Suspending Embassy Operations: Post and Bureau Not Told, and FOIA Redaction Fail

Posted: 1:12 am EDT
Updated: 5:28 pm EDT

 

On February 25, 2011, the State Department announced the suspension of U.S. Embassy operations in Libya (see State Dept Suspends US Embassy Operations in #Libya, Withdraws All Personnel).  What we didn’t know then but we know now, thanks to the Clinton email dump, is that just a few days before that, neither the embassy nor the bureau was aware that they were suspending operations.

February 22, 2011 09:50 PM – HRC aide Jake Sullivan sent an email (partially redacted with FOIA b(5) code) to Janet A. Sanderson, the Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Near East Affairs, with subject line “Suspending embassy ops” and asking “Where do we stand?”

February 22, 2011 10:14 PM – Sanderson emailed Sullivan:

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Feb 22 22:18:23 2011 (10:18 PM) – Sanderson also sent an email to M/Patrick Kennedy and Kathleen T. Austin-Ferguson, M’s Executive Assistant:

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February 22, 2011 10:37 PM – Kennedy responded to Sanderson saying he “talked to cheryl and tom” and that “they are also unaware.”“Checking with Secretary. At this moment we are NOT suspending. Fully agree not possible to do tomorrow and also risks libyan blow back.”  Email must be referencing HRC Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and Deputy Secretary Tom Nides.

Embassy Tripoli eventually suspended operations on February 25, three days after the start of this email chain.  These emails are part of the Clinton email dump and it shows just how messed up is the FOIA at the agency.

On Feb 22 22:40:17 2011 (10:40 PM) – Sanderson responded to the Kennedy email, adding Ronald Schlicher to the email chain. Ambassador Schlicher was previously assigned to Cyprus, and also served as a DAS at the Bureau of Near East Affairs. We are not sure what was his position in 2011, but he must have been attached to NEA to be looped in in this exchange. Ambassador Schlicher was Principal DAS at the NEA bureau, and he would have been Sanderson’s boss at the time.  Here’s a clip from that email:

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Now, take a look at the email below with the same time stamp and same addresses, released as a separate email by the FOIA office at State:

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Why, they’re the same email, except that they were released as separate documents, and in the second document, the email is redacted under the b(5) FOIA exemption, also known in the FOIA community as the “Withhold It Because You Want To” Exemption.  “Yael” must have been Yael Lempert who was assigned to Tripoli as consular section chief in 2009 and featured in the NYT here for the release of four New York Times journalists in 2011 in Libya.  She may have been the acting DCM at the time of the suspension of operations.  “Joan” is presumably Joan Polaschik who was DCM and then CDA of Embassy Tripoli. She is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Algeria.

Here is what DOJ says about the b(5) exemption:

Exemption 5 of the FOIA protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” (1) The courts have construed this somewhat opaque language, with its sometimes confusing threshold requirement, (2) to “exempt those documents, and only those documents that are normally privileged in the civil discovery context.” (3)

Here is what we are not supposed to read according to the FOIA ninjas, except that one of them forgot the Sharpie:

“I have just talked to post (Yael).She and Joan will work to reduce staff and send more out on ferry. Shd get down to 10- 12. She fully understands need for limited staff to stay to deal with community. Believes likely remainder will be position to leave in few days. Says situation is “worse than Baghdad in 2004-2005 “

No matter how you read the above passage, it is difficult to make the case that it fits the b(5) exemption unless you’re thinking of the “withhold it because you want to” exemption threshold.

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Emails in full released via FOIA below:

Suspending Ops Libya – February 22, 2011 11:05 PM: https://cloudup.com/cAlO_WHTfpc

Suspending Ops Libya February 23, 2011 7:59 AM: https://cloudup.com/cD33FlF7TCo

Suspending Ops Libya February 23, 2011 8:08 AM: https://cloudup.com/cjplOQtTEmw

 

Coalition of Civil Rights Groups Seek State/OIG Investigation Into US Embassy Yemen’s Passport Revocations

Posted: 1:01 am EDT

 

The Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and  Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) Project of CUNY School of Law have submitted Stranded Abroad: Americans Stripped of Their Passports in Yemen to the State Department Office of Inspector General requesting that the OIG investigate the State Department and U.S. Embassy Yemen “for confiscating and revoking U.S. passports contrary to regulations, policies, and guidelines.” 

