Category Archives: Consular Work

State Dept Answers FAQ on Ongoing Visa and Passport Database Performance Issues

– Domani Spero

 

Yesterday, we posted about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) (see State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).  During the Daily Press Briefing, yesterday, the State Department officially stated that it believed the root cause of the problem was “a combination of software optimization and hardware compatibility issues.” According to the deputy spokesperson, the servers are getting back online but that they are coming back in a queue and that fixes are not being done on a country-by-country basis. And by the way, it’s not just the peak summer travel season, there’s also the Africa Summit in D.C. next week.

“Obviously, there’s actually a huge crush right now because of the Africa Leaders Summit, so obviously that’s a huge priority for us to make sure everybody gets their visas for the Africa Leaders Summit. We do believe that a vast majority of the travelers who have applied for visas for the summit have been issued.”

CA’s FB folks have been regularly answering questions from angry complaints posted on its Facebook page and have announced that they will continue to monitor and respond to consular clients at 9:00 EDT tomorrow, Thursday, July 31.

Late yesterday, the Bureau of Consular Affairs also posted a new Frequently Asked Questions on Facebook and on its website (not easily accessible from the main visa page) concerning the CCD performance issues and the steps taken to address those issues. Perhaps the most surprising is that its back-up capability and redundancy built into the CCD were both affected killed by the upgrade that hobbled the system.  Something to look forward to by end of calendar year — CA is upgrading the CCD to a newer version of the Oracle commercial database software and that plan includes establishing two fully redundant systems. We are republishing the FAQ in full below.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 12.07.05 AM

Information Regarding Ongoing Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Performance Issues and Steps Taken| JULY 30, 2014

The Department of State continues to work to restore our visa system to full functionality.

We anticipate it will take weeks to resume full visa processing capacity.

We continue to prioritize immigrant visas, including adoption cases.  So far, we have been able to issue most cases with few delays.

Nearly all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards, despite the system problems.

We are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  What caused the system performance issues?  Hardware, software, or both?  Details?

On July 20, to improve overall system performance and address previous intermittent performance issues, we updated software as recommended. Our database began experiencing significant performance issues shortly after this maintenance was performed.

A root cause has not been identified at this time.  Current efforts are focused on bringing the system back to normal operations.  Once that has been accomplished, resources will be applied to determine the root cause.

Q:  What steps did we take to mitigate the performance issues?

Since July 20, our team has worked to restore operations to full capacity.  On July 23, the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) was brought back online with limited capacity.

The Department of State is working with Oracle and Microsoft to implement system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing ongoing performance issues.

We are incrementally increasing the number of processed cases as our systems will allow.

Q:  Has the Bureau of Consular Affairs experienced these types of outages in the past?

CA has experienced minor outages in the past, but never of this magnitude.  We have a plan in place to mitigate these occurrences in the future.

Q:  Is the software to blame?  Are contractors at fault?  Why was this allowed to happen?

We have been working to improve our services through upgrades while maintaining existing operations worldwide.  However, we are limited by outdated software and hardware.

Q:  Why did those steps not work?  What’s the next step?

We have not determined why the problems occurred.  We are working with our contractor and the software vendor to address the problems.

We are bringing additional servers online to increase capacity and response time.

Q: Why wasn’t there a back-up server?

There was back-up capability and redundancy built into the system.  However, the upgrade affected not only our current processing capability, but also our ability to use our redundant system.

Q: What steps are being taken prevent this from happening again?

CA has a plan in place to upgrade the CCD to a newer version of the Oracle commercial database software by the end of the calendar year.  We are working to ensure the existing system will remain fully functional until the new database is up and running and thoroughly tested.  The plan includes establishing two fully redundant systems.

Q:  If CA is fee funded, why can’t it build a robust database that doesn’t fail?

The database has grown dramatically, in both quantity of data and functionality, and vastly improved border security.  In addition to checking names against databases, we review fingerprints and perform facial recognition.

We are working towards modernization of our software, hardware, and infrastructure.  Demand for our services outpaced our modernization efforts.

Consular Affairs has, and has had, a redundant system.  However, the upgrade affected not only our current processing capability, but also our ability to use our redundant system.  This is one of the issues we are urgently addressing now.

Q:  What do I need to know if I’m a passport applicant?

Almost all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards, despite the system problems.

We are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Q:  What do I need to know if I’m a visa applicant?

Visa applicants they can expect delays as we process pending cases.  We remain able to quickly process emergency cases to completion.

We are working urgently to correct the problem to avoid further inconveniencing travelers.

We are posting updates to the visa page of travel.state.gov, and our embassies and consulates overseas are communicating with visa applicants.

In addition to communicating through our websites, e-mail, and letters, we are also reaching out to applicants via Facebook and other social media sites, such as Weibo, to relay the latest information.

Q:  Why hasn’t the Department been more forthcoming until now?

We have experienced CCD outages in the past, but they have never disrupted our ability to perform consular tasks at this magnitude.

We informed the public as soon as it was apparent there was not a quick fix to bring the CCD back to normal operating capacity, and are briefing Congressional staffers regularly.

Q:  What is the outlook for Non-immigrant visas?  When do we estimate the backlog will be processed?

That will depend on a number of factors.  Current efforts are focused on bringing the system back to normal operations.

We must also continue processing new requests.  We are committed to reducing the number of pending visa cases as quickly as possible, but we want applicants to know that we will continue to be operating at less than optimal efficiency until the system is restored to full functionality.

Q:  Is the Department going to reimburse applicants who missed flights/canceled weddings/missed funerals?

We sincerely regret any delays, inconvenience, or expense that applicants have may have incurred due to the CCD performance issues.

