Category Archives: Disasters

US Embassy Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines Flight #MH370, USS Pinckney to Join Search Efforts

- Domani Spero

On March 8, Malaysia Airlines released a statement that it is still unable to establish any contact or determine the whereabouts of flight MH370. Other details below:

  • Subang ATC had lost contact with the aircraft at 2.40am. The last known position of MH370 before it disappeared off the radar was 065515 North (longitude) and 1033443 East (latitude).
  • MH370 is a Boeing 777-200 aircraft on a code share with China Southern Airlines. It departed Kuala Lumpur at 12.41 am today for Beijing. The aircraft was scheduled to land at Beijing International Airport at 6.30am local Beijing time. The flight had a total number of 227 passengers and 12 crew members. The passengers were from 14 different countries, most of whom are from China.
  • An international search and rescue mission was mobilized this morning. At this stage, our search and rescue teams from Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam have failed to find evidence of any wreckage.
  • For the passenger manifest of MH370, click here.

The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur released the following statement regarding the missing plane. (full statement here):

The U.S. Embassy is closely following the developments regarding Malaysia Airlines flight #MH370. We extend our thoughts and prayers to the loved ones of those on board the Malaysia Airlines flight.

At this time, we can confirm that three U.S. citizens were on board.  We are in contact with the individuals’ families.  Out of respect for them, we are not providing additional information at this time. We are working to assess whether additional U.S. citizens may have been on board the flight.
[…]
Malaysia Airlines has established dedicated phone numbers for family members and friends of passengers to contact the airline directly for information.  Family and friends should contact the airline at +603 8787 126 or +603 87871629.  The airline is also providing updates to the general public on its website, http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/hq/en.html.

US Embassy KL also announced that USS Pinckney has been sent to assist in the search efforts:

The United States Navy Seventh Fleets is sending the USS Pinckney, along with a P-3C aircraft to assist in search efforts. The USS Pinckney (DDG 91), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, is en route to the southern coast of Vietnam to aid in the search efforts.  The ship could be in vicinity of the missing jet within 24 hours and carries two MH-60R helicopters which can be equipped for search and rescue.  In addition, A P-3C Orion aircraft will also depart shortly from Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan bringing long-range search, radar and communications capabilities to the efforts.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG 91) transits San Diego Bay. Pinckney helps provide deterrence, promote peace and security, preserve freedom of the seas, and humanitarian/disaster response within U.S. 3rd Fleet's 50-million square mile area of responsibility in the eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Todd C. Behrman/Released)

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Pinckney (DDG 91) transits San Diego Bay. Pinckney helps provide deterrence, promote peace and security, preserve freedom of the seas, and humanitarian/disaster response within U.S. 3rd Fleet’s 50-million square mile area of responsibility in the eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Todd C. Behrman/Released)

According to the U.S. Navy, USS Pinckney was conducting training and maritime security operations in international waters of the South China Sea.

Also, U.S. officials are reportedly investigating terrorism concerns after two people listed as passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines jet turned out not to be on the plane and had reported their passports stolen in Thailand.

The passports stolen were from nationals of Italy and Austria; both countries are in the U.S. visa waiver program.

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Snapshot: U.S. Government Humanitarian Assistance to the Philippines

Via USAID – @theOFDA as of November 18, 2013:

Screen Shot 2013-11-20

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Filed under Countries 'n Regions, Defense Department, Disasters, Foreign Assistance, Snapshots, State Department, USAID

Confirmations: Gregory B. Starr, James Walter Brewster, Jr., Philip S. Goldberg

– Domani Spero

On November 14, the U.S. Senate confirmed the following nominations for the Department of State:

  • Gregory B. Starr – to be an Assistant Secretary of State (Diplomatic Security)
  • James Walter Brewster, Jr. – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Dominican Republic
  • Philip S. Goldberg – to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to the Republic of the Philippines

A/S Gregory Starr is not a stranger to Diplomatic Security, of course.  From July 2004 through March 2007, Mr. Starr served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Countermeasures where he was responsible for “formulating security policy and plans for countermeasures in the areas of physical security, technical security, and Diplomatic Courier operations for the Department’s overseas and domestic operations and facilities.”  He previously served as Director of the Diplomatic Security Service from April 2007 until his retirement in May 2009.  From May 2009 until January 2013, Mr. Starr served as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Safety and Security.  But he was soon back to the fold.  On February 1, 2013, he was named acting Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security.  Mr. Starr succeeds Eric J. Boswell who held the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security job from 2008 until 2012, when the later was snared by Benghazi. But it looks like not everyone is happy to welcome Mr. Starr back.  In September, current and former State Department officials dished to The Cable’s John Hudson that “confirming Starr could be a mistake and raised a string of fresh allegations against him.” (See Allegations Swirl Around Obama’s Pick for State Department Security Chief).  That made a brief splash but  State stood behind the nominee, including the State Department Chief of Staff David Wade.  And Mr. Starr is now officially the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security.