The groups alleged confiscation and revocation without notice, failure to provide direct return passports upon confiscation, collateral attacks on citizenship/proxy denaturalization, coercive interrogations and inadequate investigations prior to passport revocation.  The complaint named seven officials who were then assigned to the US Embassy Yemen and at the State Department who the groups say are aware of the pattern of revocation and “likely to have information that can assist the OIG’s investigation.” The complaint says that the  “inclusion of their names in this report is not intended to imply that they have engaged in any wrongdoing.” (see appendices)

The letter  (PDF) addressed to IG Steve Linick was sent by civil rights and civil liberties groups that include the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee,  American Civil Liberties Union, Arab American Institute, Arab Resource & Organizing Center, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Center for Constitutional Rights, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Creating Law Enforcement Accountability and Responsibility at CUNY Law School, Muslim Advocates, and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

 

 

Read the 44-page complaint below:

 

A related note, we must have missed this one, Al Jazeera did a piece on this back in January 2014 (See Yemeni-Americans cry foul over passport revocations). Below is an excerpt from that piece with an unnamed State Department official:

State Department official familiar with the issue — and who spoke on condition of anonymity — told Al Jazeera that a majority of the passport revocations in Sana’a follow a similar pattern. “Virtually all of the statements say that the individual naturalized under a false identity,” he said. “They appear to be involuntary.”

According to the official, an internal investigation determined that the statements those revocations were based on were obtained under “confrontational” circumstances, with individuals alone in an interview room with an investigative officer and an interpreter who, the official said, treated their subjects “aggressively.”

“We’re talking about an inherently coercive and intimidating environment, without any independent supervision of the interrogator and his translator,” said the official.

A sample of the alleged involuntary statement is included in the complaint (see Appendix B). If the voluntary statements in these revocation cases are anything like those exhibited in Mosed Shaye Omar v. John Kerry, et.al. this would be a great mess.

Back in November, following the federal court decision in Omar v. Kerry ordering the State Department to return the passport improperly revoked by the State Department, we asked State/OIG about this trend and we were told that the OIG does not have “anything on this issue on which it can comment.” It was suggested that we check with Consular Affairs. And of course, we have previously asked the bureau about this, but we do not really expect them to address this in terms of oversight.

The court documents in the Omar case suggest that Consular Affairs is revoking U.S. passports contrary to the rules in the Foreign Affairs Manual. But this is not the only case. If all similar cases have the same threshold as the Omar case, it is deeply troubling not only because the revocation appears not to follow State Department’s written guidance, State also never seek to denaturalized the plaintiff.  Which basically leaves the plaintiff still a citizen of this country  but unable to travel anywhere.

We have been troubled by this practice but particularly by the allegations of coercion. We have had a difficult time understanding why Yemeni-Americans would incriminate themselves voluntarily and admit to something that obviously is detrimental not only to their welfare but also their future.  That defies human nature.

And no, we don’t believe that Consular Affairs is the right entity to review its own practices when it comes to these allegations. We’re hoping that State/OIG will look into this as part of its oversight responsibility of the State Department.

 

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US Embassy Beirut: A Form Letter Response, Please, That’s Cold

Posted: 2:50 am EDT

 

The US Embassy in Damascus, Syria suspended its operations on February 6, 2012, and is not open for normal consular services.  The Travel Warning for Syria was last updated on August 27, 2015. Yes, these folks should have left Syria when it was still a possibility, but they probably knew that already, and blaming them now is not going to help. For folks interested in learning what the U.S. Government can and cannot do in a crisis overseas, please click here.

Look, we understand that there is not much that the USG can do in terms of consular services in an active war zone.  But. While it may not be much, forwarding the inquiry in this case to the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Damascus might have, at a minimum, alerted the Section of this family’s existence.  Two, when one is in a life and death situation, receiving a form letter from the U.S. government is probably one of the coldest manifestation of the bureaucracy.

The Government of the Czech Republic serves as the protecting power for U.S. interests in Syria. U.S. citizens in Syria who seek consular services should contact the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Damascus at USIS_damascus@embassy.mzv.cz. U.S. citizens in Syria who are in need of emergency assistance in Syria and are unable to reach the U.S. Interests Section of the Embassy of the Czech Republic or must make contact outside business hours, should contact the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan: AmmanACS@state.gov; +(962) (6) 590-6500.

 

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Former Iran Prisoner: “Oman initiated our release, not the State Department”

Posted: 12:29 am EDT

 

Shane Bauer is one of the three Americans who were hiking in a mountainous region of Turkey near Iran in June 2009 when they were seized by Iranian border guards. He and his friend Joshua Fattal were detained in Evin prison in Tehran for more than two years. He was charged on August 21, 2011 with espionage and illegal entry and given an eight year sentence. On September 21, 2011, one month after his sentence, Mr. Bauer (and Mr. Fattal) was released and allowed to return to the United States.

