The Foreign Service blog community lit up today with the State Department’s brainless judgement and censorship in action.
A community manager or two running the blog roll at careers.state.gov (managed by the Bureau of Human Resources) has removed the blog of EFM, Jen Dinoia from the list (see The Dinoia Family).
Brainless. Not only is Jen a spouse of a Diplomatic Security Officer whose family have been in the Service for 14 years, she was diagnosed with breast cancer while her FS husband was in Iraq. She blogged about about her brave fight in her blog, about having a spouse on an unaccompanied tour, and more. Oh, and her husband will soon be on his second unaccompanied tour.
Hopefully, you can understand that some topics covered in your blog are very personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies, and wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of potential candidates who are interested in learning about the FS life overseas. Through our years of recruitment experience, we found that FS prospects want to learn more about the work that’s conducted, the people and cultures with whom they will interact, the travel experiences, and the individual stories our employees* have to share.
Hopefully, you can see the bureaucratic idiocy on display here. These community managers excuse me, recruitment experts, do not/not know what massive beehive they’ve wandered into.
Nipples (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So the State Department folks do no like talk about nipples on the FS blogs it puts in its blog roll. Dammit, who’s giving these folks guidance over there?
If there’s one blog that shows how the State Department has taken care of an employee and his family in a medical emergency, or how the FS community rallied and supported one of its own during one of the most challenging times in a woman’s life, or how a diplomatic spouse juggles life when the employee is off on a year-long assignment in a war zone, that’s Jen’s blog. So if these recruitment experts with blog roll pruning scissors actually got beyond the N-word, they wouldn’t have ditched this excellent recruitment material. But they did, which calls into question their expertness.
Dear State Department, if you need to ditch a blog due to offending words like “nipple”, don’t do it the day after you get an ACLU letter talking about first amendment rights.
The State Department has classified the ACLU letter and issued a warning to its busy workers in the hive not to read the letter: “federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded this letter without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.”
Here’s what the moderator said:
“The Sounding Board wasn’t designed to handle individually-specific cases, or cases that are under formal review of any sort. Our publishing guidelines state this, but more honestly, there are issues that are much bigger than our two moderators can handle. And yours is one of them. We have to let the procedures set in place, that you’re exercising, run their course.”
This is what happens when you take that slippery slope, it’s like a humongous snowball with no brakes implanted. If nipples and the ACLU are no good, what’s next, toucans?
One of our blog readers sent this piece with her gotcha quiz:
I see little evidence that this is anything but a cultural difference anchored time. Whereas Defense moved forward, State has remained in the past. Look at the advanced relationship Defense has with social media and even empowerment of its people to engage directly. Compare that with State’s increasing attempts to centralize control of social media and overall public engagement.
In Defense, authorities and lanes are clear. In State, they are fuzzy and mostly dependent on personalities and relationships. Which agency is more effective?
Which agency is more effective?
Why, that’s a no brainer, of course. The one that scrubbed nipples and damn nosy ACLU with its eye-opening letter to bureaucrats from the Internets!
Updated @14:38 corrections on apparent grammar, spelling bo-bos added.
During the Daily Press Briefing of May 14, the State Department Spokesperson clarified that “we have no intention to cancel our police training program in Iraq,” and told reporters that the department “had considerable difficulties with that story.”
If that is so, how come it has not requested a retraction of this NYT story? But more to the point, why it its contractor handling the police training program in Iraq, packing up?
Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, former Ambassador William R. Brownfield visits with Iraqi Ministry of Interior officials at the Baghdad Police College forensics lab to discuss the future training of Iraqi police forces. 03.16.2011 Photo by Spc. Breeanna Dubuke (via dvidshub.net)
Here is the back and forth during the DPB:
QUESTION: I realize this was addressed by the Embassy yesterday, but I just want to get from here – you know what I’m talking about, yes? – in terms of the elimination, or reported elimination, of the Iraqi police training program. This – the report said that it was being considered that the whole program could be – could vanish, that it could go away. The Embassy, while it denied that, didn’t say that it wouldn’t be substantially cut or whittled down to a mere fraction of what it originally had been planned to be. Can you just clarify what exactly is – what are the plans for the police training program?
MS. NULAND: Well, first let me clarify we have no intention to cancel our police training program in Iraq. What we are engaged in, in collaboration with the Iraqis, is a right-sizing exercise for this program along with all of our programs. As you know, we are absolutely committed to, first of all, supporting Iraqi self-reliance. So if they tell us they need less support, we are going to downsize. And in this case, they are asking us to continue the advisory and training program but to downsize it, and also to saving the U.S. taxpayer money wherever we can. So I can’t give you a final size for this. We are in the evaluation process now, working with the Iraqis. But we do anticipate we’re going to be able to downsize it considerably while continuing to be able to support the Iraqis on the police training side.