James Walter Brewster, Jr. was nominated by President Obama back in July.  Officially In: James “Wally” Brewster, Jr. to the Dominican Republic, an Island of Grace and Tolerance. Lots of noise about this nominee. Religious groups in the Dominican Republic were reportedly outraged by the nomination of a gay ambassador to this conservative country. They even organized  “Black Monday” protests. And then this happened:  Dominican Republic: Cardinal uses the word “faggot” to refer to US ambassador nominee. And this:  Diocese Of Catholic Cardinal Who Called Obama Ambassador Nominee ‘Faggot’ Has Pedophilia Scandal.   The end. The former National LGBT Co-Chair for the Democratic National Committee and Board Member of the Human Rights Campaign fund should soon be in Santo Domingo.

Philip S. Goldberg until recently was A/S to State/INR.   He was previously ambassador to Bolivia in 2006 and in 2008, Evo Knievel’s government gave him 72 hours to leave the country, after declaring him persona non grata.  He succeeds Ambassador Harry Thomas who departed the Philippines in October 2014.  With the departure of Ambassador Thomas, Deputy Chief of Mission Brian L. Goldbeck assumed duties as the Chargé d’Affaires.  US Embassy Manila’s presser says that “Chargé d’Affaires Brian L. Goldbeck led a joint U.S. government team to areas affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda to assess the damage and review relief operations with the Government of the Philippines.”  Sorry, no photos or videos available.

Currently unfolding in Ambassador Goldberg’s new host country is Operation Damayan, the U.S. humanitarian aid and disaster relief effort in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.  Below is BGEN Paul Kennedy, 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade commander, talking to a Rueters reporter about his mission in the Philipines with Operation Damayan.

The aircraft carrier USS George Washington and support vessels arrived in the Philippines Nov. 14, 2013, to aid assistance efforts.  USNS Charles Drew, USS Emory S. Land, USS Bowditch, USS Lassen and USNS Yukon are now in the Philippines to provide relief efforts.  The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet on November 13 also directed the activation of USNS Mercy to prepare the hospital ship for possible deployment to the Philippines. If deployed, the ship currently berthed in San Diego will arrive in the island nation in December.

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Philippine Super Typhoon Disaster – USG Assistance, Welfare/Whereabouts, Donation Information

– Domani Spero

Via the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA):  “Typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) made its first landfall in the early morning of 8 November in Guiuan, Eastern Samar province with maximum sustained winds of 235 km/h and wind gusts at 275 km/h. Haiyan made subsequent landfalls in Tolosa south of Tacloban City, Leyte province, Daanbantayan and Bantayan Island, Cebu province, Conception, Iloilo province and Busuanga, Palawan province. Communication and power lines are down in the most affected areas. Access has been limited due to damaged roads, fallen trees and debris which continue to hamper the humanitarian relief operations. On 9 November, the Government accepted the UN offer of international assistance. The Humanitarian Country Team and the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination team were deployed to Tacloban City and Iloilo City to support rapid needs assessment, support coordination and re-establish communication networks.”

Screen Shot 2013-11-11

Image from OCHA

The Philippines is a country with over 7,000 islands, and a population of over 98 million. The fear that the number of casualties will grow as affected areas are able to re-establish communication with the mainland is justified.

According to the State Department there are an estimated four million Americans of Philippine ancestry in the United States, and more than 300,000 U.S. citizens residing in the Philippines.  An estimated 600,000 Americans also visit the Philippines each year. As of FY2012, our bilateral trade with the Philippines fast-growing economy was $17 billion.  Until early 1990s, the Philippines hosted U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the Luzon island.

On November 11, Secretary Kerry released the following statement (excerpt):

As we commemorate Veterans Day here at home, the State Department is working with Team Rubicon to deploy a team of incredible, courageous American veterans to the Philippines and all the areas damaged by Typhoon Haiyan. Just as they did after Hurricane Sandy, these veterans will be using the skills they learned in uniform to help others recover from this terrible storm.

The State Department also is cooperating with the Philippines Typhoon Disaster Relief Fund established by The mGive Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit organization, to coordinate donations via mobile phones to benefit victims of the typhoon.

I want to assure the people of the Philippines and the many Americans of Filipino heritage that we are working as hard as possible to provide essential assistance to help the Philippine people and their government recover from this tragedy.

On the same day, the Pentagon announced that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has ordered the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) and other U.S. Navy ships to make best speed for the Republic of the Philippines. They are expected to be on station within 48-72 hours. These ships and aircraft will be able to provide humanitarian assistance, supplies, and medical care in support of the ongoing efforts in the Philippines.

The aircraft carrier, which carries 5,000 Sailors and more than 80 aircraft, is currently in Hong Kong for a port visit. The crew is being recalled early from shore leave and the ship is expected to be underway later this evening.

In company with the carrier will be the cruisers USS Antietam (CG 54) and USS Cowpens (CG 63), and the destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89). The supply ship USNS Charles Drew (T-AKE-10) is already underway and will rendezvous with the group as they get closer. USS Lassen (DDG 82) got underway yesterday for the region. Embarked on board USS George Washington, is Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5).

CVW-5 is a collection of aircraft designed to perform various functions including disaster relief and includes the “Golden Falcons” of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12 flying the MH-60S Seahawk; and the “Saberhawks” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 77 flying the MH-60R Seahawk.