He is now a senior reporter at Mother Jones, covering criminal justice and human rights. As news broke this weekend about the Iran prisoner swap, Politico reported that he called Clinton’s appeal for more sanctions “totally irresponsible” and accused her of constantly inflaming tensions with Iran. Read Politico’s story here. He also tweeted this:

In October 2011, the NYT had this item about the passing of FSO Philo Dibble. He died on October 1, 2011, 10 days after Fattal and Bauer were released:

Philo Dibble, a career Foreign Service officer who played a central role in the release of two American hikers who had been held in an Iranian prison for more than two years, died at his home in McLean, Va., on Oct. 1, 10 days after the hikers were freed. He was 60.

The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Elizabeth Link Dibble, who is also a State Department official. Both worked in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, where he was deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranand she is the bureau’s principal deputy secretary.

“Philo really was the lead in the State Department for coordinating all U.S. government efforts regarding the release of the hikers,” Jeffrey D. Feltman, the Near Eastern bureau’s assistant secretary, said Thursday.

While explaining that he could not provide details because “it’s pretty sensitive,” Mr. Feltman said Mr. Dibble had coordinated efforts with diplomats from other nations, including Oman and Switzerland, in trying to free the hikers. (Switzerland has represented American interests in Iran since the hostage crisis of 1979-81.)

We may not know the full story how the release of the hikers went down until somebody from State writes a book about it or do an ADST oral history but some random Internet person actually tweeted what we were thinking:

Emails about the hikers were part of the latest Clinton email dump. Below is a selection of the emails:

Bauer’s letter to D/S Bill Burns with a redacted request – PDF
Statement of Facts issued by the State Department for Mr. Bauer – PDF
The hikers’ parents letter to President Obama copied to State – PDF
OpsAlert updates during release of two hikers – PDF
Bauer and Fattal statements after release (transcript) PDF

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CDC Issues Zika Virus Guidance For 14 Countries and Territories in the Western Hemisphere

Posted: 12:58 am EDT

 

The Centers for Disease Control on January 15 issued an interim travel guidance related to Zika virus for 14 countries and territories in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Out of an abundance of caution, the CDC is advising pregnant women to consider postponing travel to areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.  We have not seen any guidance from the State Department. If you are in the Foreign Service, pregnant, and assigned to these 13 countries in the Western Hemisphere, please contact State/MED for guidance.

Zika was reported for the first time in Brazil in May 2015, and the virus has since been reported in 14 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean:  Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.  For a list of countries that have past and current evidence of the virus, please click here.

Map from cdc.gov

Map from cdc.gov

Below is an excerpt from the CDC announcement:

CDC has issued a travel alert (Level 2-Practice Enhanced Precautions) for people traveling to regions and certain countries where Zika virus transmission is ongoing: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Martinique, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname, Venezuela, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

This alert follows reports in Brazil of microcephaly and other poor pregnancy outcomes in babies of mothers who were infected with Zika virus while pregnant. However, additional studies are needed to further characterize this relationship. More studies are planned to learn more about the risks of Zika virus infection during pregnancy.

Until more is known, and out of an abundance of caution, CDC recommends special precautions for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant:

  • Pregnant women in any trimester should consider postponing travel to the areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing. Pregnant women who must travel to one of these areas should talk to their doctor or other healthcare provider first and strictly follow steps to avoid mosquito bites during the trip.
  • Women trying to become pregnant should consult with their healthcare provider before traveling to these areas and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during the trip.

Because specific areas where Zika virus transmission is ongoing are difficult to determine and likely to change over time, CDC will update this travel notice as information becomes available. Check the CDC travel website frequently for the most up-to-date recommendations.

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent or medicine to treat Zika. Four in five people who acquire Zika infection may have no symptoms. Illness from Zika is usually mild and does not require hospitalization. Travelers are strongly urged to protect themselves by preventing mosquito bites:

  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants
  • Use EPA-registered insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE), or IR3535. Always use as directed.
    • Insect repellents containing DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 are safe for pregnant and nursing women and children older than 2 months when used according to the product label. Oil of lemon eucalyptus products should not be used on children under 3 years of age.
  • Use permethrin-treated clothing and gear (such as boots, pants, socks, and tents).
  • Stay and sleep in screened-in or air-conditioned rooms.

Read the full announcement here.

CDC is reportedly working with public health experts across the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take additional steps related to Zika.  In addition, efforts are also underway across HHS to develop vaccines, improved diagnostics and other countermeasures for Zika according to CDC.

 

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Americans in Iran Prisoner Swap Arrived in Germany

Posted: 2:20 am EDT

 

According to media report, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini arrived in Germany Sunday and will meet with their families soon.  The three arrived on a flight at Ramstein Air Base via Geneva and were scheduled to undergo medical checkups at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a U.S. military hospital in Germany.