QUESTION: Okay. This is the second time in – since the beginning of the year that this particular publication has written something about the Embassy which you had a serious dispute with. Both times it has been cast – the reports have cast these reductions or slashing of personnel as serious miscalculations by the Administration in terms of its Iraq policy. What’s your feeling about that, that characterization of it?
MS. NULAND: Well, again, it’s important to appreciate that we are in a new phase with Iraq. We’re in a phase where it is up to the Iraqis to decide precisely what kind of footprint they want by foreign support, foreign countries offering support, offering assistance in the context of their overall approach to their sovereignty. So we very much need to respect that this is a collaborative decision how much support they want on the police training side.
So we’re trying to be in step with their increasing self-reliance. We’re trying to do this in a negotiated, phased, managed way. But we’re also trying to make clear to Iraqis that we think we have valuable training, valuable advice to offer, as we do to some hundred countries around the world. So we’re going to work this through, but I think folks need to get on the program that we have a sovereign Iraq who’s going to make its own decisions about how much outside support it wants.
QUESTION: All right. So you agree or disagree with the characterization that this is – that this represents a serious political – or a serious policy miscalculation?
MS. NULAND: Well, of course I’m going to disagree with that. Thank you.
QUESTION: Was the report correct that the Administration has spent $500 million so far on the police training program?
MS. NULAND: I don’t have the total amount here, but as you know, we’ve been involved in police training from the beginning of the Iraq operation, as far back as 2003. I can take the question if it’s of interest to you to sort of tote it all up. But we were involved in police work ourselves, police training for the Iraqis from the beginning, the standing up of their own professional police forces. I don’t think anybody in that country wanted to submit themselves to the old Saddam-ite police, so it needed a bottom-up work and cleansing. So —
QUESTION: One other thing. The report alleged that much of the training provided by the United States, and in particular by the State Department since the departure of the U.S. military from Iraq, was not helpful to the Iraqis, that it consisted of retired or late-in-their-career American state troopers telling war stories about how they conduct their activities in the United States.
And it cited one anecdote in which it said that the two key indices of someone possibly going to – planning to launch a suicide bombing were: one, that they would withdraw a lot of money from the bank; and two, that they’d go out and get drunk. And it suggested that those were perhaps not very apposite indicators for Iraq where: one, a lot of Iraqis don’t have bank accounts; and two, a lot of Iraqis don’t drink. Do you – how do you address the criticisms in the story that regardless of how many millions were spent on this, that the training wasn’t actually all that useful?
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, I’m not going to get drawn into parsing the anecdotes in a story with which we took considerable issue, both in its macro assertions and in many of its details. We had considerable difficulties with that story, as the statement from Embassy Baghdad made clear.
With regard to the integrity of the police training that we do – we have done in Iraq over these many years, we stand by it. The Iraqis have a new, modern, more democratic police force largely as a result of the support of the international community led by the United States. I’m obviously not in a position to speak to every individual involved in this, but all over the world we rely on the expertise of retired officers from the United States, from other countries, who are willing to participate in these training programs. And they participate on the basis of their experience in democratic law enforcement, not to hang around and tell inappropriate war stories. So we stand by the program. And if you’d like more on the numbers, et cetera, we can get you a separate briefing.
QUESTION: Can I just – the last one this?
MS. NULAND: Yeah.
QUESTION: Just given the severity of the differences that you had with this, has there been any contact between the Department or anyone – any senior officials in the Department and the editorship of the publication in question?
MS. NULAND: Well, I’m not going to get into our discussions with the —
QUESTION: Well, have you asked for a correction or clarification or —
QUESTION: Or a retraction?
MS. NULAND: We have made absolutely clear in our public statements and in our messages to that publication how we feel about the story.
QUESTION: But does that mean that you’ve asked for a retraction or a correction or some kind of – I mean, after the first one, you demanded one. And you were quite open about it, and you got one.
MS. NULAND: Yeah. I think we’re still working on that set of issues.
Either the NYT got this right or the NYT got this wrong.
And while State is working on “that set of issues” we heard from an official familiar with the program both under DOD and State that the contractor for the Police Development Program is packing up and will be out of there by this summer.
“If DoS intends to continue the program, they had better let the primary contractor know this because it is shuttering their operation as we speak.”
Our source says that there are less than 50 police trainers currently working under this contract, and by August 2012, all of them, will leave Iraq and finally end their embassy compound sequestration.
Somebody please send this tip to the spokespersons in Foggy Bottom and the US Embassy in Baghdad, in case this item was deemed “need to know.”
