No Comparator Case For DS Agent With PTSD — Failure to Follow Regs, Lack of Candor Charges Came 2 1⁄2 Years Late

Posted: 3:12 am  EDT

 

This is a case of a DS Agent charged with lack of candor and failure to follow regulations for incidents that took place in 2010 related to his PTSD.   The State Department issued a final decision to  suspend the agent for 12 days.  According to the ROI, the deciding official at the agency level grievance “also considered the mitigating factors and gave grievant credit for having no past formal disciplinary record and a satisfactory work history. The deciding official also noted grievant’s potential for rehabilitation, while recognizing that grievant clearly was embarrassed by his diagnosis of PTSD, and feared that he might be stigmatized by the label, or that he might even lose his job with the Department.”

A couple things striking about this case.  Following grievant’s military service in Iraq in 2006, he started having panic attacks and severe anxiety, for which he was prescribed several medications – none of which he says worked very well. His symptoms became worse over time. In 2009 he was diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  The incidents that ultimately led to the two charges occurred in November 2010; yet the Department did not propose disciplinary action until April 24, 2013 – a span of 29 months. The ROI does not explain the delay.

Grievant reportedly denied during the interviews with that he had been diagnosed with PTSD, saying instead that he had been treated for anxiety and panic attacks. And yet, according to the ROI, grievant avers that “he discussed his PTSD diagnosis in considerable detail with the DS investigators, and authorized release of his medical records.”

Grievant admits he did not comply with Department regulations requiring him to report that he had been prescribed psychiatric medications, but claims he was unaware of the policy requiring him to do so. He claims that he was not alone in being unaware of this requirement, as many other DS officers to his knowledge were also unaware of the regulation.

Since grievant is a DS agent, the Department has also cited 12 FAM Exhibit 023 2.5, its Deadly Force and Firearms Policy (which we can no longer read online, as it’s now behind the firewall). 12 FAM Exhibit 023 section 2.5 12 FAH-9 H-030 appears specific to prescription medication.  The State Department showed, and the FSGB agreed that there are no similar cases that presented the same set of circumstances as in this grievant’s case.

The Board held that grievance be granted in part and denied in part. The Board remanded the case to the Department to consider an appropriate penalty in view of their decision not to sustain two specifications of one of the two charges.

Summary:

Grievant faces two charges – Lack of Candor and Failure to Follow Regulations – that were leveled against him because of statements he made during a Department investigation about incidents that took place while he was in the U.S. on leave in 2010. He is a Diplomatic Security Special Agent who was admitted to the hospital on two occasions (on consecutive days) after he drank alcohol heavily and took an unknown quantity of prescription medications after he became upset about the breakup of his engagement to be married. The investigation revealed discrepancies between the information grievant gave to investigators and that found in his medical records. Records show that grievant suffers from PTSD and that he had not reported this fact to the Department. The investigation report claims that grievant denied during interviews that he had ever been diagnosed with PTSD or that he was ever in a treatment program to address the condition. His records also show that he had been prescribed several psychiatric medications, and contained no evidence that grievant had reported to the Department either the PTSD diagnosis, or the prescription medicines which are required to be reported under the agency’s Deadly Force and Firearms policy. The Department’s final decision provided for a 12-day suspension without pay.

Grievant denies the majority of the specifications cited in the charges. He claims to have discussed his PTSD diagnosis in detail with the investigators and avers that he responded candidly to all of the questions posed to him during two DS interviews. He admits that he did not report the prescription medicines, but argues that he was unaware he needed to do so. Grievant also claims that the charges are untimely, having been brought after a very long delay – nearly 2 1⁄2 years after the incidents, and that the delay has prejudiced his ability to present his case. He claims to have been particularly disadvantaged in that he is unable to find witnesses who could corroborate his positions or shed light on the quantity of medications he took prior to the 2010 incidents. He also argues that the proposed penalty, in any case, is overly harsh in light of penalties the Department has imposed for like offenses. He requests that those charges/specifications the Department is unable to establish should be overturned, and the 12-day suspension should be mitigated.