Active links added above.  Also on November 11, USAID announced a $20 million humanitarian assistance to the Philippines:

In response to the storm, the United States Government announced today $20 million in humanitarian assistance, including emergency food aid and critical relief supplies–like shelter materials and hygiene kits–for disaster-affected areas. These supplies will not only provide life-saving care in the immediate aftermath of the storm, but will also help prevent illness and death from waterborne and communicable diseases. A shipment is already on its way with enough plastic sheeting, soap, toothbrushes, toilet paper, and sanitary supplies to help 10,000 families. Another shipment of the same size will follow closely behind. We are also sending 55 metric tons of food, including highly nutritious bars and paste–containing a day’s worth of calories–to nourish approximately 20,000 children and 15,000 adults for roughly 4 to 5 days.

To read more about the USG assistance, click here.

Welfare and Whereabouts of U.S. Citizens in the Philippines

If you are concerned about the welfare or whereabouts of an American citizen in the Philippines, here are some useful contact numbers:

If you are in the United States, you may call the Department of State’s Overseas Citizens Services (OCS) toll-free hotline at (888) 407-4747 during the hours 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (EST) Monday through Friday.  The Department of State has activated the Typhoon Haiyan Response Call Center to handle inquiries about US citizens who may be present in the Philippines. You may contact the Call Center at 888-407-4747 if calling from within the U.S. or 202-501-4444 if calling from any other location.

At all other times, call the duty officer twenty-four hours a day at 202-647-4000.

Google has also put together a Google Crisis Response Yolanda  including a Person Finder and mapping urgent needs by category via MicroMappers:

Screen Shot 2013-11-12

Donation Information (per state.gov)

U.S. wireless subscribers can text AID to 80108 to give a $10 donation to the mGive Philippines Typhoon Disaster Relief Fund.

Donations will be collected from the U.S. wireless carriers by the mGive Foundation, a 501c3 public charity that empowers text donation campaigns across 60 U.S. wireless carriers–providing access to 99 percent of all mobile phone users. Donations made to mGive will be distributed to relief organizations supporting Philippine Typhoon response and recovery. For more information visit, www.mgive.org.

The $10 donation will go to The mGive Foundation’s Philippines Typhoon Disaster Relief Fund. Charges will appear on the donor’s wireless bill or be deducted from the prepaid balance. All purchases must be authorized by account holder. Donors must be 18 years of age or have parental permission to participate.

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It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat Or How to Make a Non-News Into Big News

— By Domani Spero

Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Doha, New Delhi, Jeddah, Kuwait City, Amman, Jerusalem, and Bandar Seri Begawan from June 21 to July 2.  While overseas, he spoke about the events in Egypt during the press availability in Tel Aviv on June 30 but not during his stop in Brunei on July 1.  He had no public schedule on July 3. 

On July 3, @Mosheh@CBSThisMorning Senior Producer twitted this:

Screen Shot 2013

The State Department responded that Secretary Kerry was not aboard a boat on Wednesday and has spent the day working the phones on Egypt. Via politico.com:

“Since his plane touched down in Washington at 4 a.m., Secretary Kerry was working all day and on the phone dealing with the crisis in Egypt,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. “He participated in the White House meeting with the president by secure phone and was and is in non-stop contact with foreign leaders, and his senior team in Washington and Cairo. Any report or tweet that he was on a boat is completely inaccurate.”

Ms. Psaki made it sound as if he was Superman with no need for rest.

The same afternoon, U.S. Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff was quoted by CNN saying “there will be consequences” if Egyptian military intervention is “badly handled.”  Later in the evening, the AP reported on Egypt military chief’s statement announcing President Morsi’s ouster.

On July 4, 2013, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey sang the National Anthem at the Washington Nationals versus Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park.

Then this happened. Ugh!

Screen Shot 2013

Screen Shot 2013

Look, the Joint Chiefs was in a ball game on July 4th when Egypt had its revolution, coup, or whatever you agree to call it.  Did anyone complain that he was not glued to his secret phone?  Secretary Kerry just came back from a 12-day trip. We think people would have understood that he needed some down time. Did we really expect him to be holding the phone line to Egypt when DOD has more influence than DOS there? We certainly did not.

When CBS tweeted/reported/asked whether the secretary was on the boat, the appropriate response from the State Department professionals should have been the truth.   Had they said “yes” that would have been the end of the story.  Backlash? Really. Would the public really begrudge its public officials needed rest as if they were Superman?

Secretary Kerry on his boat would have been a very short-lived news.  Instead, the spinsmiesters contorted themselves with crafting a statement about how the secretary “was working all day” on Egypt and how the report is “completely inaccurate.”  Not even leaving a sliver of chance for error or confusion there.  Caught in a lie, the Spokesperson of the State Department had to release another statement acknowledging her boss “was briefly on his boat.”  Self-inflicted. Made their own mountain out of a mole hill.

“While he was briefly on his boat on Wednesday, Secretary Kerry worked around the clock all day including participating in the President’s meeting with his national security council,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, naming a series of Egyptian and international officials Kerry had spoken with on Wednesday.

CBS News was “completely inaccurate” because it did not mention “briefly?”

Perhaps the State Department statement should have included the line, “Any official report or official tweet denying that he was on a boat is completely inaccurate.”  A public  apology would have been nice, but government officials no longer do that, do they?