While it might be of little solace to those who have experienced hardship, we are always very careful to tell travelers NOT to make travel plans until they have a visa in hand.  Even when the CCD is operating normally, there may be delays in printing visas.

The Department does not have the authority to reimburse applicants for personal travel, nor do we include these costs when calculating our fees.  The Department cannot refund visa fees except in the specific circumstances set out in our regulations.

Q:  What impact will this have on SIVs?

We have the highest respect for the men and women who take enormous risks in supporting our military and civilian personnel.  We are committed to helping those who have helped us.  While issuances of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghans and Iraqis have been impacted, as have visa issuances around the world, SIV processing continues and remains a high priority.

Q: How is this impacting student visas?  They are scheduled to start the fall semester soon.

We are committed to issuing visas to all qualified students and exchange visitors.  Issuance of student and exchange visitor visas has been impacted in the past few days, but visa processing continues.

We understand the importance to international students and exchange visitors, their families, and their U.S. host institutions of timely visa issuance in order to facilitate travel and to ensure all students and exchange visitors may begin their programs on time.

Q: What about situations where the student won’t arrive to school on time?

Students should contact their educational institution’s Designated School Official (F and M visas) or designated U.S. sponsor’s Responsible Officer (J visas) and discuss with them what arrangements they can provide for you to begin your program after the start date on your Form I-20 (F and M visas) or Form DS 2019 (J visas), should such a circumstance become necessary.

Q:  Will this have any impact on the Diversity Visa program in September?

While issuances of all immigrant visas, including diversity visas, have been impacted in the past few days, IV processing continues and remains a high priority.  The Department expects to have used all numbers for DV-2014 when the program year ends on September 30, 2014.

Q:  What impact do we anticipate this will have on the U.S. economy?

Tourism and students have a major impact on our economy.  Last year, it was estimated that international visitors spent $180.7 billion and supported 1.3 million American jobs.  International students contribute $24.7 billion to the U.S. economy through their expenditures on tuition and living expenses, according to the Department of Commerce.

We recognize the significant impact that international travel and tourism has on the U.S. economy, and are taking all possible steps to ensure that the economic impact is minimal.

People traveling under the Visa Waiver Program are not affected at all; nor are those whose previously-issued visas remain valid.

We routinely advise applicants needing new visas to make appointments well in advance of their planned travel, and not to book their travel until they have their printed visas in hand.

The original post is available here.  If CA is reading this, it would be helpful if a link to the FAQ is posted on the main visa page of travel.state.gov and in the News section.  We were only able to find the FAQ from a link provided in Facebook and not from browsing around the travel.state.gov website.

 

 

 

 

 

About these ads

2 Comments

Filed under Consular Work, Contractors, Facebook, Foreign Service, Functional Bureaus, Social Media, Spectacular, State Department, Technology and Work, U.S. Missions, Visas

State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience

– Domani Spero

 

The first announcement about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) went out on Wednesday, July 23:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our passport/visa system.  This issue is worldwide and is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category.  We apologize to applicants who are experiencing delays or are unable to obtain a passport, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or visa at this time. We are working urgently to correct the problem and expect our system to be fully operational again soon.

The AP reported on July 23 that unspecified glitches have resulted in performance issues since Saturday, which would be July 19.

On July 25, CA announced:” Our visa and passport processing systems are now operational, however they are working at limited capacity. We are still working to correct the problem and expect to be fully operational soon.”

A State Department official speaking on background told us the same day that this issue was not/not caused by  hackers. We were told that the CCD crashed shortly after maintenance was performed and that the root cause of the problem is not yet known.

On July 27, CA released an update:

As of July 27, the Department of State has made continued progress on restoring our system to full functionality. As we restore our ability to print visas, we are prioritizing immigrant cases, including adoptions visas. System engineers are performing maintenance to address the problems we encountered. As system performance improves, we will continue to process visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide. We are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

On July 29, CA posted this on FB:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to make progress restoring our nonimmigrant visa system to full functionality. Over the weekend, the Department of State implemented system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing the challenges we have faced. We are now testing our system capacity to ensure stability. Processing of immigrant visas cases, including adoptions, remains a high priority. Some Embassies and Consulates may temporarily limit or reschedule nonimmigrant visa interview appointments until more system resources become available to process these new applications. We sincerely regret the inconvenience to travelers, and are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

 

The CA Bureau’s Facebook page has been inundated with comments. There were complaints that at one post the visas were printing fine and then they were not. There were complains from people waiting for visas for adopted kids, for fiancees, for family members, for family waiting at the border, for students anxious to get to their schools, people worried about time running out for diversity visas, applicants with flights already booked, and many more.  One FB commenter writes, “I feel that the problem most people have is not that the system broke, but the lack of clear, meaningful information so people can make appropriate plans.

Other than what the CA Bureau chose to tell us, we cannot pry any substantial detail from official sources.  We, however, understand from sources familiar with the system but not authorized to speak for the bureau that the CCD has been having problems for sometime but it got worse in the last couple weeks.   If you’re familiar with the highs and lows of visa operation, this will not be altogether surprising.  Whatever problems already existed in the system prior to this “glitch” could have easily been exacerbated in July, which is the middle of the peak travel season worldwide. A source working in one of our consular posts confirmed to us that the system is back running, but not at the normal level and that the backlogs are building up. Another source told us that Beijing already had a 15k NIV backlog over the weekend.  We haven’t yet heard what are the backlogs like in mega visa-issuing posts like Brazil, Mexico and India.

