Snapshot: State/INL’s Counternarcotics Program Afghanistan — $220 Million With Unclear Results

Posted: 1:04  am EDT

 

Via State/OIG:

Afghanistan produces three-quarters of the world’s illicit opium, with cultivation reaching a record high in 2013. To reduce, among other things, illicit opium revenue for the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Department of State (Department), Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), assists the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) with initiatives aimed at reducing opium’s supply and demand. Since 2006, INL has expended $220 million on seven Counternarcotics (CN) initiatives in Afghanistan according to its Financial Management Activity Report (FMAR).
[…]
The degree to which INL’s CN program for Afghanistan has achieved desired results is unclear because INL has not fully developed or implemented Performance Measurement Plans (PMPs)2 to track progress for its CN initiatives and to allow for appropriate budgeting. As a result, INL cannot determine whether its Afghan CN initiatives are successful or should be revised, reduced, or canceled. Additionally, the long-term viability of CN initiatives is unclear because INL had not worked with the GIRoA to develop required sustainment plans that detail how CN initiatives will continue without U.S. assistance.

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Click on image for larger view. (Click here for OIG report in pdf)

Above graphic extracted from State/OIG Audit of Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Counternarcotics Assistance to Afghanistan, November 2014 (pdf).

Related to our blog post on Colombia, note that INL’s program in Afghanistan does not seem to include aerial eradication ( see State/INL: Anti-Drug Aerial Eradication in Colombia and the Cancer-Linked Herbicide, What Now?).

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Dear USAID OIG — That Nonprofit Contractor Mess Really Needs a Fact Sheet

Posted: 1:23  am EDT

 

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We’ve used the USAID OIG website but it does not have a smart nor responsive search function. We wanted to know how many inspections, audits, whatev reports the Office of the Inspector General at USAID did on IRD over the years.  If they were rigorous in their oversight and USAID and  the State Department did not do anything about it, that is an important component to this story.  And if that is true, we wanted to see just how rigorous based on the reports the oversight office put out through the years, because how else can we tell but by the number and quality of their output?

We sent a direct message to USAID OIG via Twitter and we got a response back:

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For specific inquiries, please contact our office directly http://oig.usaid.gov/content/contact-usaid-oig

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You click on that link and you’re told that “for media or general information inquiries, contact the OIG’s Immediate Office by mail, telephone, or fax. Whoa!  The Immediate Office, apparently, is not immediate enough.

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Late last year, following a Washington Post report on a USAID program in Pakistan, USAID OIG released (pdf) a statement with the following:

OIG is committed to providing products and information that are responsive to the needs of external customers and stakeholders. In responding to questions posed by Members of Congress and congressional staff, OIG has always endeavored to provide complete and accurate information based on the documentation and information available to us.

This is USAID’s largest nonprofit contractor.  According to WaPo, USAID suspended IRD this past January from receiving any more federal work. The suspension came in the wake of allegations of misspending highlighted in a Post investigation in May 2014.  USAID told the Post that they are cracking down on contractors who misspend tax money.

Hookay. So let’s start with finding out what type of oversight USAID OIG provided on IRD contracts since 2006. This is one time when those USAID OIG Fact Sheets would really be helpful.

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Related items:

USAID Suspends Big Contractor IRD: What Took So Long? (NonProfit Quarterly)

Doing well by doing good: The high price of working in war zones (WaPo, May 2014)

 

State/INL: Anti-Drug Aerial Eradication in Colombia and the Cancer-Linked Herbicide, What Now?

Posted: 3:35  am EDT

 

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Somebody just wrote us a note saying “It’s not clear why the Department has such a hard time with the facts … Colombian academics and others have offered convincing evidence that spraying roundup in their country is a major health issue and yet the Department resorts to ad hominem attacks rather than dealing with the facts.”  

Two academics were allegedly “treated poorly” when they tried to discuss their findings with the INL staff at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá in 2013. We have no way of confirming this either way but given the recent news from the World Health Organization, we wanted to know what happens now.   The embassy’s aerial eradication page appears to be outdated by several years.  Its Public Affairs Office does not have a publicly listed contact email. We have reached out to a couple of offices in Foggy Bottom but have not heard anything back.

In 2012, Jenny O’Connor wrote a piece in CounterPunch about Colombia’s Agent Orange. She noted that a core element of U.S. anti-drugs policy in Colombia has been the destruction of coca fields by aerial chemical fumigation thus impacting the cocaine trade at its source.  She cited the Chaco Government investigation in 2010 where its report found that “since the use of glyphosate based herbicides began in 2002 the communities most exposed had experienced an alarming increase in birth defects, spontaneous abortion and leukaemia, brain tumours and lymphomas in children under the age of 15.”