On July 6 , Secretary Kerry released a statement addressing the violence in Egypt.

But wait, there’s more!

Also on July 6, the Office of the Spokesperson tried to make it better by releasing the following statement:

Over the days since the unrest in Egypt intensified, Secretary Kerry has been in constant contact with the national security team, regional partners, and his counterparts. In addition to participating in a secure call with the National Security Council today to review the very fluid situation in Egypt, he has been in hourly touch with Ambassador Patterson and in the last two days he has also spoken with Mohamed Elbaradei, Qatari Foreign Minister al-Attiyah, Omani Sultan Qaboos, Emirati Foreign Minister bin Zayed, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu.

In all these calls with his counterparts, Secretary Kerry reiterated the call for the violence in Egypt to cease and for all parties — the Muslim Brotherhood, opposition, and military — to ensure that those expressing their views do so peacefully. Secretary Kerry also reaffirmed U.S. support for democracy and the protection of universal human rights for all Egyptians, reform that meets the legitimate aspirations of the people, and respect for the rule of law. He stressed that the United States wants to see Egypt’s civilian transition succeed, and that the United States will do all it can to help encourage that effort.

Double ugh!

Folks,  you forgot, “Thou shall not get caught.” Now, apologize and move on or no dinner tonight!

Unless you folks want to release Secretary Kerry’s log calls, too, so we can count how many manhours he really spent working on Egypt.

👀

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Josh Rogin’s Exclusive: Benghazi ‘Scapegoat’ Raymond Maxwell Speaks Out — Duck and Cover!

Whoops! Too late!

Raymond Maxwell was placed on forced “administrative leave” after the State Department’s own internal investigation, conducted by an Administrative Review Board (ARB) led by former State Department official Tom Pickering. Five months after he was told to clean out his desk and leave the building, Maxwell remains in professional and legal limbo, having been associated publicly with the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other American for reasons that remain unclear.
[…]
“The overall goal is to restore my honor,” said Maxwell, who has now filed grievances regarding his treatment with the State Department’s human resources bureau and the American Foreign Service Association, which represents the interests of foreign-service officers. The other three officials placed on leave were in the diplomatic security bureau, leaving Maxwell as the only official in the bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (NEA), which had responsibility for Libya, to lose his job.

“I had no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi,” he said.
[…]

Since the leave is not considered a formal disciplinary action, Maxwell has no means to appeal the status, as he would if he had been outright fired. To this day, he says, nobody from the State Department has ever told him why he was singled out for discipline. He has never had access to the classified portion of the ARB report, where all of the details regarding personnel failures leading up to Benghazi are confined. He also says he has never been shown any evidence or witness testimony linking him to the Benghazi incident.

Maxwell says he had planned to retire last September, but extended his time voluntarily after the Sept. 11 attack to help the bureau in its time of need. Now, he is refusing to retire until his situation is clarified. He is seeking a restoration of his previous position, a public statement of apology from State, reimbursement for his legal fees, and an extension of his time in service to equal the time he has spent at home on administrative leave.

“For any FSO being at work is the essence of everything and being deprived of that and being cast out was devastating,” he said.
[…]

The decision to place Maxwell on administrative leave was made by Clinton’s chief of staff Cheryl Mills, according to three State Department officials with direct knowledge of the events. On the day after the unclassified version of the ARB’s report was released in December, Mills called Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones and directed her to have Maxwell leave his job immediately.

“Cheryl Mills directed me to remove you immediately from the [deputy assistant secretary] position,” Jones told Maxwell, according to Maxwell.
[…]
But Jones was not disciplined in any way following the release of the report, nor was the principal deputy assistant secretary of State at NEA, Liz Dibble, who is slated to receive a plush post as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in London this summer. In the DS bureau, the assistant secretary, principal deputy, and deputy assistant all lost their jobs. In the NEA bureau, only Maxwell was asked to leave.

Read  John Rogin’s  Exclusive: Hillary’s Benghazi ‘Scapegoat’ Speaks Out from his new home at the Daily Beast.

The somebodies appear to have miscalculated that folks would just go away quietly …

And it’s all a coincidence, of course, that on the same day that this came out, the State Department released its Benghazi Accountability Review Board Implementation and Secretary Kerry showed up at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia to deliver Remarks to the Foreign Service Institute Overseas Security Seminar  (dear heavens! it’s open to the press and cameras!). We can’t recall a secretary of state ever showing up for that overseas seminar, can you?

– DS

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under AFSA, Disasters, Foreign Service, FSOs, Hillary, John F. Kerry, Leadership and Management, Leaks|Controversies, Public Service, Realities of the FS, Regional Bureaus, Reputation, State Department

After a Year of Serious Roars and Growls, State Dept Officially Retires FSO-Non Grata Peter Van Buren

And so it has come to this.

Last year, the State Department was up in arms with the publication of Peter Van Buren’s book, We Meant Well, because well — as its Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State of the Bureau of Public Affairs  Dana Shell Smith (of the How to Have an Insanely Demanding Job and 2 Happy Children minor fame) told the book publisher, Macmillan, the Department has “recently concluded that two pages of the book manuscript we have seen contain unauthorized disclosures of classified information.”