We understand that everyone is currently doing all they can to get the process moving, but that some cases are getting through the system, while some are not. No one seems to know why this is happening. These machine readable visas are tied to the system and there are no manual back-ups for processing these cases (more of that below).

 

So who owns CCD?

The Consular Systems and Technology (CA/CST) manages the CCD.  We have previously blogged about its troubled past:

CST is currently headed by a new Director, Greg D Ambrose who reports to the CA Bureau’s Assistant Secretary.  It looks like despite the 2011 OIG recommendation, the CST deputy position remains vacant. We should also note that the  Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired this past April.  No replacement has been nominated to-date and Michele T. Bond has been Acting Assistant Secretary since Ms. Jacobs’ departure.

Last September, Mr. Ambrose was with FedScoopTV and talked about Consular One, the future of consular IT.

 

CST Just Got a New Data Engineering Contract

In Many 2014, ActioNet, Inc., headquartered in Vienna, Virginia,announced a 5-year task order for data engineering, supporting CST.

ActioNet, Inc. announced today the award of a five (5)-year task order entitled Data Engineering (DE) in support of Department of State (DOS). This task order will provide data engineering and database infrastructure support services necessary for planning, analysis, design, and implementation services for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  These service also include contract and program management support to ensure that innovation, efficiency, and cost control practices are built into the program. [...] The Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) within the Bureau develops, deploys and maintains the unclassified and classified IT infrastructures that help execute these missions. The Bureau currently manages over 800 servers worldwide, in order to comply with the fast paced changes inherent to data processing and telecommunications, CST requires that contractor services provide for rapid provisioning of highly experienced and trained individuals with the IT (information technology) backgrounds and the security clearances required of CA’s environment of workstation-based local and wide-area network infrastructures.

Due to limited information available, we don’t know if the new Consular One and/or the new DE contract are related to ongoing issues or if there are hardware issues, given the multiple legacy systems, but we do know that CST has both an impressive and troubled history. Let’s take a look.


Records Growing by the Day

The 2010 Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) describes (pdf) the CCD as “one of the largest Oracle based data warehouses in the world that holds current and archived data from the Consular Affairs (CA) domestic and post databases around the world.”  According to the PIA, in December 2009, the CCD contained over 100 million visa cases and 75 million photographs, utilizing billions of rows of data, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35 thousand visa cases every day. The 2011 OIG report says that in 2010, the CCD contained over 137 million American and foreign case records and over 130 million photographs and is growing at approximately 40,000 visa and passport cases every day.

That was almost four years ago.


A Critical Operational and National Security Database with No Back-Up System?

According to publicly available information, the CCD’s chief functions are 1) to support data delivery to approved applications via industry-standard Web Service queries, 2) provide users with easy-to-use data entry interfaces to CCD, and 3) allow emergency recovery of post databases.  The CCD also serves as a gateway to IDENT and IAFIS fingerprint checking databases, the Department of State Facial Recognition system, and the NameCheck system. It  provides access to passport data in Travel Document Issuance System (TDIS), Passport Lookout Tracking System (PLOTS), and Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS).  The OIG says that the CCD serves 11,000 users in the Department and more than 19,000 users in other agencies, primarily the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and various law enforcement elements, and is accessed more than 120 million times every month.

Given that the CCD is considered “a critical operational and national security database,” there is surprisingly no redundancies or any back-up system.


Resurrect the Standard Register protectograph aka: `Burroughs visas’?

No one is actually suggesting that but when the CCD system is down, there is no manual way to issue a visa. No post can  handprint visas  because security measures prevent consular officers from printing a visa unless it is approved through the database system. Here is a quick history of the handprinted ‘Burroughs visas’ and the machine readable visas via the GPO:

November 18, 1988, mandated the development of a machine-readable travel and identity document to improve border entry and departure control using an automated data-capture system. As a result, the Department developed the Machine Readable Visa, a durable, long-lasting adhesive foil made out of Teslin.

Before MRVs, nonimmigrant visas were issued using a device called a Standard Register protectograph, otherwise known as a Burroughs certifier machine. It produced what was colloquially known as a “Burroughs visa,” an indelible ink impression mechanically stamped directly onto a page in the alien’s passport. Over time, Burroughs machines were gradually replaced by MRV technology, which is now used exclusively by all nonimmigrant visa issuing posts throughout the world.

Burroughs visas contained a space in which a consular employee was required to write the name of the alien to whom the visa was being issued. An alien’s passport might also include family members, such as a spouse, or children, who also had to be listed on the visa. In March 1983, in order to expedite the issuance of nonimmigrant visas and to improve operational efficiency, the Department authorized the use of a “bearer(s)” stamp for certain countries so that consular officers would not have to spend time writing in the applicant’s name (and those of accompanying family members). MRVs, however, must be issued individually to qualified aliens. Consequently, the “bearer”annotation has become obsolete.

The problem with the old Burroughs machine, besides the obvious, was maybe — you run out of ink, the plates are ruined/broken or you need it oiled. We could not remember those breaking down. With the MRV technology, all posts are connected to a central database, and the new machines by themselves cannot issue visas.  Which brings us to the security of that system.

 

Management Alert on Information System Security Program

The State Department PIA says that “To appropriately safeguard the information, numerous management, operational, and technical security controls are in place in accordance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 and information assurance standards published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).” Must be why in November 2013, the Office of the Inspector General issued a Management Alert  for significant and recurring weaknesses found in the State Department’s Information System Security Program over the past three fiscal years (FY 2011-2013).

