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Federal Bureau of Investigation Legal Attaché Program*

Report No. 04-18
March 2004
Office of the Inspector General


Chapter 7: Selection and Training of Legal Attaché Staff

The individuals selected for Legat Attaché and ALAT positions are the FBI Director’s personal representatives abroad.  The Special Agents selected for these positions are highly visible and shoulder considerable responsibility, which if not managed appropriately could result in an international incident and potentially harm the FBI’s credibility.  In addition, Legats and their staff must quickly adjust to living and working in a foreign culture that may be much different from conditions they are used to in the United States.  Further, in some countries working and living conditions may be highly stressful and their personal safety may be at risk.  Thus, the FBI not only needs highly skilled and experienced agents but also agents who can function independently and effectively in often stressful foreign environments.

Process for Selecting Candidates for Legat Positions

According to OIO officials, persons selected for Legat positions need to possess certain characteristics and skills.  OIO seeks personnel with a proven history of working in a multi-cultural, multi-task force environment who are skillful in dealing with personnel issues.  They also should be seasoned investigators with broad-based knowledge of the FBI’s programs and skilled managers preferably with field office supervisory experience.  These individuals should be self-motivated, versatile, possess exceptional interpersonal and liaison skills, and be able to work with a wide variety of people in a foreign environment.  Individuals should demonstrate good judgment and common sense and need minimal guidance and direction from FBI headquarters.  In addition, the FBI requires individuals to have proficiency in one or more languages used in an office’s assigned territory.

When an opening occurs for a Legat or ALAT position, a vacancy announcement is prepared and posted on ACS.  The announcement identifies the position and the location, application instructions, and the deadline for applying.  It also specifies minimum and preferred qualifications.  For example, the minimum qualifications for eligibility to apply for any Legat position are 3 years FBI investigative experience, one-year relief supervisory experience,33 and a current “meets expectations” performance appraisal.34  The preferred qualifications include such factors as broad-based investigative experience, supervisory experience, language proficiency, communication skills, previous overseas experience, and FBI Inspection Division experience.  These preferred qualifications can be ranked differently based on the particular needs of an overseas office.

Applicants are asked to submit a description of their experience that addresses the minimum and preferred qualifications along with a recommendation letter from their division head or the Special Agent in Charge.  The letter must indicate whether the division head recommends, highly recommends, or does not recommend the candidate and it also must include comments on the candidate’s qualifications for the job advertised as well as the individual’s leadership ability, interpersonal skills, and potential for advancement.

Application packages are reviewed by a Legat Screening Panel (LSP).  The panel, consisting of senior FBI managers and analysts from various FBI divisions, reviews the applicants’ packages and ranks the candidates against the qualifications contained in the vacancy announcement, submitting the top ranked candidates to a second panel, known as the Special Agent Mid-Level Management Selection (SAMMS) Board.  The SAMMS Board, whose members include the Deputy Assistant Directors of the Criminal Investigative, Counterintelligence, Counterterrorism, Cyber, and Inspection Divisions, may agree with the LSP rankings or come up with its own ranking based on review of the candidates.  The head of OIO can appeal to the SAMMS board if he or she disagrees with the Board’s rankings.

The SAMMS Board recommends the top three candidates in rank order to the FBI Director.  The Director interviews one or more of the Legat or ALAT candidates and makes the final selection.  Reflecting the growing importance of the Legat program, the Director has commented that he wants his future leaders to have international experience.

Between January 2001 and April 2003, a total of 84 vacancy openings for Legat or ALAT positions were announced.  To determine if the FBI was selecting agents for Legat and ALAT positions in accordance with its procedures, we judgmentally selected the files for 13 of these vacancies.  We reviewed the vacancy packages to determine whether the applicants met minimum qualifications, the degree to which they met preferred qualifications, whether the LSP and the SAMMS board appropriately ranked the candidates, and whether these ranking decisions were appropriately documented.  Based on our review, we concluded that the FBI was following its procedures.