Here’s what we suspect will happen this summer. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), the department’s bureau with oversight of this program, will continue to staff its police development program at the US Embassy in Iraq. For sure, the FSOs assigned to work on this program are already preparing his/her pack out at his/her post for this summer’s rotation into Baghdad. The incumbents currently working on this program in Baghdad are preparing to leave and polishing up their accomplishments for the year in their EERs. So certainly, even without the trainers, as long as the program is “open,” and “right-sized” to a skeleton crew of less than the fingers in your hand, we can all pretend that “we have no intention to cancel our police training program.”
So — we’ll not end this program even when the Iraqi trainees have stop showing up, and what bony remains of the staff are all holed up in the embassy compound? The pesky details from this DPB will be addressed in a separate post; DBP is giving me a giganotosaurus migraine as huge as embassy Baghdad.
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve been following Peter Van Buren’s case for some time. While I do not always agree with everything that Mr. Van Buren says and writes, I am offended by his selective treatment by the State Department that can only be described as retaliatory.
Mr. Van Buren, of course, is not the only recipient of such selective treatment in the State Department. He’s just the loudest and the most vocal Exhibit A under the 21st Century Statecraft tab. Other FSOs and family members have been similarly penalized for running afoul of the department’s movable blogging and social media rules. One I know for sure, have been pushed into retirement, others suffer consequences in future assignments. Even non-blogging FSOs were threatened for the blogging activities of their spouses. For sure, very few threats come in written form but in a culture where corridor reputation is key to every assignment, no written memo is needed to screw up a future assignment in the Foreign Service.
On May 15, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) got into the ring in Mr. Van Buren’s public fight with the State Department. ACLU, the 92 year old institution told the State Department, the first agency created under our Constitution that “public employees don’t give up their First Amendment rights in exchange for a job with the government.”
The ACLU writes in its blog:
[T]he State Department has proposed firing Mr. Van Buren under the guise of a procedural rule, creating the strong appearance of unlawful retaliation. Government employees have the First Amendment right to speak as private citizens on matters of public concern. There’s no question that the subject of Mr. Van Buren’s book, blog posts, and news articles — the reconstruction effort in Iraq — is such a matter. And, government employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies that they work for.
The State Department is attempting to justify the firing by claiming that Mr. Van Buren failed to comply with the agency’s prepublication review policy. The State Department’s policy requires all employees to submit everything they write for prepublication review, regardless of whether they are writing in their official or personal capacity. This policy, especially as applied to blog posts and articles, raises serious constitutional questions. By forcing employees to submit all their writings for prepublication review — even articles and blog posts written on their own time — the State Department is effectively shutting its employees out of any meaningful participation in critical public debates. There is no justification for such an expansive prior restraint.
But writing a blog post is not enough. The ACLU also wrote a letter to Patrick F. Kennedy, the Under Secretary for Management with courtesy copies to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources; Jesselyn Radack & Kathleen McClellan, Government Accountability Project (who represents Mr. Van Buren in his Office of Special Counsel case) and Raeka Safai of the American Foreign Service Association.
Below is an excerpt from ACLU’s letter to Mr. Kennedy:
This proposed termination for Mr. Van Buren’s speech raises substantial constitutional questions and creates the appearance of impermissible retaliation for Mr. Van Buren’s criticism of the State Department. The Supreme Court has long made clear that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern. A public employee’s First Amendment rights can be overcome only if the employee’s interest in the speech is outweighed by the government’s interest, as employer, in the orderly operation of the public workplace and the efficient delivery of public services by public employees. Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968).
The government bears an even greater burden of justification when it prospectively restricts employees’ expression through a generally applicable statute or regulation. United States v. Nat’l Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454, 468 (1995) (“NTEU”). By those standards, the State Department’s actions here appear to be unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights even when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 421 (2006). In his book, blog posts, and articles, it is clear that Mr. Van Buren is speaking in his own voice and not on behalf of the State Department. Writing blog posts and articles from home, on his own time and on his personal computer, is a paradigmatic example of speech that public employees may legitimately engage in as private citizens. Pickering, 391 U.S. 563 (unconstitutional to discipline teacher for writing letter to the editor); Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 423 (citing op-eds as private citizen speech).
On prospective restrictions for all present and future diplomats, the ACLU writes:
[T]he State Department’s pre-publication review policy, as applied to blog posts and articles, raises serious constitutional questions. Through its policy, the State Department is prospectively restricting the speech of Mr. Van Buren as well as all present and future State Department employees. Where, as here, the restriction limits speech before it occurs, the Supreme Court has made clear that the government’s burden is especially heightened. NTEU, 513 U.S. at 468. The State Department must show that the interests of potential audiences and a vast group of present and future employees are outweighed by that expression’s necessary impact on the actual operation of government. Id. Courts have also required careful tailoring of prospective restrictions to ensure they do not sweep too broadly and that they actually address the identified harm. Id. at 475. Given this heightened standard, it is highly unlikely that the State Department could sustain its burden of demonstrating that its policy is constitutional.