In 2013, WOLA described the coca fumigation in Colombia:

Aircraft, mostly piloted by contractor personnel, fly over coca-growing zones spraying “Round-Up Ultra,” an herbicide including the active ingredient glyphosate, over about 100,000 hectares per year of Colombian territory. Between 1996 and 2012, aircraft have sprayed herbicides over 1.6 million hectares of Colombia—an area equivalent to a square 80 miles on each side. The corners of such a square would stretch from the Washington suburbs to the Philadelphia suburbs. That’s the equivalent of one hectare sprayed every 5 minutes and 29 seconds since January 1, 1996.
[…]
While fumigation has contributed modestly to reduced coca growing, it has done so at a steep cost, both in dollars and in goodwill toward Colombia’s government in conflictive territories where it is most needed.
[…]
Testimonies of health and environmental damage from fumigation have proliferated, but are hard to verify. Still, the damage to the government’s credibility is already done when the local population believes them to be true. And nearly everyone in affected zones can cite a case of legal food crops destroyed by spraying, forcing families to confront hunger.

 

It looks like the last certification posted online on the Secretary of State’s certification on the aerial eradication is dated August 10, 2007.

Memorandum of Justification Concerning the Secretary of State’s 2007 Certification of Conditions Related to the Aerial Eradication of Illicit Coca in Colombia

The Secretary of State determined and certified in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006 that the herbicide mixture, in the manner it is being used, does not pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment. After previous consultations with EPA, the Department of State and the Government of Colombia have incorporated all EPA recommendations to strengthen spray program controls and ensure increased protection against adverse effects to humans and the environment. The Department of State is not aware of any published scientific evidence of risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment that have surfaced since the 2006 certification. Included below is a brief review of the conditions that allow the Secretary to recertify to Congress in 2007 that the herbicide mixture, in the manner it is being used, does not pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment.

In the 2004 EPA report, EPA offered the following assessment of human health concerns related to the spraying of coca in Colombia: “Despite an aggressive search for cases, there does not appear to be any evidence that glyphosate aerial spraying has resulted in any adverse health effects among the population where this spraying takes place.” EPA also concluded “that an aggressive program to identify glyphosate poisoning has been implemented in the areas of Colombia where illicit crop eradication spraying programs are prevalent.” A significant number of health care providers have received training and additional training is under way or planned.

We have been unable to locate a more recent justification for the use of glyphosate in aerial spraying.  If there is a more recent one, please send us a link.

 

State/INL’s 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) includes the following details:

Colombian Ministry of Defense authorities reported seizing over 207.4 MT of cocaine and cocaine base in 2014, and eliminated tons of additional potential cocaine through the combined aerial and manual eradication of 67,234 ha of coca over the year.
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In areas where Colombia allows aerial eradication, coca fields are less productive than they were when eradication operations began in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, illicit cultivation continues and is increasing in Colombia’s national parks, indigenous reserves, the department of Norte de Santander, and within a 10-kilometer zone along the border with Ecuador, where Colombian law or international and regional agreements prohibit aerial eradication.

In late 2014, the governments of Colombia and Ecuador implemented an agreement to reduce the border exclusion zone to 5 kilometers which permits expanded aerial eradication along the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. Colombia aerially eradicated 55,532 ha of coca in 2014, surpassing its goal of 55,000 ha. Colombia manually eradicated 11,702 ha of coca in 2014, falling short of its goal of 14,000 ha. Numerous local level protests blocking access roads to coca fields were a major obstacle to manual eradication’s ability to operate in major coca growing regions.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the EPA concluded in a 2012 study that glyphosate meets safety standards for human health when used in keeping with its label. The agency is reportedly conducting a scheduled review of glyphosate in conjunction with Canadian regulators.

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H.R. 1368: No Healthcare Subsidies for Foreign Diplomats Act of 2015

Posted: 12:12 am EDT

 

Following the 2013 report that Russian diplomats were charged with alleged widespread Medicaid fraud between 2004 to 2013 at an approximate cost of $1,500,000 in fraudulently received benefits (see 49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses Charged With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam), Congress investigated (Congress Seeks Information on Obamacare Coverage of Foreign Diplomats).