According to an OIO official, the FBI is implementing a new agency-wide promotion system starting in FY 2004.  Applicants for any GS-14 position, including an ALAT, or non-Assistant Special Agent in Charge GS-15 position, such as a Legat, must take and pass a test which will measure their aptitude and abilities to handle managerial positions.

FBI Acknowledged Some Past Staffing Decisions Could Have Been Better

Officials from OIO told us that in prior years, when the Legat program was growing rapidly, some mistakes were made in staffing Legat positions.  While not providing specific examples, the officials told us that some agents selected for positions abroad lacked the management skills and judgment needed to handle overseas assignments properly.  In some instances, individuals were selected who did not have management or supervisory experience.  Instead, they were picked primarily because they spoke the language of the host country.  This lack of experience sometimes resulted in poorly managed offices.  In some cases, incidents occurred that were serious enough to cause the employees to be recalled to the United States, while others were not granted extensions to their tours of duty.  Moreover, relationships with Embassy officials and foreign law enforcement agencies sometimes needed to be repaired.  Officials believed that the current selection process, which places considerable weight on supervisory experience, should help avoid some of the problems that occurred in the past.

Misconduct by Some Legat Staff is a Concern

An Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR)official stated that, in his opinion, the number of OPR investigations of Legat personnel was higher than would be expected given their small number and attributed this problem to past staffing decisions.  This official added that Legat staff represent the FBI overseas and should be role models rather than subjects of OPR investigations.  Another OPR official attributed the situation to the fact that the Legats operate independently and tend not to be closely supervised by headquarters.  In contrast, an OIO official said he did not believe OPR investigations of Legat staff were any more prevalent than for any other FBI division.  However, during a conference for Legal Attachés held in Washington D.C. in November 2002, this same OIO official stated before the group that he was spending too much time dealing with OPR-related issues.

To obtain an understanding of the kinds of allegations involving Legat staff, we asked OPR to provide us with the investigative files opened on Legat staff between September 1999 and September 2002.  OPR provided us with 12 cases.  Officials said they did not know if these were all the cases opened during this period because their database did not identify the position held by the person under investigation.  Consequently, OPR officials relied on their recollection to identify investigations involving Legat employees.35

These 12 OPR investigations involved 24 alleged offenses against 13 employees.  All but one of these employees was either a Legat, ALAT, or Office Assistant.  The remaining individual was an employee on temporary duty.  The following table summarizes the allegations and the examples provide more details.

Security violations 8
Inappropriate relationships 4
Waste, misuse of government property 2
Inappropriate release of information 2
Voucher fraud 5
Misuse of position 1
Violation of rules/regulations 2
  Source: OPR investigative files.
  • A Legat obtained a $40,500 advance from the FBI for educational expenses for his children at the foreign post in October 2000.  Later, he submitted a request to the Department of State (DOS) seeking payment for the same tuition and DOS paid $32,520 directly to the educational institutions in January 2001.  OPR opened an investigation after learning of the duplicate payment.  The Legat did not return the advance to the FBI until August 2001 after he had been reminded to do so on two occasions.  As a result of the OPR investigation, the Legat received counseling and was warned to avoid similar situations in the future that could reflect negatively on him, and by extension the FBI.
  • Another Legat was alleged to have misused his government credit card and submitted fraudulent travel vouchers.  The Legat routinely requested reimbursement for taxi rides in the amounts of $15 to $19 above actual incurred costs for a total of $360 over a 2-year period.  OPR officials advised us that the allegations were substantiated and the Legat was in the process of being dismissed.
  • Allegations against an ALAT included misuse of his government credit card, disclosure of sensitive and classified information to non-FBI officials, failure to report contacts with foreign nationals, commingling of personal and Bureau funds, borrowing money from the office imprest fund, and sending classified information over an unsecure facsimile machine.  Because of these allegations, the ALAT was returned to the United States and he subsequently resigned from the FBI.

As of October 2003, all of these investigations had been completed and 19 of the 24 allegations were substantiated against 12 employees.  These OPR investigations resulted in five employee suspensions, three letters of censure, two employees receiving counseling, one dismissal, and one resignation.