I counted the words; there are some 30 words that were deemed classified information according to the letter sent to the publisher, including a place called, “Mogadishu.”  See “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!

Five months after his book was published, the State Department moved to fire, Mr. Van Buren.  He was charged with eight violations including  linking in his blog to documents on WikiLeaks  (one confidential cable from 2009, and one unclas/sensitive/noforn cable also from 2009); failing to clear each blog posting with his bosses; displaying a “lack of candor” during interviews with diplomatic security officers;using “bad judgement’ by criticizing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and one time presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann on his blog.

The eight charges did not include the allegation of leaking “classified” content from his book. Which is rather funny, in a twisted sort of way, yeah?   So, why …

Oh, dahrlings, let’s take the long cut on this, shall we?

There were lots of roars and growls, of course … employees at State even got to work on additional areas their supervisors deemed appropriate  — such as looking under dumb rocks to see if anything would come out, monitoring Mr. Van Buren’s media appearances and blog posts, etc. etc..  The guy was practically a cottage industry sprouting “taskers” all over Foggy Bottom (except maybe the cafeteria).  Those who got Meritorious Honor Awards for the Van Buren Affair, raise your left hand.  Oh dear, that’s a bunch!  Let us not be shocked, also if Mr. Van Buren was quite useful for the spring’s Employee Evaluation Reports (EER) for multiple folks.  Everybody gets credit for work well done, or otherwise.

And because life is about changes, the Director General of the Foreign Service Nancy Powell (top HR person in the Foreign Service) was promoted to do yet another stint as US Ambassador, this time to India; leaving the “Peter Headache” to her successor as DGHR, former Ambassador to Liberia, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.   The top boss of all management affairs at State, Patrick Kennedy, as far as we know did not have to swap chairs and is still top boss.  Mr. Van Buren himself did not go quietly into the night.  Instead he kept on popping up for interviews on radios and teevees, and here and there and his blog posts, angry or not, did not skip a single beat.

Meanwhile, the book which the NYT called “One diplomat’s darkly humorous and ultimately scathing assault on just about everything the military and State Department have done—or tried to do—since the invasion of Iraq”  went into second printing.

And so a year after We Meant Well was published, and after numerous investigations ending in a whimper, the State Department officially retired Mr. Van Buren on September 30, 2012. No, the agency did not fire him despite all sorts of allegations.  And yes, he gets his full retirement.

Congratulations everyone, all that work for nothing! So totally, totally :roll: exhausting!

If Mr. Van Buren were a project, you would have had your Gantt chart with the work break down structure. As well, the project manager would have the time allocation, cost and scope for every detail of this project. Unfortunately for the American public, we may never know how much time, money and effort went into the 12 month Project Hounding of Mr. Van Buren.

In the end, the State Department can claim success in getting Mr. Van Buren out the door (and helping him sell those books also).  No one needs to pretend anymore that he is paid to work as a “telecommuter” when in truth they just did not want his shadow in that building. He is now officially a retired Foreign Service Officer. Like all soon to retire officers, he even got into the Foreign Service Institute’s job search program.  But of course, they have yanked away his security clearance, so that’s really helpful in the job search, too.

Do you get the feeling that this isn’t really about this book anymore but about that next book?

Back in July, former FSO Dave Seminara who writes for Gadling and is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat did an interview with Mr. Van Buren .  In one part of the interview, Mr. Van Buren said that he gets anonymous hate mail and people telling him to “shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did.” I read that and I thought, oh, dear me!

Excerpts:

Q: But surely you can understand that if lots of FSOs decided to write critical books like yours while still on active duty it would create chaos?

A: I can understand that argument. But this is part of living in a free society. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” The State Department promotes the rights of people to speak back to their governments. The Arab Spring — we want people in Syria to shout back at their government, but we won’t let our own employees do that.

Q: It seems as though the State Department objects to some FSO blogs, but not to others — is that right?

A: It’s vindictive prosecution. The State Department links to dozens of Foreign Service blogs and those people aren’t getting clearance on everything they post — they can’t. But those blogs are about how the food in Venezuela is great or we love the secretary.

The idea — we’re going to pick on you because we don’t like what you’re writing — that scrapes up against the First Amendment. If the State Department wants to police my blog, they have to police all of them.

Q: And how do you think your peers perceive you now?
A: A lot of State Department people are under the mistaken impression that I didn’t clear the book but they’ve dropped that. People thought I went rogue, which I did not. I am not a popular person right now. Someone in an organization that is designed to help FSOs told me, “Most people in this building hate you.”

Some people worried that they’d have privileges in Baghdad taken away from them. That someone in Congress might wonder why we have a tennis court in Baghdad. I got de-friended by colleagues on Facebook. Most of them didn’t read the book. One embassy book club refused to buy the book. Lots of anonymous hate mail. [People telling me] shut up and do your service like everyone else did; half a million people have gone through Iraq and they didn’t have to bitch about everything like you did. I’ve also been harassed by Diplomatic Security people.