On March 17, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs announced  that U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, introduced H.R. 1368, the No Healthcare Subsidies for Foreign Diplomats Act of 2015, legislation to prevent foreign diplomats from receiving subsidized health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  According to the Department of Health and Human Services, foreign diplomats and United Nations employees in the United States are currently eligible to obtain American taxpayer-funded subsidies under the ACA, such as premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions, just like American citizens and lawful permanent residents.  By contrast, U.S. diplomats overseas do not depend on foreign taxpayers for health care coverage, relying instead on domestic health insurance plans that provide overseas coverage.

Chairman Royce said: “After a year-long investigation, the Obama Administration finally came clean about the fact that foreign diplomats are eligible for taxpayer-funded health care subsidies.  This is unacceptable.   Americans’ tax dollars should not be used to foot the bill for foreign diplomats’ health care coverage.  I am pleased to reintroduce this legislation and look forward to working with Chairman Ryan to pass this commonsense reform.”

H.R. 1368:

  • Expresses the sense of Congress that foreign diplomats should be allowed to purchase health insurance coverage in the U.S., but the cost of that coverage should be borne by their sending States;
  • Expresses the sense of Congress that U.S. taxpayers should not subsidize the health insurance expenses of foreign diplomats;
  • Amends the Internal Revenue Code to make foreign diplomats ineligible for health insurance premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions under the ACA;
  • Requires the Secretary of HHS to certify to Congress that no foreign diplomats are receiving such benefits under the ACA; and
  • Requires the Secretary of State to notify all foreign missions in the U.S. that their personnel are ineligible for these benefits under the ACA.

The Committee says that initially, it sent a letter to Secretary Kerry requesting information on the arrest and the eligibility of foreign diplomats receiving government-funded medical benefits.  In January and April of 2014, the Committee also sent letters to the Secretary of Health and Human Services regarding foreign diplomats’ eligibility to receive Obamacare.  In a response on September 30, 2014, HHS confirmed foreign diplomats’ eligibility for government subsidized healthcare.  In October of 2014, Chairman Royce and former Chairman Camp wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen seeking information about how many foreign diplomats have enrolled in the Affordable Care Act and have received subsidies.

The HHS response to the eligibility of foreign diplomats under Obamacare notes the following:

[F]oreign diplomats’ eligibility to participate in the Health Insurance Marketplaces is governed by the Affordable Care Act, which specifies that, in order to enroll in a qualified health plan (QHP) through the Marketplace, an individual must: (I) reside in the state that established the Marketplace; (2) not be incarcerated, other than pending the disposition of charges; and (3) be a United States’ citizen or national, or a non-citizen who is lawfully present and reasonably expected to remain so for the entire period for which enrollment is sought. Non-immigrant, non-citizens in the “A” and “G” visa classifications are lawfully present for this purpose, if they have not violated the terms of the status under which they were admitted or to which they have changed after admission. Accordingly, to the extent that a foreign diplomat who is a non-immigrant under an “A” or “G” visa classification and who has not violated the terms of the status under which he or she was admitted or to which he or she has changed after admission resides in the state that established the Marketplace and is not incarcerated other than pending the disposition of charges, he or she would be eligible for enrollment in a QHP through the Marketplace. The Department does not collect data on the number of foreign diplomats who participate in the Marketplace.

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Related posts:

 

 

A Perfect Case for OIG’s Office of Evaluations & Special Projects: How the Visa Waiver Sausage Gets Made

– Domani Spero

 

In 2004, Alden P. Stallings, a Foreign Service Officer pleaded guilty for writing false visa referrals. According to DOJ, Stallings was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea as the Deputy Public Affairs Officer when he submitted to the Consular Section 54 referrals in which he provided false information about his relationship with the applicants. DOJ charged that on each of the 54 referral forms, Stallings stated that he recommended the issuance of a non-immigrant visa to the applicant because the applicant was an “important post contact” whom he had “personally known” since a specified date. In fact, on each of the 54 occasions, Stallings knew that his statement on the referral form was false, and that he did not personally know the contact.

At the time Stallings pleaded guilty,he faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, and that case effectively ended his career.

But hey, is it true that if you are in a senior position or a congressional representative,  a personal intervention on behalf of a rejected visa applicant — who allegedly brought foreign maids into the country under false visa pretenses, and donated money to political campaigns — is A-okay?

Via the NYT:

The Obama administration overturned a ban preventing a wealthy, politically connected Ecuadorean woman from entering the United States after her family gave tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, according to finance records and government officials.

The woman, Estefanía Isaías, had been barred from coming to the United States after being caught fraudulently obtaining visas for her maids. But the ban was lifted at the request of the State Department under former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton so that Ms. Isaías could work for an Obama fund-raiser with close ties to the administration.

