February 1, 2009  

Defining lines of authority

Since the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, newly appointed American ambassadors have been given a presidential letter outlining their authority over U.S. government programs and personnel in the country to which they are accredited.

The letter describes the ambassador or chief of mission (COM) as the personal representative of the president, with “full authority for the direction, coordination and supervision of all U.S. government executive-branch employees,” except those under a combatant commander (COCOM).

Before World War II, no such instructions were needed because the State Department was the only executive branch agency with a significant presence outside our borders, except for U.S. military units that were in Latin America from the 1880s until World War II, and in the Philippines from 1898. After the war, and during the Cold War, the presence of other agencies abroad expanded significantly, with more than 30 agencies currently having some representation overseas

In most of our embassies and diplomatic missions, State Department personnel are in the minority. The proliferation of other executive branch agencies carrying out programs based on instructions from their Washington headquarters has created a situation where chaos would reign without some central coordinating mechanism. In Washington, where policies are formulated, federal agencies operate independently and on a relatively equal footing. Only in rare instances do they coordinate their programs.

In theory, the National Security Council is charged with ensuring that interagency foreign policy is coordinated. Anyone who has served in one of our embassies can tell you, however, that this does not happen as often as it should. It is left to the COM, working through the country team process, to ensure that policy implementation in the field is coordinated so that one agency is not doing something that counters what another agency is doing.

This, then, is why the presidential letter is so important. It explicitly establishes the COM as the U.S. government authority over U.S. government personnel, except those under COCOM authority.

That exception, intended to allow unity of command over forces performing military missions, while well-intentioned, is open to interpretation and can lead to conflicts between perceived military necessity and foreign policy reality. It creates a serious jurisdictional gap and leaves unresolved possible disputes between COMs and COCOMs. In theory, intractable disputes are to be resolved in Washington between the secretaries of State and Defense, but this depends too much upon the personalities of the incumbents of those positions and their relative influence in the power structure. In today’s uncertain environment, with adversaries engaged in asymmetric warfare, a proliferation of global threats to U.S. security and the increased presence abroad of U.S. military forces engaged in nontraditional operations, lack of clarification and specificity in defining jurisdiction is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

There are two conditions under which the lines of authority between COMs and COCOMs are relatively clear (at least in theory):

1. During full combat operations, where the objective is to successfully conclude military missions, and other programs are either absent or not important.

2. In stable situations where there are no conventional military operations.

The problem is, with the exception of Western Europe, Japan and possibly South Korea, there are few places in the world where we have a U.S. presence with such clear-cut situations. One could go so far as to argue that even in relatively stable places there is a tension between embassies and combatant commands that has yet to be decisively resolved. For example, when I served as consul and deputy principal officer in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in the late 1980s, the U.S. military conducted annual joint exercises there with the Thai military. During one such exercise in 1999, when some off-duty military personnel got involved in an altercation in a local bar, the force commander decided to put uniformed U.S. courtesy patrols on the streets of Chiang Mai to police the behavior of his troops. He was nonplussed when I, as the acting principal officer at the time, informed him that he was not authorized to do this. It took some explaining, and ultimately intervention by our ambassador, to convince him that, except when actually engaged in exercise activities, he and his troops were under civilian authority.

This was a minor incident, but it illustrates a larger problem, one that has become larger in the post-9/11 world.

Military organizations are mission oriented and tend toward linear thinking. To the military professional there is a problem, and some action must be taken to solve it. While external factors might be given some consideration, the mission always comes first. It is understandably difficult for a military commander to worry about future bilateral diplomatic relations in the face of an immediate problem requiring a solution.

International relations, however, require nuanced thinking and nonlinear approaches. A solution, before it is implemented, must be weighed against the potential impact it will have on a whole range of other issues.

Another trait of the military that complicates the relationship between embassies and COCOM organizations is the sheer size and impact the military has in a country, and the fact that the military is now involved in many operations that cross agency lines, such as humanitarian assistance and development programs. The large footprint of the military, coupled with the astronomical (by other agency standards) resources the Defense Department can bring to bear, can overwhelm modestly funded agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps.


Over the past several years there have been a number of initiatives that have, intentionally or unintentionally, served to erode COM authority abroad.

In its quest for more operational flexibility to take action against international terrorist organizations and individuals, the Defense Department has championed programs that would allow military operations to be conducted without the explicit concurrence of the COM. The argument has been advanced that there is a compelling security need to be able to conduct operations quickly and the requirement to get COM approval adds an unnecessary level of bureaucratic complexity.

At first glance, this view might seem to make sense, but it is, in fact, shortsighted and potentially dangerous.

Military operations conducted without regard to the long-term impact on bilateral and multilateral relations or other government programs can, while solving a short-term problem, result in a situation worse than the original problem.

An example from long before September 2001 illustrates what I mean. In 1996, I was charge d’affaires (the individual in charge of a diplomatic mission in the absence of an ambassador) of our embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Fighting in neighboring Liberia had intensified to the point that our ambassador there called for a non-combatant evacuation (NEO). Freetown was established, with my concurrence, as the intermediate staging base for the evacuation.

