5 Surprising Facts About the U.S. State Department

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Many people probably know the U.S. Department of State (DoS) as the agency that issues passports and visas. However, for most Americans, the department is a virtually invisible part of the U.S government that registers only when bad news strikes. The 1979 hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Iran, the two 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa and the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, all thrust the State Department into the media spotlight and the public consciousness. Somewhere between the mundane duties of passport approvals and the terror of embassy attacks, the State Department and thousands of American Foreign Service employees carry out a wide-ranging mission of outreach at more than 300 U.S. diplomatic facilities — embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions — in countries around the globe. Here are some surprising facts about the Department of State’s mission and capabilities.


5. Diplomatic Security Agents Undergo Highly Specialized Training

Diplomatic security agents undergo highly specialized training.

A team of Diplomatic Security special agents prepares to execute a search warrant at a house during a training exercise; DoS

While the DoS recruits security agents from all walks of life, military veterans and former law enforcement officers get some priority when being considered for these jobs. Diplomatic security trainees are sent to the Diplomatic Security Training Center in the Washington, D.C., area where they are immersed in a demanding training program that includes self-defense, physical fitness and firearms training. After completing the course in Washington, trainees finish the program at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Ga., where they receive advanced training in everything from small-unit tactics to convoy security. New agents are initially assigned to the Washington area, and then can be sent to any one of hundreds of diplomatic posts around the world.


4. Embassies Carry Out An Unstated Intelligence Function

Intelligence operations are the untold story in many embassies around the world.

The United States embassy in Russia was once infested with thousands of tiny listening devices; DoS

Much of the U.S State Department’s overseas work is routine business, such as overseeing aid programs and meeting with foreign diplomats. The untold story is the support and cover diplomatic posts provide to the U.S. intelligence community. There is something of a wink-and-nod agreement in this area, as most nations have some intelligence presence in their embassies abroad. In probably the most infamous example of covert embassy intelligence, U.S. officials were dismayed to learn in the early 1980s that the new U.S embassy in Moscow was infested with thousands of Soviet listening devices planted by construction workers; construction halted for more than a decade before the U.S. finished the project with U.S. workers. Most of the spying that is uncovered in the diplomatic community is kept quiet and not acknowledged publicly by either side. But sometimes the relationship between diplomats and spies makes it into the media, as was the case when the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annex came under attack in late 2012.


3. Special Team Protects Embassies, American Citizens Abroad

Special Federal Emergency Support Teams stand ready to defend U.S. diplomats around the world..

A U.S. detail discusses transportation information inside the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad; The National Guard

A Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) is a multi-agency unit that includes DoS agents, Army Special Forces, FBI agents, Department of Energy experts and intelligence officers as needed. Founded in 1986, teams were deployed to the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings at the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as to Yemen for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000. FEST teams have also played another interesting role, as the DoS website notes that, “Smaller, ‘tailored’ FESTs have responded to abductions of Americans in Ecuador and the Philippines.” No further information is available for that cryptic statement. The FEST units have also been used to provide security for major events such as the Olympic games. Details of the 2012 Benghazi attack are still emerging, but Congressional hearings in May 2013 revealed that a FEST in Tripoli stood ready to go in defense of the U.S. embassy but was ordered to stand down. Of course, embassies can call on many other resources for protection, including U.S. troops and police officers from that country.


2. The DoS Trains Over 100,000 People Each Year in 70 Foreign Languages

The Foreign Service Institute teaches foreign languages to more than 100,000 people a year.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets workers at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va., in 2013; DoS

In order to deal more effectively with foreign diplomats and bureaucrats, the DoS provides foreign service employees as well as thousands of other federal employees such as in the FBI and military with formal language training. The programs are offered by the Foreign Service Institute at training centers and online. Languages as diverse as Arabic, Chinese, Igbo, Tagalog and Turkish are taught. Depending upon one’s assignment and duties there would be more of an emphasis on either writing, reading or speaking a particular language. And while you probably don’t want to toss your Rosetta Stone language materials out, many of the language learning resources used by the DoS are in the public domain and are available free online.


1. The U.S. Has Embassies in Many Exotic Locales

The U.S. has diplomatic posts in many exotic locales.

Burkina Faso Deputy Chief of Mission Steven Koutsis greets villagers in the West African nation; DoS

With hundreds of diplomatic facilities all over the world, DoS employees have opportunities to serve in many interesting, beautiful and sometimes chaotic places. People know that countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen are dangerous places and that serving at these posts entails some risk. On the other end of the spectrum countries such as France, Brazil and Japan are safe and offer many cultural and historical attractions. However, there are also many less well-traveled corners of the world where the U.S. has a diplomatic presence. The little-known West African republic of Burkina Faso is a good example. Another remote post is in the Marshall Islands, an island nation in the North Pacific about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. It is made up of two chains of atolls including Bikini Atoll, the site of nuclear bomb tests in the 1940s and 1950s. The FSI does not teach Marshallese, one of its official languages, but happily English is the other.


More: Department of State Takes Preemptive Approach to Terrorism

The aforementioned functions are just a small portion of the Department of State’s mission. Another department objective is to prevent terrorist acts before they happen, by blocking terrorist funding sources, educating youths who might be susceptible to recruitment by extremists and by providing training to anti-terrorism forces in other countries. Here’s a look at the Department of State website outlining these and other proactive measures against terrorism.


Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.