In 2011, State/OIG also issued a report on CA’s CST division and has, what appears to be a lengthy discussion of the CCD, but almost all of it but a paragraph had been redacted:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.40.37 AM

That OIG report also includes a discussion of the Systems Development Life Cycle Process and notes that decision control gates within CST’s SDLC process are weak. It cites a couple of examples where this manifested: 1) the development of the Consular report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) system. “The ownership of development and deployment shifted throughout the process, and the business unit’s requirements were not clearly communicated to the development team. As a result, CST designed and tested the CRBA for a printer that did not match the printer model identified and procured by the business unit;” 2)  the Crisis Task Force application, for which CST was tasked to enhance its Web-facing interaction. “The deployment of this application has been challenged by the lack of project ownership and decision controls, as well as by the incomplete requirements definition. The use of incorrect scripts that were provided by the CM group has further delayed the Crisis Task Force application’s deployment.”

 

If there’s somethin’ strange in your CCD, who ya gonna call? (Glitchbusters!)

The Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) is central to all consular operations. It is run by CST where according to the OIG, “the smooth functioning of every part of the office depends on its contractors.” And because it runs such an important element of U.S. national security systems, if all CST’s contractors, all 850 of them quit, this critical consular data delivery to the State Department and other Federal agencies would screech to a a halt.

To carry out its mandate, CST must provide uninterrupted support to 233 overseas posts, 21 passport agencies, 2 passport processing centers, and other domestic facilities, for a total of 30,000 end users across 16 Federal agencies and in nearly every country. CST faces 24/7/365 service requirements, as any disruption in automated support brings operations to an immediate halt, with very serious implications for travelers and the U.S. image.
[...]
CST is led by a director and is staffed by 68 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees (62 Civil Service and 6 Foreign Service). There are 12 positions (3 Foreign Service and 9 Civil Service) currently vacant. CA recently authorized CST 19 additional FTE positions. There are also more than 850 contractors operating under nearly 30 different contracts. In FY 2010, CST’s annual operating budget was approximately $266 million.

If CCD is compromised for a lengthy period such as the last couple of weeks, what is the back up plan to keep the operation going?  Obviously, none. It’s either down or running under limited or full capacity.  No one we know remember CCD problems persist this long.  Right now, we know from a reliable source that the system is not down, and some cases and going through but — what if the CCD is completely down for two weeks … four weeks … wouldn’t international travel come to a slow stop?

What if CCD goes down indefinitely whether by hardware or software glitch or through malicious penetration by foreign hackers, what happens then?

Currently, it appears nothing can be done but for folks to be patient and wait until the fixes are in.  We know they’re working hard at it but there’s got to be a better way.   Perhaps we can also agree that this has very serious national security implications on top of disgruntled travelers and a grave impact on the U.S. image overseas.

 

 Related items:

May 2011 |  Inspection of The Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) Report Number ISP-I-11-51

-11/30/13   Audit of Department of State Information Security Program (FISMA) (AUD-IT-14-03)  [3610 Kb]  Posted January 29th, 2014

-01/13/14   Management Alert on OIG Findings of Significant, Recurring Weaknesses in Dept of State Info System Security Program (MA-A-0001)  [6298 Kb]  Posted on January 16, 2014

 

 Related articles

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Bugs, Consular Work, Contractors, Federal Agencies, Foreign Service, Govt Reports/Documents, Huh? News, Legacy, Security, Spectacular, Staffing the FS, State Department, Technology, Technology and Work, Visas

New Travel Warning for Yemen — Don’t Come; If In Country, Leave! But Some Can’t Leave

– Domani Spero

 

On July 21, the State Department updated its Travel Warning for Yemen urging Americans to defer travel to Yemen and for those living there to depart the country:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.  The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart. This supersedes the Travel Warning for Yemen issued on January 29, 2014.

The U.S. Embassy in Sana’a remains a restricted staffing post.  This limits the Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and provide routine consular services. Embassy Officers are restricted in their movements and cannot travel outside of Sana’a. In addition, movements within Sana’a are severely constrained and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation.

The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high. The Embassy is subject to frequent unannounced closures.  In May 2014, the Embassy was closed for almost five weeks because of heightened security threats.

Demonstrations continue to take place in various parts of the country and may quickly escalate and turn violent. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, and to exercise extreme caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration.

Terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), continue to be active throughout Yemen. The U.S. government remains highly concerned about possible attacks on U.S. citizens (whether visiting or residing in Yemen), and U.S. facilities, businesses, and perceived U.S. and Western interests.

Read the full release here.

The very next day, Yemeni Americans were on the news.  US citizens in Yemen accused the  American embassy of confiscating their passports.  The State Department reportedly is withholding fraudulent passports, but rights groups say Yemeni Americans are being unfairly targeted.

 

Leaving the country without a regular passport would be difficult but perhaps not impossible.

Back in January, we blogged about this. (See US Embassy Yemen: Revocation of U.S. Passports, a Growing Trend?  At that time,a State Department official who spoke on background told us that citizens with revoked passports “may be provided with a limited validity passport for a direct return to the United States.” That is, based on the circumstances of the case. Earlier, we’ve prodded that CA/Embassy Sana’a provide guidance on how to file an appeal in revocation cases on its website.  To-date, there is nothing online in terms of guidance on appealing these cases.

Passport revocations are not the only thing that seem to be surging in Yemen.

Last month, Embassy Sana’a announced that U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller, along with Embassy Sana’a Consular staff, hosted a “Super Saturday” event to register the births of children born in Yemen who are eligible for American citizenship.  Consular staff volunteers reportedly assisted more than 120 Americans and Yemeni-American dual nationals residing in Yemen complete Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) forms to document the U.S. citizenship of their children.