Click on the image or the link below to read ROI in pdf file. The file is redacted and originally published online by the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

2014-020 - 04-29-2015 - B - Interim Decision_Redacted-2-02

FSGB Case 2014-020 – 04-29-2015 – B |DS Agent – PTSD Case                         (click image to read in pdf)

2014-020 – 04-29-2015 – B – Interim Decision_Redacted-2

The regs apparently say that “a DSS Special Agent who is taking prescription medication to notify his supervisor and submit a medical certificate or other administratively acceptable documentation of the prescription … to the Domestic Programs Division of the Office of Medical Services immediately after beginning the medication.” We don’t know what happens to DS agents who self report as required by regulations.  Are their USG-issued weapons removed? Are they subject to reassignment? Is there a perception that this is an embarrassment?

Given that many Diplomatic Security personnel have now done multiple tours to war zones and high threat posts, is this really an isolated case of not self-reporting both the PTSD diagnosis and the use of prescription medication?

We sent this individual to Iraq in 2006. He came back with unseen wounds. And here he is in 2015, still fighting his battle.   What can the State Department do to make employees with potential PTSD less fearful of being stigmatized in coming forward and acknowledging they need help? What can the Bureau of Diplomatic Security do more for its agents? How can this be made into a less lonely fight?

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Burn Bag: Ding! Ding! Ding! This Is Your ‘More Than Just Stupid’ Warning!

Via Burn Bag:

“A director of a regional diplomatic courier office has openly expressed he does not want to hire “women of childbearing age”. He achieves this by carefully examining candidates’ resumes when hiring to fill an EFM position. BBag, can you stop this stupidity, considering it’s from an FS-1?”

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EFM – eligible family member
FS01 – the highest rank in the regular Foreign Service, last step before the Senior Foreign Service; equivalent to a full Colonel in the military

Why this is more than just stupid? SCOTUS:

The Supreme Court decides International Union, UAW v. Johnson Controls and addresses the issue of fetal hazards. In this case, the employer barred women of childbearing age from certain jobs due to potential harm that could occur to a fetus. The Court rules that the employer’s restriction against fertile women performing “dangerous jobs” constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII. The Court further rules that the employer’s fetal protection policy could be justified only if being able to bear children was a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) for the job. The fact that the job posed risk to fertile women does not justify barring all fertile women from the position.

The Supreme Court in Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corp. holds that Title VII’s prohibition against sex discrimination means that employers cannot discriminate on the basis of sex plus other factors such as having school age children. In practical terms, EEOC’s policy forbids employers from using one hiring policy for women with small children and a different policy for males with children of a similar age.

In Gibson v. West, the Supreme Court endorses EEOC’s position that it has the legal authority to require that federal agencies pay compensatory damages when EEOC has ruled during the administrative process that the federal agency has unlawfully discriminated in violation of Title VII.

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State Department’s Visa Systems Now Operational at 165 of 220 Posts Worldwide

Posted: 1:56 am  EDT

 

The State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database problems that affected travelers globally is is now back online at 165 of 220 visa issuance posts worldwide.  The latest update does not explain in details the cause of the glitch except to cite the hardware issue.  It also says that service was restored “using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources.”  It does not explain what “other sources” mean but if it took at least 9 days to get that redundant, secondary back-up system to kick in, that’s not a very good system.

The Consular Affairs-issued FAQ asks how many people were affected by this outage? The answer it provides to this question is neither here nor there.  Folks, if you can’t answer your own question, please don’t include it.

According to travel.state.gov, the average visa applications processed every day worldwide is 50,000 x 9 days (June 9-19)=450,000 + 25,000 (half the average daily applications) x 4 days (June 22-25) = 100,000. Total number potentially affected 550,000.  Is that close enough?