There is no justification for such an expansive prior restraint on State Department speech. The State Department’s policy affects all employees and is broadly written to include all “matters of official concern.” This encompasses a vast amount of speech – including Mr. Van Buren’s and that of numerous other State Department bloggers – that would in no way harm the “actual operation of the government.” The overbreadth of the State Department’s policy is abundantly clear when compared with the practice of the Department of Defense. Hundreds of active-duty soldiers, many with access to classified and sensitive information, post articles and maintain personal blogs without pre-clearance and without posing any harm to military operations.
Further, the State Department’s pre-publication requirement covers even more speech than necessary to serve the government’s stated interests –to protect classified information and to prevent views of employees from being improperly attributed to the government. 3 FAM 4172.1-1. As such, the policy is not carefully drawn to ensure that it does not unnecessary chill a vast amount of protected speech, nor is it tailored to address the identified harm. See Harman v. City of New York, 140 F.3d 111, 123 (2d Cir. 1998).
You can read the entire letter from the ACLU to Mr. Kennedy here.
The ACLU makes a very compelling argument and I think for the first time, the constitutionality of that broad umbrella of all “matters of official concern” take center stage. It’s a good thing to shine a light on that dark folder. Let’s see what happens.
On a related note, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) in February released its guidance for personal use of social media. The union represented Mr. Van Buren in his grievance case within the State Department but has been largely silent in this very public fight. Mr. Van Buren has now asked AFSA if the union is willing to press State into a rational set of regulations on social media:
“We all know that many FSOs and their spouses/partners have been unofficially penalized for blogging, and pushed into going off line. At the same time, we also know there are many, many blogs out there by FSOs and others and that the number grows. Anyone think social media is going to be less a part of life in the next ten years?
I have taken an extreme position on these issues, and know that you have not always (or often?) agreed with what I wrote. That is in fact how it should be, because the issue at hand should not be about the content per se, but the right to write it.
I fully agree that State needs rules about social media; they currently really have none that are realistic and implementable and in fact are considered unconstitutional by America’s leading First Amendment group.
Would AFSA now be willing to make a public statement along these lines and use my case to press State into a rational set of regulations on social media?“
So — I’m sitting here, after midnight, pondering — is AFSA up for this challenge? Guess, we’ll have to wait and see …
Via DOJ, the following press statement dated May 7, 2012:
U.S. Embassy Employee Arrested on Conspiracy and Bribery Charges in Scheme Involving Visa Applications
– Defendant Worked at Embassy in Venezuela –
WASHINGTON – A visa assistant for the United States Embassy in Caracas, Venezuela, has been arrested on federal charges stemming from a scheme in which he allegedly accepted payments to aid people in facilitating visa applications, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. and Scott Bultrowicz, Director of the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, announced today.
Christian Adolfo Paredes Uzcategui, 43, of Caracas, Venezuela, was arrested May 4, 2012, in Washington, D.C., on one charge of conspiracy and two charges of bribery. He appeared today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He pled not guilty and remains in custody pending a hearing on May 21, 2012. If convicted, the defendant could face up to five years in prison for the conspiracy charge and between two and 15 years for the bribery charges.
According to the charging documents, Paredes has been employed at the Embassy in Caracas since May 1997 and most recently worked in the Embassy’s Consular Section. As a visa assistant, he had access to Embassy databases and assisted in the processing of visa applications submitted by foreign nationals seeking entry into the United States.
Between March 2011 and January 2012, according to the charging papers, Paredes allegedly conspired with another individual to obtain illegal payments in exchange for facilitating applications for United States non-immigrant visas. The charging documents state that Paredes received more than $10,000 from the other individual, who was working with people who previously had been denied visas.
The filing of a criminal charge is merely an allegation that defendants have committed a violation of criminal law and is not evidence of guilt. Every defendant is presumed innocent until, and unless, proven guilty in a court of law.
This case is being investigated by the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service and is being prosecuted by Special Assistant U.S. Attorney David Mudd of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.
This report only says that the Foreign Service National employee (also known as LES or Locally Employed Staff) was arrested in Washington, D.C. Since Mr. Paredes is habitually a resident of Caracas, Venezuela, one has to wonder what he was doing in Washington, D.C. Of course, he could have been in the district on a personal trip, but why would he visit Washington, D.C. instead of say, Orlando, New York or Los Angeles. Unless, he was in the district to attend a training course at FSI. Which was how, Jordanian national, Osama Esam Saleem Ayesh of US Embassy in Baghdad was charged with Theft of Public Funds and Conflict of Interest. That one was actually arrested as he got off the plane in Dulles on his way to attend a State Department training course in Arlington, Virginia.