It was one of several favorable decisions the Obama administration made in recent years involving the Isaías family, which the government of Ecuadoraccuses of buying protection from Washington and living comfortably in Miami off the profits of a looted bank in Ecuador.
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In the spring of 2011, Ms. Isaías, a television executive, was in a difficult situation.

Her father and uncle were Ecuadorean fugitives living in Miami, but she was barred from entering the United States after she brought maids into the country under false visa pretenses and left them at her parents’ Miami home while she traveled.

“Alien smuggling” is what American consular officials in Ecuador called it.

American diplomats began enforcing the ban against Ms. Isaías, blocking her from coming to Miami for a job with a communications strategist who had raised up to $500,000 for President Obama.
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Over the course of the next year, as various members of the Isaías family donated to Mr. Menendez’s re-election campaign, the senator and his staff repeatedly made calls, sent emails and wrote letters about Ms. Isaías’s case to Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Mills, the consulate in Ecuador, and the departments of State and Homeland Security.

After months of resistance from State Department offices in Ecuador and Washington, the senator lobbied Ms. Mills himself, and the ban against Ms. Isaías was eventually overturned.
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David A. Duckenfield, a partner at the company who is now on leave for a position as deputy assistant secretary of public affairs at the State Department, said Ms. Isaías worked for the firm but declined to comment further. Another senior executive at the firm said she must work outside the office because he had never heard of her.
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“There are rigorous processes in place for matters such as these, and they were followed,” said the spokesman, Nick Merrill. “Nothing more, nothing less.”

A White House spokesman, Eric Schultz, declined to comment, saying that visas are issued free from political interference by other federal agencies.

Mr. Boehm, the former Pennsylvania prosecutor, said Senate ethics rules allowed members of Congress to reach out to the administration on behalf of a constituent. “Members of Congress do a lot for their constituents,” Mr. Boehm said.

“These folks are not his constituents,” he added, referring to Mr. Menendez.

See the whole report here: Ecuador Family Wins Favors After Donations to Democrats. 

Pardon me? Ah, yes, the vomitorium is next door to the right, please don’t make a mess.

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Snapshot: U.S.-Funded Democracy/Governance Activities Over Egyptian Govt Objections

– Domani Spero

 

Imagine if a country, say China, sends some of its foreign aid funds to foreign non-government groups in the United States to help us repair our roads and bridges or learn about their people’s congress. What if its National People’s Congress dictates that its embassy in Washington, D.C. does not have to take into account the wishes of the U.S. Government as to where or how that money is spent; that the specific nature of Beijing’s assistance need not be subject to the prior approval by the United States Government. What do you think will happen? If we were up in arms (looking at you Texas) over the UN election monitors, imagine what it would be like if a foreign government starts something crazy like this.

But apparently, that’s exactly what we did in Egypt, thanks to then Senator Sam Brownback’s amendment.

Via GAO:

In 2004, the U.S. government began discussions with the Egyptian government regarding a program to directly fund NGOs and other organizations to implement democracy and governance activities in Egypt outside of the framework of an implementing assistance agreement. From September to November 2004, the two governments worked to outline a process by which the United States would directly fund such activities. Further information on this process can be found in the sensitive version of our report.

Shortly thereafter, Congress approved an amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005 (the Brownback Amendment), which provided further direction regarding assistance for democracy and governance activities in Egypt. The Brownback Amendment stated, “That with respect to the provision of assistance for Egypt for democracy and governance activities, the organizations implementing such assistance and the specific nature of that assistance shall not be subject to the prior approval by the Government of Egypt.” 

In fiscal year 2005, USAID began using some democracy and governance assistance to directly fund NGOs and other types of organizations to implement democracy and governance activities, rather than working with the Egyptian government under the implementing assistance agreement. Soon after USAID started to directly fund NGOs and other types of organizations to implement democracy and governance activities in fiscal year 2005, the Egyptian government raised objections. Among other things, the Egyptian government stated that USAID was violating the terms of the process that the two governments had outlined in a 2004 exchange of letters. However, the U.S. government officials responded that they were interpreting their commitments based upon the conditions applied by the Brownback Amendment and agreement in diplomatic discussions on direct funding to NGOs.