The June 25 update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. Whoa! Help us out here. What kind of refusal/approval rates are we looking at here? That 540,000 figure is a little hinky because not all applicants who apply are issued visas. If it would have issued 540,000  visas, what would have been the total number of applicants?  Note that all of them must pay the visa fees. We estimate that the USG loss from this latest glitch is between $72 to $84 million (average daily applications globally x no. of days x $160 visa fee). Is that too low?

Meanwhile, StarrFMonline.com reported that the US Embassy in Accra, has “dismissed reports that it is ripping Ghanaians off by accepting visa fees in spite of the visa issuance imbroglio that has hit US embassies across the world.” The consular section chief  had to explain that “if anybody was refused a visa, that was because of the case and has nothing to do with our technical issues.”

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On June 24, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 50 posts, representing nearly 73 percent of its  nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are back online and issuing visas.  It also says that “posts overseas have issued more than 150,000 non-immigrant visas since June 9.” And that for context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 450,000 visas during the June 9-23 timeframe.

On June 25, the Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas.  The update says that if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started.

Via travel.state.gov, June 25 update:

Visa Systems Issues

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs reports that 165 posts, representing more than 85 percent of our nonimmigrant visa demand worldwide, are now online and issuing visas. 

  • Posts overseas issued more than 82,000 visas on June 24. 

  • Posts overseas have issued more than 238,000 non-immigrant visas this week. For context, if systems had been operating normally, posts would have issued approximately 540,000 visas since the outage started. 

  • We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored. All posts worldwide are now scheduling interviews with applicants, including with those who applied after the systems problems began on June 9.

  • We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers who are waiting for visas, as well as their families and U.S. businesses that have been affected.

  • We continue to post updates to our website, travel.state.gov.

 

Q: Reports indicate that your backlog is 700,000 visas. Is this accurate?

No. While there is a large backlog of cases to clear, it never approached that level, and we have already made good progress issuing those visas. Many posts are working overtime this week and during the upcoming weekend, and we expect to eliminate the backlog in a week or less.


Q: How old is this equipment? And does the age of the equipment and the need to have so many repairs to the hardware mean that this equipment should have been replaced? Is this a funding issue at the base of it?

The hardware that impacted the biometrics system is several years old. The Department was working to move the biometrics system off of this hardware.

The operational requirements to keep this database running for domestic and overseas passport and visa issuances caused delays in upgrading the database according to our planned maintenance schedule.

We have been working to upgrade our systems over the past year.

We will move ahead with planned migration and systems upgrades as soon as we fully restore service.

Q: How did you restore service?

We restored service using a redundant, secondary backup system and other sources. That data allowed us to begin to re-connect posts to the affected portion of the system and synchronize biometric data. This system is running on newer hardware, and has a synchronized standby system in a different Department data center.

In parallel, we are continuing to restore data from backups and overseas post databases. This process is ongoing.

Q: Do you know whether this is equipment that was acquired directly by the State Department, or was this acquired through a third-party contractor?

The equipment was acquired by the Department of State.

Q: How many people were affected by this outage?

During the past two weeks, consular sections have continued to interview travelers who applied June 8 or earlier. Those posts reconnected to our system are now issuing visas for those applicants.

Q: How are cases being prioritized?

We continue to facilitate urgent cases for those individuals who need to travel imminently, and will continue to do so until the systems are normal.

We apologize to travelers and recognize that this has caused hardship to some individuals waiting for visas as well as families and employers.

Q: What about the foreign agricultural workers (H2A visa holders?)

More than 2,500 temporary or seasonal workers have been issued new visas in Mexico since last week.

We will continue to prioritize H-2 applicants as our systems return to normal, and issue as many approved cases as possible. However, we will not be able to process these as quickly as we typically do until our systems are functioning normally. We continue to ask that any employers with urgent needs contact the post which is processing their applicants and we will do everything we can to facilitate the cases.

We are no longer asking CBP to provide Port of Entry waivers, as we have now begun issuing visas at border posts.

