Fix the Foreign Police Training Diaspora

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By James J. Saulino – A 35-year-old prohibition on US police training overseas – Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act – is weakening US national security strategy today. It is time for it to be reconsidered in the context of building a broader plan for the US to strengthen the rule of law in weak states.

Section 660 was enacted in 1974 following a series of revelations about police abuses overseas, principally in Uruguay and Brazil. Advisers from USAID’s Office of Public Safety were accused of teaching harsh interrogation techniques, and possibly torture, to the internal police services they were training. In response, Congress declared that no funds “shall be used to provide training or advice…for police, prisons, or other law enforcement forces for any foreign government.” The Office of Public Safety shuttered its doors the next year.

This did not put an end to foreign police training by the US government, however. The prohibition imposed by Section 660 only applied to activities carried out under the Foreign Assistance Act. Even then, new programs and offices that carried so-called “notwithstanding” authority were able to effectively work around the prohibition. Consequently, the real effect was to cast out foreign police training activities from a central office at USAID into a wide diaspora of agencies and funding spigots.

Today, these programs are only loosely coordinated, if at all. The Department of Justice has at least five offices-at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the US Marshals Service, and the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP)-that all carry out some form of police or security force training. In Iraq and Afghanistan, training for police is performed by the private security contractor Dyncorp under a contract with the State Department. The Department of Defense was authorized beginning in 1991 to conduct training of foreign police forces for counternarcotics purposes. Funding streams for these activities come through the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE), Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI), and Non-Proliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR) accounts, all at the State Department, as well as through regular operating expenses of the Department of Justice and Department of Defense.

This arrangement creates two related problems. First, it inhibits the ability to achieve sustained results overseas. In Indonesia, for example, the US could have seized the opportunity over the last ten years to implement a comprehensive program to strengthen civilian rule of law institutions in support of that country’s nascent democratic transition. Instead, much of US assistance was suspended from 1993 to 2005 because of abuses committed by the military, not the civilian police, and training programs that continued were principally focused on teaching counter-terrorism.

Second, with funding and implementation as fragmented as they are, effective Congressional oversight is a serious challenge. The most effective bulwark against a repeat of the kinds of abuses that led to the enactment of Section 660 is a program of robust oversight. For this to happen, there must be transparent accounting and centralized responsibility.

Helping to train and reform other states’ police services will be an increasingly critical part of US policy to strengthen fragile states in the years ahead. As such, US efforts need much better coordination than the current patchwork of programs can provide. Training police services must go hand-in-hand with other US efforts to train prosecutors, judges, and corrections officials, and all of these should be planned, budgeted, and executed in coordination with one another.

Repealing Section 660 alone will not solve these challenges. In the short term it might even make them worse, for it would allow USAID to expand its own nascent police training programs, adding still another layer of complexity to US policy and further hampering coordination.

Instead, Congress should consider a more comprehensive reform of police training programs and authorities, and make clear that reforming and strengthening police services overseas is a vital mission in itself, with impact on a wide array of other US objectives. The goal should be to reverse the dispersal of responsibility caused by Section 660, and to establish a central office and funding stream for foreign police training, recognizing that implementation will remain decentralized to some degree. This office, which would be responsible for setting overall strategic direction, should have coordinating responsibility for other US government activities much as the State Department’s HIV/AIDS office coordinates government-wide programs in that area.

The reality is that the US will continue to engage in foreign police training with or without a change to Section 660. It is in the US interest to remove the shackles of an outdated law and design a more effective structure for foreign police training, complete with coordination, transparency, and accountability to the Congress.


James J. Saulino is a research intern with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Project. He is a Kay Public Service Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a JD candidate at Harvard Law School.

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