 

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The Egyptian government strongly objected to some of the U.S. government’s planned assistance for democracy and governance after the January 2011 revolution, including the award of funding to unregistered NGOs.9 These concerns led to the Egyptian Ministry of Justice questioning officials from several NGOs about their activities in late 2011. Subsequently, in December 2011, the Egyptian police raided the offices of four U.S. NGOs that were implementing U.S.-funded democracy and governance activities—Freedom House, ICFJ, IRI, and NDI. In February 2012, the Egyptian government charged employees of these four organizations and a German organization, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, with establishing and operating unauthorized international organizations, according to government documents.10 At the time of the charges, all four U.S. organizations reported that they had submitted registration applications to the Egyptian government.11 In June 2013, an Egyptian court convicted a total of 43 employees from the four U.S. NGOs and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, of these charges and the NGOs had to close their operations in Egypt. Table 1 provides a summary of the grants the U.S. government awarded after the January 2011 revolution to the four U.S. NGOs that were prosecuted. All of the American staff from the NGOs were allowed to leave Egypt before the convictions.

And we end up with this: USAID Egypt: An Official Lie Comes Back to Bite, Ouchy!

An FSO offers some perspective:

You imply that the United States would never allow assistance of the kind we provide to Egypt in terms of democracy assistance.  This is not the case.  We do restrict the ability of foreign nations to influence our elections, but foreign nations have both the ability and the right to influence policy decisions in the United States.  Two days ago, I was reading a blog on foreignpolicy.com sponsored by the UAE Embassy.  But much more importantly many foreign governments hire lobbyists, engage in informational campaigns, or provide grants to NGOs in the United States and all of these activities are protected by U.S. law.  
 
To return to Egypt, I have worked on many authoritarian countries including Egypt where the government has done everything possible to squeeze organizations and individuals standing up for human rights and individual freedoms.  Just as we allow foreign countries to engage in policy advocacy in the United States, I see no reason why we should engage in unilateral human rights disarmament and allow the objections of the Syrians, Iranians, Egyptians, Russians, Chinese, and Burmese among others about their sovereignty prevent us from aiding individuals and organizations these governments are seeking to crush.  Having said this, I am also acutely aware of the need to ensure that our assistance does not endanger the individuals and organizations we are seeking to support and protect.  It’s a tough line to walk, but I have sought to walk it many times in my Foreign Service career. 

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The Daily Show: Inglurious Ambassaders and an Earnest Spox

– Domani Spero

Ouchy!  The new ambassadors to Argentina and Hungary just made it to Comedy Central but perhaps the best feature was the WH spox, Josh Earnest who dodged with “Frankly, I was not part of this decision-making process.”

Jon Stewart rips: “That is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen the president’s press secretary do. His entire job — his only job — is built around trying not to go, ‘Hey, look, I just fucking work here.’ But that’s what he did.”

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We hate to think what this would look like if/when that fellow for Norway gets the Senate nod. We’ll have The Daily Show trampling on the salad bowl.

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US Embassy Yemen: How to Catch the Visa Malfeasance Pokemons? Very Quietly.

– Domani Spero

 

 

Via NY Daily News:

An employee at the embassy may have given out more than 50 sham visas to people who falsely claimed they needed to enter the U.S. to attend an oil industry conference in Texas, according to unsealed papers in Brooklyn Federal Court. The feds learned the Yemeni citizens never went to the conference. It was not clear if the fraudulent visas were connected to terrorism. The feds have uncovered a breach of security inside the U.S. Embassy in Yemen that led to bogus visas being issued, the Daily News has learned.

 

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Via U.S. Consulate Amsterdam

Via U.S. Consulate Amsterdam

If these visas were issued at the embassy, these are authentic visas, using real foils –issued under fraudulent reasons. What are the typical types of visa fraud? Below according to state.gov:

  • Presenting false documents to apply for a visa
  • Concealing facts that would disqualify one from getting a visa, like a criminal history in the alien’s home country
  • The sale, trafficking, or transfer of otherwise legitimate visas
  • Misrepresenting the reasons for requiring a visa
  • Counterfeiting, forgery, or alteration of a visa

We must also add, procurement of authentic visa by malfeasance — bribing a consular employee.  For more on visa security, read Fred Burton’s Getting Back to the Basics here.

DSS Special Agent Bert Seay’s filed a court statement at the Eastern District of New York supporting probable cause to arrest one of those 50 individuals issued visas in Yemen:

In August 2014, DSS received information from the Department of Homeland Security, Office of the Inspector General (“DHS-OIG”) that DHS-OIG had received an anonymous tip that Yemeni national employees working in the non-immigrant visa unit of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen were helping other Yemeni nationals to fraudulently procure non—immigrant visas in exchange for money. Based on information provided by DHS-OIG, DSS identified one specific Yemeni employee at the U.S. Embassy who submitted over 50 suspicious Bl/B2 visa referrals for Yemeni citizens.