Visa applicants, including agricultural workers, who have not received a visa should not report to the border. Please contact the nearest embassy or consulate.

Read more here.

State/OIG Report on US Embassy Estonia Gets a “D” For Um … Dazzle?

Posted: 2:09 am  EDT

 

The Office of the Inspector General inspected the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia from October 3–22, 2014.  It released its inspection report  on June 18, 2015.

Inspection of Embassy Tallinn, Estonia
Posted On: June 18, 2015 Report Date: June 2015
Report Number: ISP-I-15-23A
Report: application/pdf icon isp-i-15-23a.pdf

Quick look at post fro the IG report:

Missionwide staffing is 42 U.S. direct-hire employees, including 27 Department U.S. direct-hire employees. The FY 2014 missionwide budget was $8.9 million. Other agencies represented at the mission include elements of the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. A small number of U.S. military personnel on rotation to Estonia fall under chief of mission authority. The mission has no consulates. The mission’s FY 2015 request for foreign assistance funds totaled $3.6 million for Estonian military stabilization operations and security sector reform ($2.4 million for foreign military funding and $1.2 million for international military education and training). Embassy Tallinn’s missionwide budget for FY 2014 was approximately $8.9 million. Department staffing was 27 U.S. direct-hire employees and 85 locally employed (LE) staff members.

Excerpt from key findings:

  • The Ambassador and the deputy chief of mission provide appropriate oversight to the country team, and U.S. Department of State sections, in accordance with Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. However, stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to Department of State rules and regulations are necessary.
  • The political/economic section is staffed adequately to carry out its policy advocacy and reporting responsibilities but needs to adjust local staff portfolios and the language requirements of its U.S. officers to maximize resources.
  • The public affairs section is central to mission efforts to carry out Integrated Country Strategy objectives, using traditional public diplomacy tools, media engagement, social media, and regional outreach to amplify policy messages.
  • The embassy’s consular warden system has not been reviewed, activated, or tested since at least 2011. Worldwide tensions increase the need for an effective warden system with the flexibility to meet multiple contingencies, including the potential interruption of electronic messaging capability.
  • The aging chancery does not meet—and cannot be retrofitted to meet—even the most basic security standards, and numerous infrastructure deficiencies need to be addressed if the embassy is to remain at its present location.
  • The telecommunications and power cabling infrastructure throughout the chancery is disorganized and largely undocumented, which limits the ability of information management staff to carry out their duties.
  • The embassy needs a comprehensive training plan for locally employed staff that reflects priority training needs.
  • Internal management controls need to be strengthened, with particular attention to separation of duties, documenting processes and standard operating procedures, clarifying backup duties, and reassessing organization structure.

Here is what Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 says:

excerpt from Foreign Service Act of 1980

 

Quite impressive, yo!

The ambassador is popular with the Estonian public, helped sold Javelin missiles worth $50–$60 million, met so infrequently with senior Estonian Government officials but succeeded, nonetheless, to get Estonia to accept one Gitmo detainee. This report reminds us of those evaluation reports where the drafter attempts walking on water. Excerpts:

  • The Ambassador’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to participate effectively in public affairs and other programing in several parts of the country and have garnered him personal popularity with the Estonian public.
  • His support for the military includes advocacy for U.S. military sales. His efforts have helped secure a sale to the Estonian Government of U.S. Javelin missiles worth $50–$60 million.
  • The Ambassador, however, has not established strong relationships at the Government of Estonia’s ministerial level. In his 2 years as Chief of Mission, he has met infrequently with the Prime Minister or other ministers in the cabinet (less than 12 times during his 24 months in the embassy, in addition to initial courtesy calls or accompanying visitors and at public events). … Despite the infrequency of his meetings with senior Estonian Government officials, the Ambassador successfully led the effort to obtain the government’s acceptance of a Guantanamo detainee—an impressive achievement given the small size of the country and the government’s reluctance.