The initial military unit deployed to plan the NEO was an Army special operations unit from European Command, which was the COCOM with responsibility for our area. Coordinating with my staff and me, the unit set up operations at Freetown’s Lungi Airport. I even arranged for them to use the presidential guesthouse as a headquarters, and got a section of the airport cordoned off as a staging area. The first few days of the operation proceeded smoothly. Problems started when a Navy helicopter carrier ship with a Marine Expeditionary Force replaced the Army unit.

The Marine commander, at first, had some difficulty taking direction from my staff or me. It took patience and an iron hand to make him see that NEOs are conducted under embassy (and this chief of mission) authority, and that with a rebel war and recent elections, the situation in Sierra Leone was sensitive, requiring that diplomatic and foreign policy considerations take precedence over everything but life-threatening events. I was fortunate in that my 20 years of military service before I entered the Foreign Service enabled me to speak the commander’s language. With a less forceful or experienced ambassador or charge d’affaires the situation could have been much more difficult.

Another potential conflict arose when the Marine air unit commander aboard the ship wanted to give his helicopter crews some gunnery practice. He suggested that they exercise along the coast in some uninhabited areas of the country. He was shocked when I vetoed his plan, and was only partly mollified when I explained that there were a number of reasons it was a bad idea. First, Sierra Leone was at the time in the midst of a civil war, with rebel forces in control of most of the northeast of the country. Having U.S. military units conducting gunnery practice anywhere in the country had the potential to send the wrong signals to the Sierra Leonean government, the rebels and other countries in the region. It could very well have undermined the newly installed government of President Tejan Kabba. Secondly, the area in question was one of the last remaining rain forest areas and home to many species of wildlife. International conservation groups would have had puppies if I had allowed the Marines to shoot the area up.

In both cases what the officers wanted to do would have made perfect sense under other conditions. But the situation in Sierra Leone was anything but normal, and what made sense in a traditional situation did not apply. Military units, particularly those deployed abroad for short-term missions like NEOs, cannot be expected to be sensitive to or even aware of the foreign policy situation. But then, that is why the president has vested authority for coordination in the COM.

During nearly 47 years of combined military and civilian service, I have noted that conflicts over who is in charge arise from two main causes: lack of understanding by both military and civilian about each other’s cultures, and lack of clearly stated lines of authority in nontraditional situations. While this has, I believe, been exacerbated in the post-9/11 world, as you can see from the examples I have given, it is nothing new.


If our foreign policy is to be coherent and coordinated abroad, it is time to take a fresh look at the question of who has authority over U.S. government personnel and programs abroad. Whether it is support in natural disasters, conduct of security assistance programs, or military involvement in development activities, there needs to be a high-level review of what the appropriate lines of authority should be.

At the highest level of government, some hard questions need to be asked. Do combatant commanders need more authority to undertake military operations in areas that are normally under chief of mission control? Or should chiefs of mission be given more authority over deployment of military organizations to their countries of assignment? I predict that these are questions that will be high on the agenda of chiefs of missions in Africa as the new Africa Command establishes itself.

How are we to deal with situations, such as a natural disaster on the scale of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, that span national boundaries? Should the COCOM be required to get approval from the ambassador of each country before he can deploy forces in border areas where efficient prosecution of the operation would require crossing boundaries, or can he make that decision on his own authority?

What should a military commander do if after being deployed to assist in a natural disaster or NEO, he finds his unit confronting an armed adversary? Does the COM authority, which is paramount in the two aforementioned situations, evaporate, or does he or she retain authority? Who makes that decision?

I must admit that I don’t have answers to these questions, but answers are needed, and they are needed before we find ourselves in the midst of the next crisis. Although I don’t have answers, I offer the following advice:

å There needs to be a high-level review of the types of future situations our organizations, military and civilian, are likely to encounter. Explicit lines of authority need to be established and reinforced by the national command authority at every opportunity to ensure people understand them and that they come from the highest level.

å There needs to be increased cross-training of military and civilian personnel at all levels to enable them to develop better understanding of how the “other” side thinks and operates. This should include increased slots for Foreign Service personnel at service schools and re-establishment of courses such as the State Department’s Senior Seminar.

å Increased “detail” assignments of military personnel to the State Department and Foreign Service personnel to the Defense Department will enhance interagency understanding, and enable the creation of networks that smooth the way for more effective cooperation throughout their careers.

å The president, along with the secretaries of state and defense should emphasize periodically the status of chiefs of mission as personal representatives of the president who have authority in all situations other than combat.

å More explicitly describe what is meant by the exception in the chief of mission letter in regard to his or her lack of authority over personnel under a combatant commander. The way it is currently worded is open to interpretation — or misinterpretation.

å Give the National Security Council more authority over the establishment of agency policies governing overseas operations.

å Develop more explicit guidance concerning the requirements of coordination with chiefs of mission for military activities (other than combat) that straddle national borders.

Given the nature of bureaucracies, these recommendations are not likely to cause significant change in the short term, and are likely to provoke some intense turf battles in Washington. If they are made a part of a concerted national strategy, however, and receive support from the highest level, they could over time result in a more coherent foreign policy. Above all, it is important that we avoid emphasizing short-term gains at the expense of our enduring goals.

If we are to re-establish America’s place in the world we can do no less.

CHARLES RAY is the deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/missing personnel affairs. He was the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia from 2002 until 2005 and is a retired Army officer. The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government or Defense Department.