Qatari special forces and U.S. special operators encounter a simulated gunman at the Qatar Metro Station, Mar. 24, 2021, during a training exercise called Invincible Sentry 21 in Doha. Invincible Sentry represented a unique opportunity to train with Qatari partners to exercise critical crisis response capabilities. Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex L. Smedegard
By Joel Seppala
On Sept. 11, 2012, a militant group launched coordinated attacks against the U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of four Americans. In the wake of that tragedy, the Department of State established the Office of Special Programs (SP) as part of the nascent High Threat Programs (HTP) Directorate within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s (DS’s) Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). This office emerged to protect those representing the interests of the American people at the Department’s diplomatic missions worldwide. Composed of dedicated special agents (SA), civilians, military, and contract personnel, SP supports the HTP mission to “protect and promote U.S. interests abroad by leading policy, planning, and operational initiatives; managing risk; and fostering inter-and intra-agency partnerships.”
Within the HTP mission focus areas, SP especially coordinates with post and interagency partners to respond to global crisis situations.
“Whether through emergency planning, personnel recovery, the Foreign Emergency Support Team, or engagement with our extensive network of liaison offices serving at all the major military commands, DS Special Programs will work with your post and [emergency action committee] to provide additional levels of support and subject matter expertise to address whatever potential crisis your mission may be facing,” said Supervisory Special Agent Tom Rhodes, the deputy office director for SP.
“Special Programs provides support to all four phases of the emergency management cycle—mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery—and we take a holistic approach to deliver solutions before, during, and after complex crises. We particularly encourage posts to contact us early in the pre-crisis stages, when storm clouds are on the horizon or ‘left of bang’ so to speak, so we can coordinate a tailored support package based on the unique capabilities our office provides,” continued Rhodes.
SP provides representation and expertise in response to global crises, including support to Department task forces and security support teams. It ensures effective communication and coordination with U.S. military commands and oversees planning and operations. The office is organized into six branches or functional areas to accomplish the tasks assigned to it: Emergency Planning (EP), Special Operations (SO), Personnel Recovery (PR), Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), and Liaison Officers (LNOs).
EP supports posts in crafting, certifying, and validating their emergency action plans by providing policy guidance and plan reviews, drills, and joint exercises. EP also coordinates with the Foreign Service Institute’s Crisis Management Training team on Department participation in exercises with conventional military forces.
EP chief, Supervisory Special Agent Ken Bomongcag, became one of the first volunteers from DS to serve on the Department’s Afghanistan Task Force upon his return from Embassy Kabul where he was deployed from April to July 2021 to help the country team assess impacts to the projected Department of Defense (DoD) force drawdown.
The SO unit engages with specialized U.S. military special operations forces to support and respond to critical incidents through established DS LNOs. SO also supports DS participation in Joint Special Operations University academic programs.
SP’s PR team manages the global PR program and supports U.S. foreign policy through engagement across the Department, interagency, and global organizations. PR also directs the prevention, support, and recovery of hostages, detainees, and isolated personnel around the world. For example, from February to August 2021—amid a worldwide pandemic—PR supported more than 100 Post Security Program reviews. For each post, PR staff reviewed every post’s PR policy, analyzed PR events in their area of responsibility, and made recommendations for individual regional security offices and embassy’s or consulate’s Post Recovery Working Group.
FEST is the U.S. government’s interagency, on-call team poised to deploy, advise and assist chiefs of mission with rapid-response to imminent terrorist threats or incidents, and with situations that may require incident or foreign consequence management. In August 2020, a catastrophic explosion caused by improperly stored ammonium nitrate leveled the infrastructure in and around the Port of Beirut in Lebanon. With little notice, FEST organized and deployed an interagency package in response to a request from the ambassador at Embassy Beirut.
SP’s EOD program provides support to the Department in the identification, render safe, and disposal of domestic and foreign conventional and chemical ordnance, improvised explosive devices, and provides post-blast analysis.
LNOs positioned at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Special Operations Command, Joint Special Operations Command, and at Geographic Combatant Commands conduct extensive outreach and coordination with DoD to ensure effective operational communications and coordination with the Department’s diplomatic missions and the relevant U.S. military command.
DSS supervisory special agents in SP also serve as DS liaisons to all of the major military commands around the world. They live and work alongside DoD colleagues, ensuring DS leadership and missions in their respective regions understand how military forces can support diplomatic missions, and they advise military senior leaders on how best to support the country team during a crisis.
While the time and location of the next crisis is unknown, SP is ready to respond today. “Many posts have enduring crises or problems that face their team, and that is where SP can provide a second set of eyes on crisis preparedness while also educating the broader emergency action committee on some of the Department’s exceptional response options,” said Rhodes.
Joel Seppala is a military advisor in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.