On getting the Estonians to “yes,” how did he do it? The IG report did not say, which would have been really helpful given how many Gitmo detainees we still need to place elsewhere.

On leadership, the IG report says:

The most significant findings concern the need for stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to ethics principles, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) guidelines, and security policies.

Buried in the report is this:

[T]he embassy staff rated the Ambassador below average in leadership categories, including vision, engagement, fairness, and ethics. Segments of the mission community, including some U.S. direct-hire and LE female employees told the OIG team that they feel undervalued. .. Some American and LE staff members gave examples of preferential treatment that the Ambassador afforded to specific employees and interns. It is imperative that the Ambassador reverse these perceptions; he indicated that he is willing to work hard to do so, and he began the process by apologizing to his staff before the inspection team’s departure.

On the EEO program, the report says, “The EEO program at Embassy Tallinn requires attention by embassy leadership.” Oy! What happened?

Non-review of visa issuances/refusals:

The DCM has not met requirements in 9 FAM 41.113 and 9 FAM 41.121 to review nonimmigrant visa issuances and refusals. The most recent regional consular officer report for Tallinn, dated January 2014, states that “[t]he DCM did not meet adjudication review standards…since the last regional officer report visit [in May 2013].” A Bureau of Consular Affairs preinspection report found that standards had also not been met between May 1 and July 30, 2014. The DCM’s review of visa adjudications at single officer embassies is especially important, as no other person provides required oversight and quality control.

Things that happen just before the OIG starts work, or leave post:

  • The Ambassador’s efforts to establish an overall strategic vision, in accordance with 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) 1214, have not been successful. Few of Embassy Tallinn’s senior leaders can articulate the Ambassador’s overall strategic vision or identify the top priorities contained therein, despite an off-site planning session held just days before the start of the inspection. The Ambassador held the previous planning off site almost 2 years earlier—too long ago to enable employees to have a lasting awareness of his goals and direction. A clear shared vision—key to coordinated team work and productivity—is missing. Greater communication is needed. No structured effort exists to inform the mission employees, including LE staff members, of the outcome of the planning session, which has left a large part of the embassy team uninformed.
  • At the start of the inspection no program was in place for mentoring the mission’s two first- and second-tour (FAST) employees, and some mid-level officers stated that they would welcome mentoring on career development issues. The DCM structured a FAST program and scheduled initial mentoring sessions prior to the inspection team’s departure.

Counsel from EUR/Office of the Legal Adviser?

Elsewhere on the report, it says that “the OIG team identified instances in which the Ambassador did not appear to adhere to established Department rules and regulations. Each instance was small, but collectively they suggest his disregard for adherence to the rules.” It recommends that EUR, in coordination with the Office of the Legal Adviser, should counsel the Embassy Tallinn Ambassador concerning ways to avoid breaches of Department of State rules and regulations.


What the hey?  

[T] he Ambassador has been involved only marginally in efforts that would identify potential opportunities in Estonia for U.S. businesses, as outlined in 18 FAM 015. He agreed to increase efforts in that area, as well as not to pursue Estonian export interests that would not directly result in U.S. jobs.

The IG inspectors cited Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 on its key findings but forgot Section 207 (c) of the Act?


Oh darn, we almost forgot —  whatabout curtailments?  

Read more about that in U.S. Embassy of Curtailments.


Recusals, anyone?

Embassy Tallinn’s chief of mission is Jeffrey Levine. Prior to his appointment  as ambassador to Estonia, he was the State Department’s director of Recruitment, Examination and Employment from 2010-2012 (HR/REE).

The OIG team who inspected the mission was headed by Marianne Myles who was previously Ambassador to Cape Verde (2008-2010). Prior to her appointment to Cape Verde, she, too was the director of the State Department’s Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment (HR/REE). She was also Director of Policy Coordination for the Foreign Service’s Director General (DG/HR).