DSS identified the visa applications as suspicious because, in the applications, the Yemeni visa applicants purported to be employed by Yemeni oil companies and stated that their reason for traveling to the United States was to attend an oil industry conference called the “Offshore Technology Conference” in Houston, Texas.  However, investigation by DSS determined that, in most instances, the Yemeni oil companies listed as employers on the visa applications were fictitious and, further, that the visa applicants did not, in fact, attend the “Offshore Technology Conference” after traveling to the United States.

The DS agent statement includes a caveat that the “complaint is to set forth only those facts necessary to establish probable cause to arrest,” but does not include “all the relevant facts and circumstances.” The complaint also notes that “DSS identified one specific Yemeni employee at the U.S. Embassy who submitted over 50 suspicious Bl/B2 visa referrals for Yemeni citizens.”

The allegations involved Yemeni national employees,more than one. Suspicious cases involved over 50 visas, and law enforcement got one arrest. Alert is now broadcasted on all channels. So, how do you catch the Visa Malfeasance and Visa Fraudster Pokemons? It’s not like you can now pretend to send a local employee to FSI for training then arrest him or her upon arrival at Dulles like this or this.

Also, for non-State readers, here is what the regs say about visa referrals:

“A referral is a written request, maintained permanently, to advocate for, or otherwise assist, your contacts at post in the visa application process. Referrals are the only allowed mechanism to advocate for or assist visa applicants prior to visa adjudication.” (See 9 FAM, Appendix K, Exhibit I – pdf).

The news report actually gave us more questions than answers. Visa issuance is a specific responsibility of a Consular Officer; it cannot be issued by just any embassy official or any embassy employee. The processing and issuance process is now automated and requires specific login credentials; it’s not like anyone can just stamp a visa foil on a passport with a stamp pad.

And when did foreign national embassy employees started issuing visa referrals? Only qualified and approved individuals may make visa referrals. But here’s the thing – the regs are clear, to qualify as a visa referring officer you must:

(1) Be a U.S. citizen, direct hire, encumbering an NSDD-38 authorized position or serving in a long-term TDY role (of more than 121 days) in place of a permanently stationed direct hire who falls under Chief of Mission (COM) authority and encumbers an NSDD-38 position as defined by the Human Resources section at post;

(2) Attend a referral briefing with the consular section; and

(3) Submit a signed and dated Worldwide NIV Referral Policy Compliance Agreement to the consular section.

Not only that, the chief of section/agency head of the referring officer’s section or agency must approve each referral (and must attend the briefing and sign the compliance document in order to do so). In the absence of a section/agency head or acting head, the Principal Officer (PO) (if at a consulate), or Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), or Ambassador must approve the referral.

So, how is it possible for a Yemeni employee in this case (who has not been identified publicly or charged), to submit 50 visa referrals is seriously perplexing.

The complaint identified one defendant as ABDULMALEK MUSLEH ABDULLAH ALZOBAIDI. He allegedly submitted a visa application dated March 8, 2014 presented to an in-person interview with “a Consular Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa,Yemen on April 14, 2014.”  In his visa application, the defendant allegedly stated, among other things, that he was a “manager” of “Jaber Oil Company.” The defendant allegedly further provided the Consular Officer with a business card for Jaber Oil Company. The defendant also allegedly stated in his visa application that the purpose of his trip to the United States was to attend the “Offshore Technology Conference” in Houston, Texas for approximately 15 days.

According to court docs, in September 2014, DSS agents received information from the Yemeni Ministry of Commerce and Information confirming that the Jaber Oil Company is not a registered or legitimate company in Yemen. That Houston conference is an annual event.

Since this individual has now been charged, he will have his day in a New York court but this brings up an even troubling scenario.

According to 2009 unclassified cable published by WikiLeaks, Yemen security conditions prevent the embassy’s Fraud Prevention Unit (FPU) from performing field investigations so post rely almost exclusively on telephone investigations to combat fraud.  So, if there’s a universe with 50 suspicious cases, how many were investigated by FPU prior to visa issuance? This would have been a pretty standard practice in a high fraud post like Yemen.

In a 2010 inspection review of US Embassy Sana’a, OIG inspectors noted (pdf) that “Because of staffing limitations, Embassy Sanaa is not doing the required annual reviews of its visa referral system. This important internal control is mandated by 9 FAM Appendix K 105(d). Not regularly reviewing referrals deprives consular management of important information on the adjudication process and potentially improper behavior.”