Q: Do you feel like diplomats have a right to publish?
A: We do have a constitution which still has the First Amendment attached to it. The rules say: No classified or personal information can be released, you can’t talk about contracting and procurement stuff that would give anyone an advantage in bidding, and the last thing you can’t do is speak on behalf of the department. That’s it. They don’t have to agree with what I’ve written. I have disclaimers in my book and on the blog explaining that my views are my own and don’t represent those of the U.S. government.

Read in full, U.S. Foreign Service Officer Blacklisted for Scathing Exposé.

The more insidious question really is — how did we end up with so much waste in Iraq and Afghanistan? The answer that folks just did their jobs and did not bitch about anything is certainly part of what ails the effort. Not that other folks have not complained, or even blogged about the reconstruction problems in the warzones, the complaints were just not as loud.  People were aware of serious issues in these reconstruction projects, talked about it, complained about it among themselves, but for one reason or another did not feel right about calling public attention to the fire slowly burning the house down.  What I have a hard time understanding is — why are people so mad at the man who shouted fire and had the balls to write about it?

This should be a great case study for the State Department’s Leadership and Management School. Because what exactly does this teach the next generation of Foreign Service Officers in terms of leadership and management? About misguided institutional loyalty? About the utility of shooting the messenger of bad news, so no news is good news?  And about courage when it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and all your friends have bailed out and locked the door, to keep you out?

See something. Say something. Or not.  But if you do, be prepared to be hounded and ostracized by the institution you once called home, by people you once called friends.

In any case, the one headed dragon that roars gotta be slayed before its other heads wake up and roar louder. Another officer was writing the Afghanistan edition of We Meant Well when the State Department went mud fishing on Mr. Van Buren. Not sure if that book is ever coming out but just one more line item on success in the State Department. The less stories told unofficially, the more successful the effort officially.

Um, pardon me?  Oh, you mean the State Department’s Dissent Channel and AFSA’s Dissent Awards? Those things are utterly amazing good stuff.  On paper.

 

 

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US Embassy Egypt: PAO Larry Schwartz Thrown Under the Bus Over “Inappropriate Apology”

There was that clip of a badly made obscure movie posted in YouTube which roiled the mob in Cairo on September 11. (AP on Sept. 12, said its search for those behind the film led to a Coptic Christian in California who had been convicted of financial crimes). The US Embassy in Egypt released the following statement:

U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement
September 11, 2012

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney waded in with a statement here, calling “disgraceful” an early response to the assault in Cairo and saying it sympathized with the attackers.  The embassy statement, an apparent reference to the video clip in YouTube, was posted hours before the official death in Libya was reported.

Politifact consulted three apology experts who all agreed that the statement from the US Embassy in Cairo was not an apology because one expert says, 1) it did not use the word “apology” or said “we’re sorry”; 2) the statement condemns the actions of a third party and 3) it does not apologize for the right of free speech. Another expert says “To say that someone who deliberately insults others in the name of religion has acted wrongly isn’t an apology — it’s simply a recognition that those insults go too far.” Still another of Politifact’s experts says “it is a condemnation of ‘abuse’ of the universal value of free speech. A condemnation is not an apology. … The Embassy statement also reaffirms two American values: the American value of respect for religious beliefs and the American value of democracy.”

No matter, that condemnation statement from the US Embassy Cairo has now entered the twilight zone of presidential politics and The Cable’s Josh Rogin has the scoop inside this public relations disaster at our Cairo embassy. Two responsible officials were named in the article — the Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the acting charge d’affairs and the embassy’s senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz was previously Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and a seasoned public diplomacy officer. He, presently, just got thrown under the bus over the apology controversy. And run over twice once more for good measure.

Here is an excerpt:

“In an effort to cool the situation down, it didn’t come from me, it didn’t come from Secretary Clinton. It came from people on the ground who are potentially in danger,” Obama said. “And my tendency is to cut folks a little bit of slack when they’re in that circumstance, rather than try to question their judgment from the comfort of a campaign office.”

But Obama’s remarks belie the enormous frustration of top officials at the State Department and White House with the actions of the man behind the statement, Cairo senior public affairs officer Larry Schwartz, who wrote the release and oversees the embassy’s Twitter feed, according to a detailed account of the Tuesday’s events.
[….]
Before issuing the press release, Schwartz cleared it with just one person senior to himself, Deputy Chief of Mission Marc Sievers, who was the acting charge d’affairs at the embassy on Tuesday because Ambassador Anne Patterson was in Washington at the time, the official said.

Schwartz sent the statement to the State Department in Washington before publishing and the State Department directed him not to post it without changes, but Schwartz posted it anyway.

“The statement was not cleared with anyone in Washington. It was sent as ‘This is what we are putting out,'” the official said. “We replied and said this was not a good statement and that it needed major revisions. The next email we received from Embassy Cairo was ‘We just put this out.'”
[…]
“People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content,” the official said. “Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'”

Despite being aware of Washington’s objections, the embassy continued to defend the statement for several hours, fueling the controversy over it, a decision the official again attributed to Schwartz.

Perhaps it is telling that The Cable’s source are “one U.S. official close to the issue” and “two additional administration officials”, all unnamed.  If this went down as detailed in the report, shouldn’t we at least know who’s pointing fingers?  Considering that one congressman, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) is already calling for the State Department to “issue an immediate apology to the American people and fire those officials responsible for the initial statement” — that seems only fair.