A side note here, HR/REE had three directors spanning at least  six years who went directly from HR to an ambassadorship. (Luis Arreaga, the HR/REE director from 2008-2010 was appointed Ambassador to Iceland from 2010-2013).  This is an extremely small club to belong to.

So we asked Mr. Linick’s office about its recusal policy. Wasn’t IG Linick concerned about potential conflict of interest in this instance? We also asked if there has ever been an instance when OIG inspectors who are/were FS members recused themselves when there is potential or appearance of conflict of interest?

Over the weekend, we received the OIG’s response to our inquiry.  Repeated below in its entirety:

OIG strictly follows the  independence standards established by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).    In order to ensure each inspector is free, both in fact and appearance, from personal, external, and organizational impairments to independence, OIG has a rigorous conflict review within the Office of Inspections (ISP).

Pursuant to this policy, prior to an inspection, every member of the inspection team must review a staffing chart with every employee of the inspected entity, and report, in writing, all prior professional and personal relationships with any such individual.  ISP management  and the Office of General Counsel carefully review this information to ensure that all ISP teams’ members are independent and free from real or apparent conflicts of interest.  This process happens  early in the inspection process as ISP assigns staff to individual teams.   If any such conflicts are identified, ISP takes action to mitigate the conflict, which could include removing a team member from a team.  OIG  provides training to all inspectors on CIGIE independence standards and how to avoid conflicts of interest.

Regarding the Tallin inspection, OIG followed its standard procedure in reviewing input from Ambassador Myles regarding any relationships with employees in Embassy Tallinn and concluded her participation in the inspection was appropriate under CIGIE standards and OIG policy.

So there you go.

We must note that for years, the names of the OIG inspection team members were redacted from these publicly released OIG reports. We have railed about those redactions for various reasons. In 2013, when Steve Linick assumed charge of the OIG — the first Senate-confirmed IG since the 2007 resignation of Howard J. Krongard —  one of his first actions was to release the names of the inspectors with the publicly available reports. We have not forgotten that.

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CCD Visa Update: 22 Posts Accounting For About Half of the Global Visa Volume Now Reconnected

Posted: 1:23 am  EDT

 

On June 19, the Capital Press covering agriculture news in the western states reported that after a nine-day delay, the State Department began issuing visas again for Mexican farmworkers stranded at the U.S.-Mexican border wanting to head north for jobs. Visas were reportedly issued June 17 for a majority of some 200 people headed to Washington state to work in cherry harvest and other tree fruit work, according to Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association in Olympia. The WAFLA posted its request for waiver of the visa requirement online here (pdf).

The update on the CCD glitch late last week said that 750 seasonal workers were issued visas as well as 1500 individuals with humanitarian cases. We asked CA about this since even us found this a tad confusing.  The earlier announcement said that the hardware glitch made it impossible to issue visas at this time. We requested confirmation that the seasonal workers and humanitarian cases who were “issued visas” were actually issued visa waivers. And if that was not the case, how was it possible to issue visas to these applicants if the hardware issues had yet to be fixed?

The Bureau of Consular Affairs has posted a June 22 update on the Consular Consolidated Database problems.  The update below does not specifically answer our questions but it indicates some development.  Note that the 22 posts are not identified in the update (which appears frustrating for consular clients venting on Facebook).  Visa applications affected are those submitted  on or after June 9.  With average global applications at 50,000 a day, this latest CCD glitch potentially affected about 450,000 visa applicants worldwide from June 9 – June 19. Whoa! Is that like $72 million in the last two weeks alone?

Here are the top 10 NIV issuance posts from FY2014. So these ten posts presumably have already been reconnected. We’re missing the next 12 posts that are also back online; hopefully, all 172 posts will be back online before too long.