Increasing Recognition of the Value of Legat Experience

In our discussions with FBI personnel, some said that historically the perception was that employees assigned to Legat offices were part of a “wine and cheese circuit,” that did not involve substantive investigative work.  Others remarked that Legats had sometimes been appointed to these positions as a consolation for not being promoted to other positions, or as a reward for long service near the end of their careers.  Because of the perception of the Legat program, some Legat staff had difficulty finding career enhancing positions after they returned to the United States, according to one OIO official.

However, this perception appears to be changing.  The growth in international crime and terrorism in recent years has resulted in more FBI agents being sent overseas to work on major investigations and these agents often interact and work closely with the Legat staff.  The FBI agents sent on temporary assignment are increasingly realizing that the Legat work is demanding, substantive, and essential, according to OIO and other headquarters officials.  As more FBI agents experience first-hand the importance and value of the Legat’s work, they are increasingly applying for Legat positions.  An official from the Counterterrorism Division, who also sits on the SAMMS Board, agreed that more employees are applying for Legat vacancies than ever before and, as a result, the FBI has a better pool of candidates from which to choose.

In addition, an increasing number of returning Legat staff are being selected for leadership positions in the FBI, according to OIO officials.  For example, they said 37 ALATs and Legats received permanent promotions at the GS-14 and 15 levels, respectively, in FY 03.  In addition, three returning Legats were promoted to Assistant Special Agent in Charge positions.  These promotions were significantly higher than what has occurred in the past and the officials believed this success was partially attributable to their intensified efforts to promote the value of the Legat experience.

Pre-Deployment and Foreign Language Training for Legat Staff

When we initiated this audit, officials from the FBI’s Inspections Division told us that they were beginning an in-depth review of the pre-deployment training program, including language training for newly assigned Legat staff.  Consequently, we limited our review of the training program to understanding what type of training is provided and interviewing selected Legat staff in the four offices we reviewed to obtain their views about the training.  We also determined the extent to which Legat employees had proficiency in a foreign language.36  At the time of our audit, over one-third of Legat staff did not meet the FBI’s foreign language proficiency goals.  The FBI Inspection Division’s analysis identified similar issues with language training as well as other problems with pre-deployment training and made 12 recommendations for improvement (see Appendix V).37

Pre-Deployment Training - The FBI has a 3-week pre-deployment training program for agents and support staff who have been selected for assignment to Legal Attaché offices.  The first week of the training is designed to provide newly appointed Legat personnel with administrative information, and policies and procedures associated with working in a Legat office and living in a diplomatic mission overseas.  Topics covered this first week include personnel and housing matters, overseas allowances and vouchers, Legat computer equipment and applications, Department of State billings and payments, security, extraterritorial guidelines for informants, language services and programs, evidence control, employee conduct, and the roles and responsibilities of the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs, the FBI’s Inspection Division, Office of Professional Responsibility, and Health Services Unit.

Also during the first week of training, the Legats and the ALATS receive individual briefings from the substantive units at FBI headquarters about programs and investigations that may have an impact on their geographic area of responsibility.  For example, they may receive briefings from the Counterterrorism Division if terrorism matters are prevalent in their region.  While these briefings occur for the agents, the office assistants receive detailed briefings about administrative matters, such as the field support account, property inventory records, and diplomatic pouch preparation techniques.  In addition, if the support staff lacks sufficient familiarity with the ACS system, arrangements are made for additional training in using the system.

During the second week of training, agents and support staff attend a Legat Security Awareness course in Quantico, Virginia.  Spouses are also encouraged to attend this class.  The training includes discussions and exercises relating to surveillance detection; terrorist threat recognition; hostage survival; defensive tactics; and vehicle, residential, and hotel security.

During the final week, Legat staff attend a 2-day training class at the Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute called Introduction to Working in an Embassy.  The course includes presentations on working in an embassy or consulate, the role of the ambassador, working with foreign service nationals, embassy protocol, administrative support within an embassy, and crisis management.  Agents also receive detailed briefings from analysts and desk officers at the Department of State [CLASSIFIED INFORMATION REDACTED] related to the economic, political, and leadership of the countries and areas to which they will be assigned.