U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller, along with Embassy Sana’a Consular staff, hosted a special weekend event to register the births of children born in Yemen who are eligible for American citizenship

U.S. Ambassador to Yemen Matthew H. Tueller, along with Embassy Sana’a Consular staff, hosted a special weekend event to register the births of children born in Yemen who are eligible for American citizenship. (photo via US Embassy Sana’a/FB)

In 2010, the State Department estimated the number of U.S. citizens in Yemen at  over 55,000. This past June, the US Embassy in Sana’a says that it serves more than 73,000 American citizens residing in Yemen. The embassy also expects to process  7,000 Consular Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) for this year alone.  This at a high fraud post with limited staffing.

This is not the first time that the U.S. has told its nationals to leave Yemen.  And so far, there has been no talk of an evacuation.  The embassy is already on restricted staffing but should the embassy shutdown, the evacuation of Yemen’s American citizen population would be a logistical nightmare and could potentially dwarf the evacuation of nearly 15,000 American citizens from Lebanon in 2006.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Evacuations, Foreign Service, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Security, Staffing the FS, State Department, Trends, U.S. Missions

US Embassy Norway: Emergency Message on Foreign Fighters Returned From Syria Threat

– Domani Spero

 

The U.S. Embassy in Oslo has just issued an emergency message to Americans in Norway based on the Norwegian Government’s announcement of a threat from foreign fighters returning to Norway from Syria:

United States Embassy Oslo, Norway | 24 July 2014
This morning, 24 July 2014, the Norwegian government announced that foreign fighters returned from Syria may be planning an attack in Norway over the coming days. The Norwegian police are not aware of where, when, or in what method this attack could take place. However, public gatherings, government facilities, businesses, and public transportation systems tend to be the targets of choice for terrorists and extremist groups.

The Embassy recommends the U.S. citizen community in Norway remain extra alert during this period. Please err on the side of caution over the coming days. Especially now, if you see anything threatening, dangerous, or concerning, please call the Norwegian Police at 112.

Read the full announcement here.

U.S. Embassy, Oslo, Norway.

U.S. Embassy, Oslo, Norway. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

U.S. Embassy Oslo is currently headed by Chargé d’affaires  Julie Furuta-Toy.  The controversial nominee for U.S. ambassador to Norway, George Tsunis was announced on September 10, 2013 and has been stuck in the Senate awaiting for the full vote since February 4, 2014.

 

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, DCM, Foreign Service, Realities of the FS, Security, Staffing the FS, Terrorism, U.S. Missions, Uncategorized

Burn Bag: Where are the good, or at least decent, consular managers?

Via Burn Bag:

Our post is in the top 5 for IV, NIV, and ACS cases, with dozens of ELOs, and yet we have some of the worst senior level and mid-level managers I have ever encountered in the Foreign Service.  Our Consul General is a walking stiff who shows her face once every six months, half of the consular management seems to suffer from tone deafness and do not realize how poor morale is or how unpopular they are for their mismanagement.  Where are the good, or at least decent, consular managers?

Via reactiongifs.com

Via reactiongifs.com

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consul Generals, Consular Work, Foreign Service, FSOs, Leadership and Management, Realities of the FS, Staffing the FS, U.S. Missions, Visas

U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv: Rafah Border Crossing Open For U.S. Passport Holders on July 14

– Domani Spero

 

Today Haaretz reports that Israel’s operation entered its sixth day as the death toll in Gaza mounted to more than 160 Palestinians and as the international community stepped up pressures to reach a cease-fire (live updates here).  However, the NYT notes that Israel and Hamas seemed to signal little public interest in international appeals for a cease-fire as they continued their barrages. “More than 130 rockets were fired out of Gaza into Israel on Sunday, with 22 intercepted, the Israeli Army said, while Palestinians expressed anger over the previous day’s Israeli strikes on a center for people with disabilities and on a home in an attack that killed 17 members of one extended family.”

Last week, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip.  Egyptian authorities have reportedly opened the crossing specifically to allow in wounded Palestinians for treatment in Egyptian hospitals. According to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, the Rafah border crossing will re-open again tomorrow, July 14, and would allow entry of U.S. passport holders into Egypt although no assistance will be available from US Embassy Cairo at the crossing.  Below is the embassy statement:

The Department of State has received information from the Government of Egypt that the Rafah border crossing between the Gaza Strip and Egypt will open for United States Citizen passport holders on Monday, July 14, 2014, starting from 09:00 and closing at 15:00. U.S. citizens under the age of 16 can be escorted by one non-U.S. citizen parent only. At this time U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents (LPRs) cannot use the Rafah border crossing.

Please be advised that no U.S. Embassy Cairo personnel will be present at the Rafah border crossing or in the northern Sinai region, as this area is off limits to U.S. Embassy Cairo personnel due to security concerns. United States Citizens who travel through the Rafah border crossing into Egypt do so at their own risk.

On July 11, Embassy Tel Aviv also announced the relocation of its personnel out of Be’er Sheva due to ongoing hostilities:

Due to ongoing hostilities and the continuing rocket attacks throughout Israel, U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv has relocated Embassy personnel assigned to Be’er Sheva north to Herzliya.  The Embassy and its annexes continue to operate at minimal staffing.  The Consular Section will continue to provide only emergency services.  Embassy personnel are not permitted to travel south of greater Tel Aviv without prior approval.  Embassy families living in Tel Aviv and greater Tel Aviv, such as Herzliya, are being advised to remain in close communication with one another.

The Embassy continues to closely monitor the security situation and advises U.S. citizens to visit the website of the Government of Israel’s Home Front Command for further emergency preparedness guidance.

Recent events underscore the importance of situational awareness. We remind you to be aware of your surroundings at all times, to monitor the media, and to follow directions of emergency responders.

