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Research Questions

  1. What are the procedural and policy challenges and best practices for Leahy vetting?
  2. What are the time lines for vetting?
  3. How clear is the scope for vetting; that is, is it clear which programs and activities require vetting and which do not?
  4. What information is used for vetting, and how is its credibility determined?
  5. Are current training and staffing resources for U.S. vetting efforts adequate?
  6. What issues does Leahy vetting raise for partner relationships?

Protection of human rights is an essential American value. One way Congress has extended this value in foreign policy is through the "Leahy laws" (named for their author, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.). These laws prohibit the U.S. government from providing assistance or training to members of a unit of any nation's security forces that has perpetuated a gross violation of human rights with impunity. This report examines the process by which individuals and units are vetted in compliance with the Leahy law applicable to the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to help DoD improve its role in the existing system and to build further capacity to implement the law effectively, with transparency and accountability for results. The authors examined relevant laws, documentation, and data and interviewed over 75 officials from DoD and the U.S. Department of State. The objectives were to understand the requirements and processes, to identify challenges and best practices, and to offer recommendations for improvement. Our research found that Leahy-vetting requirements are generally not a roadblock to security cooperation, but its oversight is challenged by inadequate governance structures. In addition to describing a more robust working group structure, the report outlines about a dozen additional recommendations detailing improvements in six categories: process and policy challenges and best practices, time lines for vetting, clarity of scope for vetting, information used for vetting, adequacy of training and resources, and partner relationships.

Key Findings

The Process Appears to Be Effective Overall, but Transparency and Communication Could Improve

  • The process is relatively effective at identifying human rights violators, but it could be more transparent to DoD stakeholders.
  • Much of the confusion stems from the complexity of the system and the lack of clear, transparent, and consistent communication among all stakeholders.
  • Formal written procedures necessarily vary for embassies, but we found that the clarity and comprehensiveness of standard operating procedures (SOPs) varied widely among embassies.

There Are Some Challenges with Using the Department of State's (DoS's) Database to Support Policy Analysis

  • Access to the database can be an issue for DoD personnel.
  • It is not always clear to policymakers how decisions are affecting training events.
  • DoS's database, International Vetting and Security Tracking (INVEST), lacks a way to sort or aggregate information according to whether the DoD or DoS Leahy law applies.

Few Problems With Process Time Lines Were Reported, but Steps to Avoid Problems Sometimes Had Unintended Consequences

  • When intense deadline pressures arise, vetters may abandon cases that might have led to resolution with further discussion or investigation.

Improving Training May Improve Implementation Significantly

  • Training differs for DoD and DoS staff, but neither appears to focus sufficiently on the vetting process itself.


  • Establish strategic working groups to improve communication and coordination in four specific areas: Leahy vetting process improvements, case determination (building on the existing Incident Review Team structure), Leahy process training and staffing, and partner relationships. Country-specific subgroups could be useful for embassies with less than a 95-percent approval rating for Leahy vetting cases.
  • Partially standardize all embassy SOPs for vetting through the use of template language, which could help make understanding of the Leahy process among stakeholders more consistent and comprehensive worldwide.
  • Improve vetting transparency through INVEST and make the database more accessible to DoD stakeholders.
  • Supplement existing formal remediation guidance with informal lists of frequently asked questions; best practices workshops; and strategic workshops on the costs, benefits, and risks of remediation efforts.
  • Add a five-day "second review" step to the end of the vetting time line for Leahy cases to allow time to conduct additional research for cases initially classified as suspensions or cancellations.
  • Clarify the scope of Leahy vetting requirements by updating DoD's formal guidance and supplementing it with informal guidance that helps address real-world questions.
  • Develop a method to better document deliberations about the credibility of derogatory information and more generally improve collaboration and transparency of case determinations.
  • Establish formal training requirements for those involved in the Leahy vetting process and create an online annotated briefing to supplement formal training.
  • Hold a series of small workshops to better understand the challenges and best practices associated with engaging partners in Leahy vetting and human rights discussions.

This research was sponsored by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability and Humanitarian Affairs and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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