In addition to the 3-week pre-deployment course, agents are encouraged, but not required to take other classes offered by the Foreign Service Institute.  Further, newly selected agents who have not worked overseas before and will be assigned to a newly established office are normally required to complete a temporary duty assignment in an established office where they receive on-the-job training.  Agents assigned to existing Legat offices normally do not complete a temporary duty assignment, even if they have no overseas experience, because they receive on-the-job training at the existing office.

We asked selected Legat staff at the four offices we reviewed about the training they had received in preparation for their assignment.  One office assistant told us that the State Department training on the automated systems used in an embassy environment was too cursory.  In general, however, both the agents and support had positive comments about the training.  These views were in contrast to what the FBI Inspection Division was told by a focus group of both former and current Legat staff as reported in its July 2003 report.  The inspection report noted that the focus group participants expressed disappointment with most briefings they had received from FBI headquarters operational divisions.  These briefings, which were supposed to address the crime problems and investigative concerns in the countries and territories to which the agents were to be assigned, were described as short, generic, and superficial.  Some focus group participants added that the briefings were often provided by persons with little knowledge of these countries and, as a result, the information was of little use once they arrived at their office of assignment.

According to the inspection report, the focus group participants also indicated that they did not believe the pre-deployment training program adequately prepared newly selected Legat staff for the difficulties of adjusting to life overseas.  This was especially true in hardship posts where the quality of life was very poor relative to the United States.  Not all Legat personnel or their dependents were able to adapt quickly or easily to a foreign environment and those who did not often felt isolated, lonely, and depressed.  The consensus among the focus group participants was that the FBI’s Employee Assistance Program was not doing enough to reach out to Legat employees, not only before they departed overseas but also during their tours of duty.38

Other issues were noted in the FBI’s inspection report.  Funding for the pre-deployment training was noted as insufficient and training facilities were inadequate.  As an example of the latter, the report said that Inspection staff had witnessed agent and support employees receiving computer training in a room about the size of a walk-in closet, with some employees having to sit in the doorway while the instructor demonstrated Legat office computer operations.  Another issue related to the temporary duty assignments provided to certain agents selected for positions in newly established offices.  The inspection report suggested, based on focus group comments, that these assignments be expanded to others who had been selected for Legat assignments. This would not only provide them with on-the-job training but also gives OIO the opportunity to determine how well the employees performed in a foreign environment before they were posted overseas.

Language TrainingFBI employees selected for Legat positions where proficiency in a foreign language is considered necessary can obtain language training through OIO’s Language Service Section.  A Language Services official told us this training can take various forms including self-study materials, formal classroom training, and tutors.  While intensive courses are available from the Defense and State Departments and the CIA, FBI agents seldom attend because the courses are lengthy and not enough time is available between the time staff are selected and when they transfer overseas.  According to this official, Language Services typically has about 3 months on average to work with newly selected Legat staff on foreign language training before they are transferred overseas, but the staff also have the opportunity to receive further training while in the foreign country.

In our opinion, three months does not appear to be sufficient time to learn a foreign language.  This view was echoed by the Inspection Division’s July 2003 report.  The report concluded that Legat personnel were not selected far enough in advance to successfully complete a course in foreign language training that would enable them to conduct business at a functional level in the host country language.  Depending on the complexity of the language, anywhere from 9 months to 2 years of full-time training was needed to attain proficiency, according to Language Services officials interviewed by the Inspection Division.  Other agencies contacted by the Inspection Division, such as the State and Defense Departments and DEA, reported providing more extensive language training for staff assigned overseas and more lead time to complete it.  For example, selections for DEA country attaché positions in Asia and the Middle East are made at least 18 months in advance to permit at least 1 year of language training, the Inspection report noted.39

