017. Airline employees learned how to detect imposters and identify authentic security features of U.S. travel documents. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service

Over the last two decades, the CA-DSS fraud prevention partnership has progressed significantly. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the relationship grew to become the Department’s most prolific instrument to detect, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist and criminal entities from fraudulently obtaining U.S. travel documents to carry out global crimes that negatively affect Americans and the nation’s foreign partners.

After years of accomplishments, DSS determined that, in addition to ARSO-Is’ investigative endeavors, it was vital to aggressively train and liaise with America’s foreign partners. Giving host countries the tools and support needed to prosecute fraud to the fullest extent possible led to additional successes.

A Diplomatic Security Service assistant regional security officer-investigator (ARSO-I) (in federal agent shirt) observes as Cambodian police arrest a U.S. fugitive in Cambodia after the ARSO-I successfully investigated and located the individual, May 2019. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service
A Diplomatic Security Service assistant regional security officer-investigator (ARSO-I) (in federal agent shirt) observes as Cambodian police arrest a U.S. fugitive in Cambodia after the ARSO-I successfully investigated and located the individual, May 2019. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service

As part of the program’s growth, in addition to DSS special agents, the ARSO-I program today includes criminal fraud investigators (CFIs) and eligible family member investigative assistants (EFM-IAs). The CFIs are highly capable individuals who are former senior prosecutors, judges, law enforcement, and security leaders in their respective countries. They are subject matter experts in local law and capacity building, and provide vital continuity, cultural sophistication, native language skills, and institutional knowledge to each ARSO-I operation. EFM-IAs are highly trained and assist the ARSO-I by providing investigative, analytical, and administrative support to each ARSO-I program.  

Most recently, the OCI Division added another key component to its ARSO-I program: vetted police units. Vetted police units are foreign law enforcement officers assigned to ARSO-I shops. These highly skilled, trusted units allow the office to leverage host nation capabilities and resources to investigate and potentially prosecute crimes and other illicit activities. 

Today, three pillars comprise the ARSO-I program: transnational investigations, liaison, and training. The program has a far-reaching network of global criminal investigators, more than any law enforcement agency in the U.S. government. The OCI Division, through its ARSO-I program, implements DSS, CA, and the Department’s wider efforts to identify criminals, take down their international enterprises, and greatly hinder their ability to gain access to the U.S.  

With 133 ARSO-Is embedded in consular sections at diplomatic posts worldwide, the ARSO-I program is a force multiplier on the frontlines, protecting the homeland from terrorists and transnational organized criminal networks.  

Sean Brennan and Joseph Jung are special agents and branch chiefs of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) Overseas Criminal Investigations Division. Ellen Hummel is a program manager with DSS Overseas Criminal Investigations.

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