That report, although old, also noted at that time that nonimmigrant visa processing is “a relatively small part of the post’s consular workload, and it is managed successfully by one part-time officer.”

Embassy Sana’a has suffered from staffing and security limitations for many years. We can’t imagine that the staffing situation at post has grown any better since that 2010 report. Has it?

And this makes one wonder — if Sanaa is under “ordered departure”and has limited staff, why do we insist on processing visas there?  Embassy Sana’a did not respond to our inquiry on this case but says on its website that “requests for U.S. tourist and business visa appointments continues to grow.”  Also that “Visa services are an important Embassy function, and the robust demand for tourist and business visas reflects the strong continuing relationship between Yemen and the United States.”

The continuing relationship is so strong that no one has been arrested for the multiple attacks of the U.S. mission in Yemen.

According to AQAP, it has targeted US interests in Yemen three times in the last 60 days alone: shelling of compound on September 27, targeting Ambassador Tueller with IEDs on November 6, and the detonation of two IEDs on post’s northern gate on November 27. The attack last week reportedly resulted in embassy guard death/s; this has not been mentioned, confirmed, or denied by the State Department. This news has not made it to the front pages, so you know they will try again.

via UKFCO

via UKFCO

On a related note, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is now advising against all travel to Yemen and strongly urge British nationals to leave the country.

Is this what we should call expeditionary consular diplomacy now?

 


 

 

Congress Seeks Information on Obamacare Coverage of Foreign Diplomats

– Domani Spero

 

On October 29, 2014,  the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) wrote to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen seeking information after learning that foreign diplomats working in the United States are eligible for subsidized health coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Excerpt from their letter:

The Committees on Foreign Affairs and Ways and Means are investigating the extent to which these diplomats receive taxpayer-subsidized premium tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.  We are seeking to determine how many such individuals participate in these programs and the total cost of such benefits.  As the agency principally responsible for administering health coverage tax credits, we request that you provide this information as soon as possible.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, foreign diplomats holding “A” or “G” visas are eligible to participate in an array of medical programs administered by the federal government, including participation in Health Insurance Marketplaces governed by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Secretary of Health and Human Services has informed the Committee on Foreign Affairs that, if they meet basic ACA requirements, “a foreign diplomat could satisfy the statutory criteria to be eligible for a premium tax credit and cost-sharing reductions.”  The State Department has gone so far as to advertise to Foreign Missions, Permanent Missions to the United Nations, and the United Nations Secretariat that health care exchanges and “the benefits of the United States Affordable Care Act are available” to them.

The Foreign Affairs Committee has sought to determine the number of diplomats receiving coverage and subsides under the ACA.  Unfortunately, the State Department has informed the Foreign Affairs Committee that it “is not involved in the process through which foreign diplomats obtain government-funded benefits” and cannot provide that data.  The Department of Health and Human Services is likewise unable to provide this information.  Specifically, it noted that “[t]he Department does not collect data that identify whether individuals receiving services through our medical programs have diplomatic status.”  Similarly, “the Department does not collect data that identifies whether individuals receiving tax credits and/or cost sharing reductions have diplomatic status.”  Copies of these letters are attached for your reference.

We fully support the ability of foreign diplomats to purchase health care coverage in the United States.  We do not, however, believe that American taxpayers should subsidize these services.  To assist with our oversight of this matter, we ask that you please provide the following information as soon as possible, but not later than 5:00 p.m. on November 12, 2014.

  1. The total number, including from which country, of all non-immigrant, non-citizen “A” and “G” visa holders who are eligible for, and who have received, premium tax credits for qualified health plans under the Affordable Care Act;
  1. The total number, including from which country, of all non-immigrant, non-citizen “A” and “G” visa holders who are eligible for, and who have received, cost-sharing reductions for qualified health plans under the Affordable Care Act; and
  1. The total cost, and cost per individual, of all subsidies provided to the individuals above.

The signed letter and referenced attachments are available here.

Did you know about this? Do you know the rationale for this?  International relations is based on reciprocity, are our American diplomats eligible for healthcare subsidies in countries that avail of Obamacare subsidies here? Since the State Department is “is not involved in the process through which foreign diplomats obtain government-funded benefits,” in the United States, how is it supposed to press countries for reciprocal treatment on behalf of our diplomats?