Who would have thought that Twitter is such a dangerous sinkhole.

Anyway here’s the thing — Foreign Service officers are really, really excellent at following the chalked lines. You don’t see a lot of rogue and old diplomats for very good reasons. And they, certainly, do not suddenly forget their clearance procedures because they were confronted with a badly made, badly written and badly acted movie clip in YouTube; much less, defy a direct order from the State Department when it comes to an official statement for public consumption. Unless, of course, the officer is looking to commit a career suicide. And I’m not convinced that is the case with man of the hour, Larry Schwartz.

It would be nice to know who in the State Department “directed” Mr. Schwartz not/not to post the statement without changes, wouldn’t it? Was it somebody in the Bureau of Public Affairs? Was it somebody in the regional bureau? Did anyone also tell him that if this sh*t blows up we’ll make sure Foreign Policy knows how to spell your name?

This is what you’d call the bureaucratic duck and cover. It looks like the poor sod under the bus did not get a lot warning.  If he did get some warning, we’d be interested to know if he got a special phone call telling him to take one for the team before they throw him to the sharks on a feeding frenzy.

Update: WaPo’s The Fact Checker has a long item on this here in An embassy statement, a tweet, and a major misunderstanding.

 

 

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State/OIG: Bureau Overseeing Youth Exchange Program “Exaggerated” On-Site Review Results and Compliance

The same day that MSNBC’s Rock Center aired allegations that exchange students were sexually abused in youth programs overseen by the State Department, it also ran a companion piece featuring the State Department’s official spokesperson, Toria Nuland defending the foreign exchange program (see Critics blame State Department for turning a blind eye on sex abuse).

Quick excerpt below:

The State Department defends the high school exchange program, and maintains that the vast majority of the 200,000 students who have come to America over the past decade have had an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“These kids have an enormously gratifying, rich, fantastic American experience that lasts with them for a lifetime,” said State Department Spokesperson Toria Nuland.

State Department staffers told NBC News that a fraction of one percent of high school foreign exchange students reported sexual harassment or abuse by a host parent for the 2010-2011 academic school year.

The very next day after the MSNBC report aired, the Office of the Inspector General finally released its much awaited review of the  Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) who has oversight over this program and multiple other programs, from Fulbright to the Summer Work Training (SWT) program.

Here is a quick summary of what the IG says about the program for secondary school students:

  • From January 2010 through October 2011, ECA received allegations related to sexual abuse or sexual harassment of 118 participants in the secondary school student program.
  • The first-ever systematic on-site reviews found that 15 of the 39 sponsors did not comply with regulations.
  • The consequences?  Minimal sanction, a letter of reprimand, to 11 sponsors; there was no reduction in their level of authorized activity.
  • More serious consequences? 2 sponsors faced reduction of allocation and 2 organizations were terminated from the secondary school student program. (The terminated sponsors had placed students in the home of the same convicted murderer.)
  • The results?  These actions had the effect of reducing the secondary school student program by only 2 percent.
  • In spite of the limited impact of the on-site reviews, the OIG team noted that ECA/EC front office staff exaggerated the results in communications with senior Department officials, overstating the extent of both the program sanctions and ECA’s compliance activity.

So when the Rock Center report says this:

The Department dropped a number of organizations that previously were approved to place students with families and implemented new regulations meant to more thoroughly check out host families.

Number of organizations dropped actually equals to 2 based on the OIG report. And when they talk about background checks:

“We do training for the staff, we work with them on implementing the regulations.  We insist that they document now these home visits, these background checks…there is a 24/7 hotline the students can call if they encounter a problem with the host family,” Nuland said.

The OIG says “The regulations do not dictate, however, the type of criminal background check, and sponsors generally use private databases to fulfill the requirement. Because a number of states do not allow criminal information to be stored in these private databases, significant risk remains that students may be placed in homes with criminals.”

And that most probably is how we end up with 43 118 allegations related to the sexual abuse or sexual harassment of exchange students. Below excerpted from the report:

Secondary School Students

In 2009, a scandal involving the placement of secondary school students in Scranton, Pennsylvania, called into question the adequacy of ECA oversight of the 92 sponsors dealing with this vulnerable population. In 2010, for the first time, ECA embarked on systematic on-site reviews of the largest program sponsors responsible for the well-being of thousands of teenagers placed with host families nationwide. ECA sent teams comprising members of its Compliance, Youth Programs, and Grants staff to review the operations of the 39 largest sponsors, collectively responsible for 72 percent of secondary school student participants.

The on-site review teams found that many sponsors inadequately maintained SEVIS records, thereby thwarting the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to fulfill its national security mandate of tracking the whereabouts of all J visa holders in the United States. Sponsors had not always completed the required annual criminal background checks on host families, resulting in teens being placed in homes with sex offenders and other felons. Given the challenges of the economy, sponsors were finding it difficult to attract host families. Rather than limit the number of students brought to the United States, some sponsors lowered standards. Students reported host family requests that they provide day care, do housework, perform farm labor, or work in host family-owned businesses. Some students had insufficient food and lived in squalor. From January 2010 through October 2011, ECA received allegations related to sexual abuse or sexual harassment of 118 participants in the secondary school student program.