Read more here.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Foreign Service, Realities of the FS, Security, State Department, U.S. Missions, War

U.S. Consulate General Toronto Joins ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit

– Domani Spero

Oh, the stuff you can do these days with energy and imagination.  The U.S.Consulate General in Toronto did a Reddit AMA last week, answering questions on visas and Amcit services. While the AMA response was modest, we believe this is the first time a consular post did an AMA on Reddit. USCG Toronto processes over 500 nonimmigrant visas a day. In 2008, Consulate General Toronto already had the largest NIV section in Canada.  The inspection report at that time noted that about half of all new immigrants to Canada chose the greater Toronto area for their place of residence.

USCG Toronto, Canada Photo via US Mission Ottawa/FB

USCG Toronto, Canada
Photo via US Mission Ottawa/FB

Below is an excerpt from the  AMA conducted by  FSOs, Nausher Ali, Visas Chief  and Kathryn Porter,American Citizen Services Unit Chief at U.S. Consulate Toronto:

Greetings Reddit!
We are U.S. Foreign Service Officers from the Consular Section of U.S. Consulate Toronto, and we want to answer your questions about non-immigrant visas and U.S. citizen services! We’ll give as much information as we can in order to help you understand how we work. Hopefully, this conversation will help you be better prepared for a visa interview and/or allow us to help you more efficiently if you are a U.S. citizen living or traveling abroad.

Please note, we are UNABLE to talk in detail about specific cases or “pre-adjudicate” your specific case. We also cannot answer questions on immigrant visas for this particular thread. Any questions that deal more with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will either not be answered or we will link you to their relevant websites for more information. Finally, we cannot answer questions about life in the U.S. Foreign Service for this thread either. There are already a few other threads that do that quite well! That said, we’ll try to respond to as many of your questions as possible!

Our team that is answering your questions consists of the following people:

•Nausher Ali, Consul and Visas Chief at U.S. Consulate Toronto

•Kathryn Porter, American Citizen Services Unit Chief at U.S. Consulate Toronto

Victoria from reddit will be here with us today as well. Ask Us Anything!

https://twitter.com/usconstoronto/status/479355253007998976

Edit: Thank you everybody for your questions. We really enjoyed this today. Sadly, we have to take off. Happy travels!

 

Questions include topics such as H1Bs, asylum, discrimination, moving, immunity, moving to Canada, Spain vs Chile. Somebody wanted to know the officers’ favorite snacks!  Answer:”Poutine! Mission Canada! How could you NOT like Poutine? I like sautéed mushrooms on mine” and “timbits.” No, timbits are  not/not doughnut holes!

Here are some of the Qs asked and answered:

Q: What’s the actual intention for visa interview? I mean it hardly last for not even a minute.

Nausher: Visa interviews do usually last a few minutes because the consular officers are well-trained in quickly determining whether or not the applicant is eligible for a visa. Once they’ve determined that, there’s no reason to continue the interview. Here in Toronto we interview more than 500 people a day.

Q: Questions: How can a person aged 18-19 get an internship with an office like this? Sounds interesting for the experience and Can you explain what you guys/gals do there all day?

Nausher: we actually have an intern program for both American interns and Canadian residents. Most US Embassies and Consulates have a page that talks about their internship program, including ours. And here’s the link. The work depends on what section the internship is in. But typically a lot of interns will get to experience a lot of variety during their internship because a lot of what we do varies from day to day. For example, today we’re conducting an “Ask me Anything.”

Kathryn: And what we do all day depends. Every embassy has multiple sections, including political, economic, consular, public diplomacy, and management. Officers in each section do various activities to advance US interest and work together with the host country towards shared goals.  And for our internships, it’s all over the place. We are more likely to get people from international relations, political science.

Nausher: but we are always looking for different backgrounds. Most of our interns are local kids – we have 4 Canadian interns across 3 separate units. We are just looking for enthusiasm and interest in working at a diplomatic mission.

Q: I heard law of land does not apply inside the embassy. Is that true?

Nausher: It’s very complicated and really a question for a lawyer, but we are still on Canadian territory, but consulates and embassies are guaranteed certain immunities and protections under the relevant Vienna Conventions.

Q: If you were a character in George R R Martin’s books, what house would you choose to belong to, and why?

Kathryn: I feel like in Canada, it has to be House Stark! Winter is always coming! This is specific to Mission Canada. Here in Mission Canada we would be House Stark.

Q:  What’s your opinion on Mayor Ford?

Nausher: Mayor Ford has gotten a lot of attention here and internationally. But as foreign diplomats in Canada, it’s not our role to comment on domestic politicians.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consul Generals, Consular Work, Foreign Service, FSOs, Public Diplomacy, Technology and Work, U.S. Missions, Visas

US Embassy Chad Imposes Curfew, Limits Travel For All USG Personnel in N’Djamena

– Domani Spero

 

Last week, the US Embassy in Chad issued a Security Message to Amcits in the country urging them to remain alert for potentially dangerous situations. It also announced that it imposed a curfew and limited the U.S. government personnel’s non-official evening and weekend activities within the capital of N’Djamena:

map from CIA World Factbook 2004, converted fr...

map from CIA World Factbook 2004, converted from original format (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The U.S. Embassy reminds U.S. citizens to review security recommendations outlined in the most recent U.S. Travel Warning for Chad, and to remain alert for potentially dangerous situations. The Embassy advises U.S. citizens to avoid locations frequented by expatriates, including markets, western-style shops, restaurants, bars, and places of worship. U.S. citizens should also avoid groups larger than six people and be particularly cautious at peak shopping times and at night. While there are presently no specific threats against U.S. citizens in Chad, there are violent extremist organizations in the region, such as Boko Haram, that are able to cross borders easily, and have vowed to target westerners and western interests. The U.S. Embassy in Chad reviews all proposed travel by official U.S. government personnel to Chad. Due to security concerns, there are currently limitations on U.S. government personnel’s non-official evening and weekend activities within the capital, N’Djamena. A curfew has been imposed for all U.S. government personnel’s personal activities from midnight to 5:00 a.m. on weekdays, and 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. on weekends. All U.S. government personnel require authorization to travel to areas outside of N’Djamena. We encourage all U.S. citizens to review security precautions and consider similar measures to mitigate exposure to violent crime and other threats. Please exercise caution throughout the country and maintain vigilance in daily affairs, even when visiting familiar locations.

