No, the fugitives did not return the missing laptops and no, the missing laptops did not cause the fugitives' returns. But these two separate news coming out in the last two weeks, both involved the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the Department of State’s law enforcement and security arm; that might help you understand why my brain has filed them in the same synaptic folder in my head.
First, the good news - Diplomatic Security (DS) helped coordinate the capture and return of Dennis Wayne Fleming on April 25, from Belize. This was the 100th U.S. fugitive return from Belize since 1999. That’s an average of 10 fugitives a year in the last ten years! Apparently in fiscal year 2007, DS returned twelve fugitives from Belize alone; a worldwide focal point for DS’ fugitive return efforts. An excerpt from the official announcement says:
"Fleming was wanted on two state warrants for parole violation and failure to register as a sex offender issued by Payne County, Oklahoma in 2007, and the Oregon Parole Board in 2003. The warrants are a result of his felony conviction by the State of Oregon for third-degree assault and for first-degree rape in 1991. A DS Special Agent assigned as the Regional Security Officer (RSO) at the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan, Belize received a tip that Fleming was in the country. With this information, the RSO and the Embassy’s Foreign Service National Investigator (FSN-I), were able to locate Fleming within 48 hours. After an investigation led by the Regional Security Office, Fleming’s residence was located. The RSO then coordinated with local immigration and police authorities who took Fleming into custody on local immigration violations on April 25. Fleming was returned to the U.S. on April 29, 2008."
What’s with Belize? Let me hazard a few guesses: 1) It is the only country in Central America with English as its primary language which makes getting around relatively easy; 2) It is probably one of the few places in the world where the dollar is still double its worth. The official exchange rate is fixed at $1BZ = 50¢US, or $1US = $2BZ and the green bucks is readily accepted everywhere; 3) Great diving plus its waters are dotted with over 200 'cayes' or islands extending the entire length of the country. The islands range in size from a few hundred feet to 25 miles long and 4 miles wide, and it looks like you can buy a private island if you have enough dough. All that and this from an online travel profile: "Compared to the rest of Central America, Belize can be expensive. Even if you're travelling there on a budget, you'll pay at least US$15 (and more often US$20) per day for a room and three meals. On the upside, staying at a flashier hotel and eating decently won't push your costs up much higher than this.”
Okay, we got that out of the way but - bottom line for fugitives: Belize is really too good to be true. If the manta ray won’t get you, DS will.
Now to the bad news: Jeff Stein of the Congressional Quarterly writes about the unaccounted laptops in the State Department (you can read the entire report here):
“As many as 400 of the unaccounted for laptops belong to the department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, according to officials familiar with the findings. The program provides counterterrorism training and equipment, including laptops, to foreign police, intelligence and security forces. Ironically, the Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program is administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS), which is responsible for the security of the department’s computer networks and sensitive equipment, including laptops, among other duties. It also protects foreign diplomats during visits here. DS officials have been urgently dispatching vans around the bureau’s Washington-area offices to collect and register employee laptops, said department sources who could not speak on the record for fear of being fired."
And this one:
"Hints of the State Department’s laptop losses first surfaced March 31 in an anonymous post at an obscure Web site frequented by employees of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, called Dead Men Working.”
I’m not sure Steve and Dave over at Dead Men Working appreciates having their blog called “obscure;” but there is now outside confirmation of incoming web traffic from Dunn Loring to their site. You can read the specific blog entry here.
John Naland, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, quoted in the report said the alleged losses were worrisome, and perplexing. “If the missing ones might have contained classified data, this could be serious,” Naland said. “At my last overseas post, we did not have any laptops,” Naland continued. “But we sure did an annual serial number physical inventory of computers. Sometimes our initial count came up with discrepancies, but then we remembered that we returned one to Washington or whatever and that cleared up the paperwork discrepancy.”
Christopher Flaggs, State’s deputy Chief Financial Officer, who also figured in the same news report, warned that revelation of the laptop losses could develop into a “material weakness,” an accounting term-of-art that essentially means inventories are out of control. The reporter did point out that “unaccounted for” does not necessarily mean the laptops have been lost. But that they are “missing” until they have been found or otherwise accounted for.
Whether this is "material weakness" or "paperwork discrepancy" remains to be seen as the Inspector General is reportedly investigating. Either way it still does not reflect well on the State Department. We do have strict accountability for consular materials and equipment (e.g. visa foils, passports, etc.); in fact, our accountable consular officers are almost never home at a decent hour because they had to ensure that all accountable items are squared away or their necks are on the line. Surely, we can have the same rigor in administrative accountability for all other bureaus in the Department?