Foreign language ability is measured according to the federal Interagency Language Roundtable Skill Level Description, or IRL scale level.  The IRL scale measures foreign language ability in areas of listening, reading, speaking, and writing on a scale of zero to five, with five being the highest rating.  For example, a person with a level 2 speaking proficiency would have sufficient capability to meet routine social demands and limited job requirements.  A person with a level 4 speaking ability, on the other hand, would be able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels normally pertinent to professional needs.  According to the FBI’s Legal Attaché Manual, the foreign language requirements for a Legat and ALAT are a level 2+ or above.  While no proficiency level is specified for support personnel, the Manual states that they should have foreign language qualifications relevant to the office to which they are applying.  In contrast the FBI’s Manual of Administrative Operations and Procedures, Part 1, Section 22-2.5.1, states that the foreign language proficiency goals for Legats and ALATs in speaking, listening, and reading are levels 3, 3, and 2, respectively.  For office assistants, the goals are level 2 for speaking and listening and level 1 for reading.  However, according to a Language Services official, Legat staff currently are only tested for their speaking skills.

To see how closely the FBI was meeting these goals, we obtained information from the CIA’s World Factbook on the official languages spoken in the 46 countries where the FBI has Legat staff.40   In 11 of these countries, English is considered one of the official languages, while in 11 others English is spoken by some elements of the population.  For the remaining 24 countries where the FBI has Legat staff, English was not identified as one of the languages spoken.  Thus, it is these countries where a mastery of the host country language by Legat staff is most likely to be necessary in order to effectively carry out their duties.

We also obtained information on the language skills of the 97 FBI staff stationed in the 24 countries where English is not the primary or secondary language.  Our analysis of this data using the criteria specified in the Legal Attaché Manual showed that 22 of the staff, or about 23 percent, had no speaking skill applicable to the language of the host country or the territory covered by the Legat office.  In addition, 14 agents had some language skills pertaining to that area, but did not meet the oral language goals as stated in the FBI’s Legal Attaché Manual. In total, 36, or over one-third, of the 97 Legat staff assigned to these countries did not meet the FBI’s language goals.

Vacancy announcements for Legat and ALAT positions in non-English speaking countries usually include language proficiency as a qualification factor.  However, language is almost never the most important selection factor, according to OIO officials, because other factors such as investigative and supervisory experience are considered more essential.  OIO officials added that if documents or tapes of conversations need to be translated, they could be sent to Language Services for transcription or translators or linguists (with the appropriate security clearances) could be hired.

While the use of translators and linguists may sometimes be unavoidable, we believe that the FBI’s priority should be to ensure that staff selected for Legat positions who lack appropriate languages skills are given sufficient time and training to acquire them.  We observed the value of language proficiency firsthand during our visit to Japan.  The Legat and ALAT were fluent in the Japanese language.  Based on our discussions with Japanese officials and our observations of the Legat staffs’ interaction with these officials, it was apparent the agents’ mastery of the Japanese language went a long way in fostering strong relationships and cooperation.  One Japanese law enforcement official remarked, for example, that current Legat personnel were more proficient in the Japanese language than their predecessors and, as a result, a strong level of rapport had been developed.

Some Legat Staff Remain Abroad For Long Periods of Time

To ensure that FBI personnel do not lose contact and familiarity with the changing practices and priorities of the FBI as well as concerns that extended tours of duty abroad could result in a security risk, the FBI places limits on the length of time staff can remain out of the country.  FBI personnel are limited to no more than five consecutive years abroad in one location or six consecutive years in two locations.  However, exceptions to these limits are permitted when, according to the Legal Attaché Manual, the needs of the FBI would best be served by an extension.  Duration of such an extension should not exceed two years.  In addition, according to an OIO official, prior to 1997, there was no tour of duty limit for support staff.

We examined the tours of duty for 370 FBI agents and support personnel assigned to Legat offices since October 1, 1996.  Our analysis indicates that 29 employees have remained abroad for long periods of time.  Specifically, we found 21 agents and support staff who had remained overseas for more than 6 consecutive years.  Of these, five employees had remained abroad for more than 10 consecutive years.  In addition, 8 agents and support staff will have been overseas for more than 6 years if they complete their current tours of duty.

