Not Exactly 'Mission: Impossible': State Dept. Duped By Thieves Who Turn Off Lights

State Department OIG

State Department OIG

One of the earliest scenes in the first "Mission: Impossible" movie shows a crack team of experienced intelligence operatives using high-tech gadgetry and clockwork precision to defeat sophisticated countermeasures in a plot to steal Top Secret information.

This is not that story. 

This is the story of how someone or a group of people have allegedly been stealing diesel fuel from the residences of U.S. officials in Amman, Jordan for years and how the response to these thefts was comically inadequate.

A report from the State Department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) published Monday [PDF] says that the OIG noticed a huge variation in fuel usage by some of the 300 U.S.-linked residences in Amman, suggesting that widespread fuel theft is likely the cause, as it has been at other U.S. missions around the world. The OIG said it discussed the issue with the officials who oversee fuel contracting for the Department of State and that they, in turn, required landlords at the various residences to install countermeasures.

There was one problem: "While these measures were intended to safeguard the fuel from unauthorized access, they proved to be ineffective because OIG auditors were easily able to circumvent the safeguards and access the fuel lines," the report says.

Some examples of the clever safeguards and the dastardly ways the OIG said they could be defeated at least a few of the residences officials visited:

  • Safeguard #1: Wire cages were built around some fuel tanks. 

Defeated by... just sticking a hand in. 

"...[A]t the residence with the wire cage, OIG determined that the wire cage would not prohibit someone from easily slipping his hand through the cage to disconnect the fuel tank’s dispensing line and drain fuel."

  • Safeguard #2: Cages with metal plates were built around some fuel tanks. 

Defeated by... a screwdriver. 

"Although the plated cages would stop someone from placing their hands or tools through the cage, at least two of the plated cages had their panels screwed to the outside of the frame, which exposed the screws so that anyone with a screwdriver could easily remove the plates and access diesel fuel."

  • Safeguard #3: Surveillance cameras were installed to deter the thieves.

Defeated by... turning off the lights.

"...[T]his safeguard can easily be circumvented by simply turning off the lights in the tank room upon entry to avoid being recorded. Someone could also disconnect the camera itself without being recorded because it was located next to the entrance to the diesel tank room, and the camera’s field of vision did not include entrance to the room."

In the end, the OIG appeared to give up on trying to improve the countermeasures and instead suggested that the State Department install a real-time fuel monitoring system that could alert officials of potential ongoing thefts in time to apprehend the perpetrators.

The State Department agreed, installation is underway and expected to be completed by September, according to a letter in the OIG report.

The new system should even work when the lights are off.

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