According to a notice circulated (pdf) by the State Department in February 2014, individuals who are lawfully present in the United States, including U.S. citizens, permanent residents (green card holders), and “A” and “G” visa holders (principal or dependent), may purchase coverage through the health insurance marketplace/exchange. Additionally, the notice states that “Those Permanent Missions whose employees do not receive health and medical insurance benefits through the sending state, or Permanent Missions who have not entered into a health and medical insurance plan with a private insurance provider, may find the benefits provided by the ACA a cost effective way to insure their employees against high physician, hospital, and prescription drug costs.”

Note that A-1 – 2 visas are for foreign government diplomats and officials and their immediate family members while G-1 – 4 visas are for international organization officials and employees and their immediate family members.

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-02/20/14   OAS Note No. 07-B: OAS Affordable Care Act Guidance  [98 Kb]
-02/18/14   Notice: Town Hall Meeting – Health Insurance and the Affordable Care Act [280 Kb]
-11/26/13   USUN Diplomatic Note HC-115-(S)-13: UN Secretariat Affordable Care Act Guidance  [43 Kb]
-11/26/13   USUN Diplomatic Note HC-115-13: USUN Affordable Care Act Guidance  [42 Kb]
-11/21/13   Diplomatic Note 13-1117: Affordable Care Act Guidance  [33 Kb]

USAID “Poor” Morale Goes From 37% to 47%, Administrator Approval Rating Plummets From 78% to 58%

– Domani Spero

 

The June 2014 Foreign Service Journal includes an item on the AFSA USAID survey.  The 23-question, electronic survey focused on concerns, commendations and assessments related to the USAID FSO experience in calendar year 2013.

The USAID VP writes that the survey results will be discussed with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Special Representative for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review Tom Perriello to help in the formulation of USAID priorities.

Excerpt below:

Staff Morale 

The agency morale rating has dropped significantly. Thirty-seven percent of respondents rated agency morale “poor” in 2012; in 2013, 47 percent of respondents rated morale “poor.” The “good/fair” rating shows a corresponding drop, from 61 percent in 2012 to 51 percent for 2013.

A wide range of concerns were shared by respondents, such as: tension between more seasoned USAID employees and those who have entered within the last five years; an overburdened system with too many “initiatives;” lack of transparency and support from HR; and slow encroachment by State.

In a cross-comparison between questions on the new HR leadership and agency morale, a similarly high percentage of employees (61) rated the new HR leadership “poor” and also determined that morale had dropped.

USAID Administrator 

The “poor” rating for the Administrator (question 20) increased from 23 percent in 2012 to 41 percent in the 2013 survey. His overall approval rating (“fair, good, excellent”) for 2013 stands at 58 percent, also a significant drop from 2012 (78 percent). This decline is disturbing and will be pointed out to his office.

Many FSOs originally liked the new initiatives. However, the prevailing sentiment now is that they are too numerous to coordinate and accurately report on, and many do not come with funding. The comments also reflect a recurring theme that work outside of Africa appears to be a lower priority for the Administrator.

Working Conditions 

The survey indicates a significant perception that overall conditions at work are worsening (42 percent). This is not as bad as it was in 2011 (46 percent) or 2010 (55 percent); nevertheless, it is a setback since 2012, when only 36 percent thought conditions at work were deteriorating. Pay and bonus freezes, work space concerns due to consolidation and micromanagement of the field by Washington were some of the concerns highlighted this year, and are possible explanations for the increased rating.

AFSA reports that several important issues have been illuminated in this survey, including the following:

  • First is the tendency for more recent employees in the workforce to have different views than their colleagues from previous generations. The different characteristics of this new generation of workers are increasingly being discussed in the media. In terms of numbers, the millennials are the largest generation in American history and, with USAID’s recent mass hiring, the majority of our workforce now fall into this category.
  • A bonus of the Development Leadership Initiative program is that USAID has a unique opportunity to be a leader in this regard, simply by virtue of its large population of millennials. If we focus on their primary concerns—such as corporate culture, work-life balance, workplace flexibility, making a difference and being appreciated—we realize that they value the same things that are important to everyone!  The difference is that millennials are more likely to voice their thoughts and to change jobs if their needs are not fulfilled. How the agency handles this will determine whether USAID emerges as a government leader in such issues as work-life balance, as well as how it fares in employee retention.
  • After a brief upturn, morale has taken a slide back down. Comments suggest that this is related to various factors, including the sense of a disconnect with significant guidance related to HR processes, and a feeling that Washington does not understand the challenges that FSOs face daily.  Inequalities in benefits  between USAID and State further exacerbate the problem.

The AFSA USAID VP Sharon Wayne writes that “AFSA will continue to engage management on these issues. It is my hope that current leadership will choose to accept these results for what they are: valuable feedback on which to act to make this agency better.”

 

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