Recommendation 38: The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs should establish a process to refer credible allegations of criminal activity to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the Office of Inspector General’s Office of Investigations, or to an appropriate law enforcement organization. (Action: ECA)

Although in early 2009 EC established a Joint Review Committee involving three senior EC managers to consider sanctions against program sponsors, when the high school review results came in, EC decided to convene an “ad hoc evaluation review committee” to provide an independent review of the results and recommend appropriate remedial action where needed. It is unclear why the established review body, which included staff familiar with both the regulatory requirements and day-to-day operations of the program, was bypassed. The OIG team was told that EC thought this ad hoc group “could better withstand external scrutiny.”

These first-ever systematic on-site reviews also found that 15 of the 39 sponsors did not comply with regulations. Section 502(a) of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002 states that material failure to comply with record keeping and reporting requirements shall “result in the suspension for at least one year or termination…at the election of the Secretary of State, of the…entity’s designation to sponsor exchange visitor program participants.” Despite this, the ad hoc evaluation review committee gave only the minimal sanction, a letter of reprimand, to 11 sponsors; there was no reduction in their level of authorized activity. ECA reduced the DS-2019 allocations for 2 sponsors by a collective total of 310 forms and terminated from the secondary school student program 2 organizations with a combined allocation of 277 DS-2019 forms. (The terminated sponsors had placed students in the home of the same convicted murderer.) These actions had the effect of reducing the secondary school student program by only 2 percent. In spite of the limited impact of the on-site reviews, the OIG team noted that ECA/EC front office staff exaggerated the results in communications with senior Department officials, overstating the extent of both the program sanctions and ECA’s compliance activity.

The acting DAS recognizes that the creation of a system for ECA to check prospective host family names against a database of past incidents and complaints will better ensure that secondary school students are not placed with families unfit to host students. He convened discussions with his staff, the Youth Programs division in ECA’s Office of Citizen Exchanges, and the Office of the Legal Adviser. They agreed to implement a pilot program to cross-check the names of host families of all ECA-funded secondary school exchanges and aim to cross-check all host families in the future. ECA might also consider cross-checking sponsors and their local representatives.

The secondary school student program regulations require annual criminal background checks on all adult members of a host family. The regulations do not dictate, however, the type of criminal background check, and sponsors generally use private databases to fulfill the requirement. Because a number of states do not allow criminal information to be stored in these private databases, significant risk remains that students may be placed in homes with criminals. EC and the Office of the Legal Adviser are considering the role that law enforcement agencies may play with regard to checking host family names and criminal history as well as other mechanisms for improved screening of host families.

Recommendation 39: The Office of the Legal Adviser, in coordination with the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, should determine whether host family names can be checked against law enforcement databases and, if so, develop a procedure for such checks. (Action: L, in coordination with ECA and DS)

Elsewhere in the report is this item:

Weak Regulations Undermine Oversight
Weak regulations make responsible management of ECA’s numerous programs difficult. Even limited sanctioning of inadequate sponsor performance requires a time-consuming, multistep exercise that rarely results in meaningful consequences for a delinquent sponsor. When EC staff members have recommended higher level sanctions, they have often been overruled. Since 2006, ECA has imposed a total of 21 sanctions that led to termination or a reduction in the number of authorized DS-2019 forms for reasons other than insufficient program activity (5 participants per year). Some organizations that placed secondary school students in homes with convicted felons continued for extended periods to operate as designated sponsors. Current multilayered regulatory requirements render swift and meaningful sanctions impossible: more than a year elapsed between ECA’s discovery that one sponsor had for years been placing high school students with a convicted murderer and ECA’s termination of the sponsor’s designation.

So what happens days after tomorrow? Another on-site reviews? More reduction of allocation, another couple of organizations terminated from the program?  I don’t know, but it seems to me that when the Department says that “even one child abused under these programs is one child too many” — it should manifest that talk into action and suspend this program until stronger regulations and oversight are in place.

Of course, this might not be all of it.  One line sticks out from the OIG report:

“Several observers commented that other programs have serious unaddressed issues about which the public is currently unaware.”

Pray tell, who’s going to make the public aware of these issues?

Domani Spero

Related item

Inspection of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA)| Report Number ISP-I-12-15, February 2012

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US Embassy Montenegro: Winter Emergency Assistance

U.S. Ambassador to Montenegro Sue K. Brown, front left, shakes hands with a U.S. Soldier as she and Montenegrin Minister of Defense Boro Vucinic greet Soldiers with the 361st Civil Affairs Brigade and the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade Feb. 19, 2012, in Podgorica, Montenegro.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Edwin M. Bridges/Released)

The soldiers were part of a U.S. task force providing humanitarian assistance at the request of the government of Montenegro after record snowfalls left tens of thousands in the country’s mountainous north cut off and unable to receive food, fuel or medical assistance.

A U.S. Military medical evacuation helicopter and lift helicopter also arrived in Podgorica on Wednesday, February 22 to deliver critical supplies and provide rescue services to those stranded in the areas most heavily hit by the recent snowfall.

 

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