 

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Foreign Service, Realities of the FS, Security, U.S. Missions

Did US Embassy Tripoli Go on “Sort of a Drawdown” Without Going on Evacuation Status?

– Domani Spero

 

On May 27, the State Department issued a new Travel Warning for Libya. In part, the warning says, “Due to security concerns, the Department of State has limited staffing at Embassy Tripoli and is only able to offer very limited emergency services to U.S. citizens in Libya.” (see  New Libya Travel Warning, Amphibious Assault Ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) Sails Closer. On the May 30th, Daily Press Briefing the State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki was asked to confirm about U.S. Special Forces operating in Libya (which she denied), and addressed the reduction in staffing in Tripoli:

QUESTION: I have a very quick question. The London Times is claiming that U.S. special forces and in particular CIA forces, French forces, and Algerian forces are inside Libya chasing after Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who apparently survived. I mean, reports of his death were erroneous. Could you confirm to us whether there is actually a role for the U.S. in Libya or a military presence?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything more than what we’ve already announced.

QUESTION: Could you – okay. Could you comment on the presence or the deployment of theUSS Bataan with some 2,000 Marines at the shores of Libya?

QUESTION: Is there anything new on this?

MS. PSAKI: There’s nothing new, and it was announced, I believe, two days ago.

QUESTION: Okay, but – yeah.

MS. PSAKI: But I’m happy to confirm for you –

QUESTION: Are we to assume that maybe Americans citizens are ready to leave the country? That’s the question.

MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, I would say we – last Friday, I believe it was, I think, or maybe it was Monday – sorry – we put out a new Travel Warning. We have – as a result of the ongoing instability and violence, we reduced – and in that Travel Warning we reduced that we – we announced that we reduced – sorry, tongue-twister – the number of U.S. Government personnel at its Embassy – at our Embassy in Tripoli, and we are taking prudent steps to assure the security of our personnel given the instability. We are in constant contact with our Embassy, we are constantly evaluating the security needs, but I have nothing new to report on on that front.

QUESTION: I just – before everyone gets all excited, this is not an evacuation, right?

MS. PSAKI: Correct.

QUESTION: These people left on regularly scheduled commercial aircraft. There was no panic. There was no attack, anything like that. They –

MS. PSAKI: There is no plan for a U.S. Government-sponsored evacuation at this time. This is a temporary reduction in staffing.

We should note that the May 27 Travel Warning did not announced that “we reduced – the number of U.S. Government personnel – at our Embassy in Tripoli,” it only announced that there exist limited staffing.  AmEmbassy Tripoli was already on limited staffing since May 8, 2013, when the Department of State ordered the departure of a number of U.S. government personnel from Libya.

So how was this current reduction of staffing done without the “authorized” or “ordered” departure of personnel?

It could be that TDYs were cancelled, and replacements were not brought in when PCS staff went on leave. But when personnel are pulled out from post (we don’t know how many) due to the security situation, it is typically done by declaring an “authorized” or “ordered” departure.  A Travel Warning is also issued by the Bureau of Consular Affairs whenever a post goes to authorized or ordered departure. The warning routinely urges private U.S. citizens to consider leaving or avoiding travel to countries where authorized or ordered departure is in effect.

Under the “no double standard policy,” if the Department shares information with the official U.S. community, it should also make the same or similar information available to the non-official U.S. community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official U.S. citizens/nationals. So if the embassy went on authorized or ordered departure, the State Department has an obligation to publicly share that information.

What is the difference between an authorized departure and an ordered departure?

While some folks make a distinction between authorized/ordered departures and evacuations, in reality they are the same. The Under Secretary of State for Management (“M”) approves the evacuation status for post—either authorized or ordered—the 180-day clock “begins ticking” (by law, an evacuation cannot last longer than 180 days).   The Subsistence Expense Allowance (SEA) benefits for evacuees then commence from the day following arrival at the safe haven location.

An “authorized departure” is an evacuation procedure, short of ordered departure, by which post employees and/or eligible family members are permitted to leave post in advance of normal rotation when U.S. national interests or imminent threat to life requires it. Departure is requested by the Chief of Mission (COM) and approved by the Under Secretary for Management (M).   It allows the Chief of Mission greater flexibility in determining which employees or groups of employees may depart, and “avoids any negative connotation” that might be attached to the use of the term “evacuation.” Typically, in an authorized departure, airports are still open and personnel depart post via regularly scheduled commercial aircraft.

An “ordered departure” is an evacuation procedure by which the number of U.S. Government employees, eligible family members, or both, at a Foreign Service post is reduced. Ordered departure is mandatory and may be initiated by the Chief of Mission or the Secretary of State. Some ordered departure may still be done through commercial flights, but more often than not, this involves chartered USG flights from post to the designated safe haven in the region or back to the United States.  While an ordered departure may be followed with temporary post closure, what typically happens is that post remains open with mission essential emergency staffing.