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US Embassy Baghdad: “Several” Americans Missing in Iraq

Posted: 2:15 am EDT

 

CNN is reporting that three American contractors went missing in Iraq two days ago, citing an unnamed senior security official in Baghdad.

“A company filed a report Sunday about three of its staff going missing two days ago. They are American contractors. We are looking into this report,” the official told CNN. Separately, an Iraqi security official with knowledge of the case said that two of three missing contractors are dual Iraqi-American citizens, and that the third is an American national.

“We are working in full cooperation with Iraqi authorities to locate the missing Americans,” said U.S. Embassy spokesman Scott Bolz according to the AP.

Although some media outlets are reporting that three are missing, the U.S. Embassy has confirmed to the AP on Sunday that “several” Americans have gone missing in Iraq, after local media reported that three Americans had been kidnapped in the Iraqi capital.

The latest Travel Warning for Iraq dated December 4, 2015 notes:

The U.S. government considers the potential threat to U.S. government personnel in Iraq to be serious enough to require them to live and work under strict security guidelines.  All U.S. government employees under the authority of the U.S. Chief of Mission must follow strict safety and security procedures when traveling outside the Embassy and Consulates.

It is not clear if the missing are American contractors working for NGOs operating in Iraq or if they are USG contractors. We also have yet to see reporting on the circumstances of their disappearance.

 

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#BurkinaFaso Attack: Gunmen Storms Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou

Posted: 6:52 pm EDT

 

BBC is reporting that two car bombs went off outside the Splendid hotel at around 19:30 local time (same as GMT) in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Masked men have reportedly stormed the Splendid Hotel, which is used by UN staff and westerners, witnesses said. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claims credit for ongoing attack and there are reportedly hostages according to media reports.

The French Embassy in Ouagadougou says that the incidents happened this evening around 20:30 at the Splendid Hotel, frequented by westerners.  The embassy notes on Twitter that the curfew has been extended from 11 pm to 6 am. It also says that an  Air France flight from Paris-Ouagadougou on Friday night was diverted to Niamey, Niger.

The U.S. Embassy in Ouagadougou tweeted that it is aware of what is happening and that it is following closely the ongoing situation in downtown Ouagadougo. It has also instructed embassy personnel to avoid the downtown area.

 

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Last Night’s “I’ll Have Your Back” For Our Diplomats, and OMG! 13 Hours! Benghazi! Now! Boom! Boom! Boom!

Posted: 2:41 pm EDT

 

So the first of the Benghazi movies is here with Michael Bay’s “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” It looks like there are three more movies in the works (see You’ve Seen the Boooooks, Now Get Ready For the Benghazi Movies!).

Anyway, today’s the day you’ve all been waiting for, of course.

The New York Times reviewed it:

Here is what The Atlantic says:

No one wanted? Really?

About that CIA chief and the stand down order, the chief finally speaks out:

The Intercept mentions the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!

The Guardian says it sent its writer-at-large to his local multiplex and he found out that Bay’s Benghazi spectacular is far from the perfect date film but does sum up a particular slice of the American psyche.  @dave_schilling writes about the  American Way.

Regardless, Ted Cruz and his fellow candidates will surely try to use this motion picture for their own personal gain for as long as possible. That’s what we do with tragedy in this country, after all. We build a memorial, complete with a gift shop stocked with all the cheaply made junk imaginable. We crank out corny movies based on the true story in the hope that enough people will drag their significant other to the theater to experience the sadness first-hand, with the explicit goal of making a sorry buck off the misery. And we try to score political points whenever possible. That’s the American Way.

At last night’s GOP debate, Mr. Cruz did talk about Benghazi:

CRUZ: “13 Hours” — tomorrow morning, a new movie will debut about the incredible bravery of the men fighting for their lives in Benghazi and the politicians that abandoned them. I want to speak to all our fighting men and women.

I want to speak to all the moms and dads whose sons and daughters are fighting for this country, and the incredible sense of betrayal when you have a commander-in-chief who will not even speak the name of our enemy, radical Islamic terrorism, when you have a commander-in- chief who sends $150 billion to the Ayatollah Khamenei, who’s responsible for murdering hundreds of our servicemen and women.

I want to speak to all of those maddened by political correctness, where Hillary Clinton apologizes for saying all lives matter. This will end. It will end on January 2017.

CRUZ: And if I am elected president, to every soldier and sailor and airman and marine, and to every police officer and firefighter and first responder who risk their lives to keep us safe, I will have your back.

Dammit… no “I’ll have your back” for our diplomats.

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US Embassy Jakarta: Shelter In Place On After Explosions Rock Indonesia’s Capital

Posted: 2:20 am EDT

 

 

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