OIO officials recognized that some Legat staff had been abroad too long and said that some Legat staff had recently been denied extensions.  Further, they acknowledged that, in the past, the tour of duty limits were not always enforced.  However, in the “post-Hanssen era” concerns have been raised by the FBI’s Security Division about FBI employees remaining abroad too long and becoming a security risk.41  In addition, an OIO official said he was concerned about personnel becoming too complacent and overly familiar in their relationships with foreign officials when they stay abroad for extended periods of time in one location.  Nevertheless, at the exit conference an OIO official said that exceptions would still need to be made in exigent circumstances with the concurrence of the Security Division.

Given the need to reduce the risk of personal security exposure inherent in long tours of duty abroad and the apparent increasing interest and exposure among FBI employees in the Legal Attaché program, which is likely to attract more candidates, we believe that extending tours of duty beyond established limits should be kept to a minimum.


Legal Attachés and their staff represent the FBI abroad and have increasing responsibility in accomplishing the FBI’s mission given the globalization of crime and terrorism.  Staff selected for these positions need to be highly skilled and experienced and should be able to function independently and effectively in stressful foreign environments.  Currently, the FBI has an adequate process in place for selecting qualified agents for Legat positions, but acknowledged that in the past some poor staffing decisions had been made.

The Legat program was previously perceived by many within the FBI as a position that was not career enhancing.  However, this perception appears to be changing as more FBI agents spend time overseas on investigative activities and realize the demanding, substantive, and essential nature of Legat work.  In addition, the FBI Director has stated that he wants future FBI executives to have overseas experience and a clear understanding of international operations.

The FBI provides pre-deployment and language training for staff selected for Legat positions before they arrive at their posts of duty.  Our review of this training was limited because the FBI’s Inspection Division had initiated an in-depth review of these areas.  We noted that over one-third of Legat staff did not meet the FBI’s foreign language proficiency goals as stated in the Legal Attaché Manual.  The FBI’s Inspection Division’s analysis identified similar issues with language training as well as other problems with pre-deployment training.

For security reasons and to ensure that FBI personnel do not lose contact and familiarity with the changes in the FBI and the United States, the Bureau places limits on the length of time staff are to remain abroad.  Our analysis indicates that some Legat staff have remained abroad for long periods of time.  The FBI has acknowledged this as a problem and is taking steps to limit tours abroad by not granting extensions in some cases.  While we understand that exceptions to tour of duty limits may need to be made in certain circumstances, we believe these exceptions should be kept to a minimum.


We recommend that the FBI:

  1. Implement the FBI Inspection Division’s recommendations contained in their July 2003 Report: Legal Attaché Pre-Deployment Training and Evaluation of the Preparation of FBI Personnel for Overseas Assignment (see Appendix V), and provide us with details about the actions taken.
  1. Adhere to its limits on overseas tours of duty and keep exceptions to these limits to a minimum.

  1. A relief supervisor in the FBI is a agent who serves as a backup for a supervisor.
  2. FBI agents are evaluated on a pass/fail basis with "meets expectations" signifying acceptable performance.
  3. Subsequent to our exit conference another OPR official contradicted what we were originally told stating that the OPR's databases do identify Legat staff who have been subject to an investigation. As a result, OPR provided a list of 17 additional cases that had been opened on 15 Legat personnel involving 34 alleged offenses during our review period. In addition, the OIG Investigations Division, which has first priority in investigating allegations against certain FBI personnel, provided us with allegations against two more Legat personnel. We did not review the case files for these additional cases.
  4. We obtained language test scores for Legat staff as of March 27, 2003.
  5. FBI Inspection Division Report: Legal Attaché Pre-deployment Training: An Evaluation of the Preparation of FBI Personnel for Overseas Assignment, Reengineering Project Number 35, July 2003.
  6. An Employee Assistance Program is a professional counseling and referral service designed to help employees with personal, job, or family problems.
  7. DEA Country Attachés carry out investigative and liaison activities in foreign countries related to U.S. drug laws.
  8. The World Factbook, prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency, provides information on foreign countries for use by U.S. government officials.
  9. FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was discovered spying for the former Soviet Union and then for Russia, pled guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy in July 2001 and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without parole. In the wake of the Hanssen case, the FBI has begun to implement stricter security requirements.