Last February, the State Department issued a Travel Warning for Ukraine that includes the following:

On February 20, 2014, the Department of State authorized the departure of all family members of U.S. government personnel from Ukraine.  While the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s Consular Section is open for public services, the Embassy’s ability to respond to emergencies involving U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine is limited.

In April, the State Department issued a Travel Warning for South Sudan:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all travel to the Republic of South Sudan and recommends that U.S. citizens currently in South Sudan depart immediately.  As a result of the deteriorating security situation, the Department of State ordered the departure of most remaining U.S. government personnel from South Sudan on January 3, 2014.

So the question now is —  did US Embassy Tripoli went on a reduction of staff, “sort of a drawdown,“without officially calling it an authorized or ordered evacuation?

Of course, if you curtail staffers from post, that is, shorten the employees’ tours of duty from their assignments, or urge them to voluntarily curtail their assignments, that would not constitute an evacuation either, yes? Or if post management strongly suggests that people take their R&Rs earlier over the summer during a heightened threat, that would just be a regular movement of personnel and not at all an “ordered” departure.

So — you still get a reduction of staffing  without the negative connotation of an evacuation.

Not a trick question — how many staffers do you have to pull out from post before you call it an evacuation?

* * *

 

Related item:

3 FAM 3770 Travel to Post Under Authorized or Ordered Departure (pdf)

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Evacuations, Foreign Service, Govt Reports/Documents, Leadership and Management, Questions, Realities of the FS, Security, Staffing the FS, State Department, Terrorism, U.S. Missions

US Embassy Kenya: Isn’t That Travel Warning Odd or What?

– Domani Spero

 

The State Department issued a Travel Warning for Kenya on May 15 warning of the risks of travel to Kenya, of potential terrorist threats aimed at U.S., Western, and Kenyan interests, and the restriction of U.S. Government personnel travel in country. We blogged about it here (See US Embassy Kenya Restricts USG Personnel Travel, New Travel Warning).

On May 16, the AP, citing a letter sent to embassy employees that day, reported  that the U.S. ambassador in Kenya Robert Godec has requested additional Kenyan and American security personnel and is reducing the size of the embassy staff due to increased terrorist threats in Kenya.

We don’t know when the actual request was made but the May 15 Travel Warning did not include the information on additional security personnel or the reduction of staff.

On Saturday, May 17, Ambassador Godec released the following statement:

[T]he U.S. government continues to receive information about potential terrorist threats aimed at both Kenyans and the international community.   The most important responsibility of every U.S. Ambassador and Embassy is to protect American citizens and to keep them informed.  The United States greatly appreciates the Kenyan government’s rapid response to requests for additional security at diplomatic facilities while it also increases security at public and other critical venues.

The Embassy is continuously reviewing and updating its security measures, and expects to take additional steps in coming days, to include on U.S. staffing. We remain open for normal operations and have no plan to close the Embassy.

We could not remember a post in recent memory that announced a reduction in staffing before it actually happens.  But the reduction in staffing was already widely reported in the media. As well as the request for additional security personnel for post.

We imagined that the Consular folks were up in arms with the “No Double Standard” Policy, which requires that  important security threat information if shared with the official U.S. community (generally defined as Americans working for the U.S. government abroad), must be made available to the wider American community if the threat applies to both official and non-official Americans.

On May 17, the two-day old Travel Warning was replaced with an updated one noting that, “Based on the security situation, the Embassy is reviewing its staffing with an eye toward reduction in staff in the near future.  The Embassy will remain open for normal operations.”

Meanwhile, according to AFP, Kenya’s foreign ministry had accused several foreign nations of “unfriendly acts” and “noted with disappointment” the warnings by Australia, Britain, France and the United States, after they issued travel warnings for coastal regions following a wave of attacks and unrest linked to Islamist extremists.

We should note that US Embassy Nairobi is the largest U.S. embassy in Africa with a staff of more than 1,300 among 19 federal agency offices, including more than 400 U.S. direct hires and over 800 local employees. As of this writing, the embassy has not been declared on authorized departure, the first phase in a staffing reduction.

Ambassador Godec was assigned as the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy Nairobi, Kenya in August 2012 following the departure of Ambassador Gration.  He was nominated by President Obama on September 19, 2012 to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Kenya and sworn in by Secretary of State Clinton on January 16, 2013.  Prior to his assignment in Nairobi, Ambassador Godec was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT) in the Department of State.

Since Nairobi is the site of one of our most catastrophic embassy attacks, we will add the following detail from the Nairobi ARB report in 1999 in the aftermath of the twin East Africa bombings in Kenya and Tanzania:

Ambassador Bushnell, in letters to the Secretary in April 1998, and to Under Secretary Cohen a month later, restated her concern regarding the vulnerability of the embassy, repeating the need to have a new chancery that would meet Inman standards. Ms. Cohen responded in June stating that, because of Nairobi’s designation as a medium security threat post for political violence and terrorism and the general soundness of the building, its replacement ranked relatively low among the chancery replacement priorities. She drew attention to FBO’s plan to extend the chancery’s useful life and improve its security to include $4.1 million for the replacement of the windows.

As of this writing,there is no update on reduction of staffing at post. On May 20, US Embassy Nairobi issued the following Security Message for U.S. Citizens: Protests in Nairobi Turn Violent.

* * *

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Leave a comment

Filed under Ambassadors, Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Diplomatic Attacks, Diplomatic History, Diplomatic Security, Foreign Service, Realities of the FS, Security, Staffing the FS, State Department, U.S. Missions