Top Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visa Issuance Posts | FY2014

Top Nonimmigrant (Temporary) Visa Issuance Posts | FY2014 (click for larger view)

Update below via travel.state.gov:

Visa Systems Issues

  • The Bureau of Consular Affairs is in the process of resolving technical problems with our visa systems. Though some progress has been made, biometric data processing has not been fully restored.
  • Our team continues to work on this 24/7 to restore the systems to full functionality.
  • As of noon today, 22 posts have been reconnected, representing about half of the global nonimmigrant visa volume.
  • We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored.
  • Last week, nearly 1,250 temporary or seasonal workers who had been issued visas in the past were issued new visas in Mexico, and we have issued more than 3,000 visas globally for urgent and humanitarian travel.
  • We deeply regret the inconvenience to travelers and recognize the hardship to those waiting for visas, and in some cases, their family members or employers in the United States.
  • We continue to post updates to our website, travel.state.gov.

Q: How long before you restore full system functionality?

  • Public and private sector experts are making progress in correcting the visa problem, and we are striving to have the system fully reconnected sometime this week.
  • As of noon today, 22 posts have been reconnected, representing about half of the global nonimmigrant visa volume. All our servers appear to be stable. There is a large backlog of cases to clear, but we have already made good progress. We will continue to bring additional posts online until connectivity with all posts is restored.
  • Overseas and domestic passports are being issued.

Q: How many travelers are affected by this outage?

  • Most posts were able to handle visa interviews and some visa printing as usual through the end of last week. This week, many posts have rescheduled visa appointments.
  • We handle an average of 50,000 applications daily worldwide. Many applicants do not have immediate travel plans, and will receive visas in time for planned trips. We are prioritizing urgent medical and other humanitarian cases.

Q: Once operational, how will cases be prioritized?

  • We are already prioritizing urgent humanitarian cases and temporary agricultural workers. Once the systems are fully operational, we will work as quickly as possible to clear the backlog of pending visa cases.
  • We apologize to travelers and recognize that this has caused hardship to some individuals waiting for visas.

Q: What about domestic passports?

  • Domestic passport operations are functioning, with some processing delays. These technical problems have affected the intake of some mailed applications and same-day service at our passport agencies; however, we continue to issue routine and expedited passports to U.S. citizens for all overseas travel needs.

Q: What about overseas passports?

  • Overseas passport applications are being processed. There have been delays in some cases, but posts overseas are able to issue emergency passports in urgent cases.

Q: What about the foreign agricultural workers (H2A visa holders?)

  • We issued nearly 1,250 H-2 visas for agricultural and temporary workers last week. These are applicants whose biometric data was captured before the systems went down.
  • Additionally over the weekend we worked with DHS/CBP to facilitate the entry of more than 250 H-2 workers to travel to their places of employment in the United States.
  • CBP has agreed to give cases processed through the U.S. Department of State due consideration. However, no visa applicant, including agricultural workers, should report to the border without first having applied for a visa and having been processed through an embassy or consulate.
  • Based on this weekend’s systems progress, we are currently rescheduling more than 1,500 H-2 visa applicants who were unable to be interviewed last week because of systems problems.

Related posts:

State Dept’s Overseas Passport and Visa Systems Hit By Glitch Again, Suspends Issuance.
State Dept’s Consular Database Problems Dash Plans, Dreams … Also Cost Up to $1M/Day in California

State Department to Get a Holodeck to Train U.S. Diplomats, Star Trek Replicator Not Included

Posted: 2:17 am  EDT

 

The Foreign Service Institute will soon have an  Immersive Virtual Environment to train our diplomats.  The solicitation calls it a “Holodeck Projection Solution” and it is an intended addition to the school’s Innovation Lab.

Really, something like this?

 

In early 2014, Wired reported that the Army Contracting Command issued a Sources Sought notice for companies interested in demonstrating “mature technologies” for military training.  The report noted that Northrop Grumman thinks its Virtual Immersive Portable Environment (VIPE) Holodeck just may be the answer.  The VIPE Holodeck 360 degree virtual training system provides users with a high-fidelity immersive environment with a variety of mission-centric applications, including simulation and training, mission rehearsal and data visualization. The VIPE Holodeck can support live, virtual and constructive simulation and training exercises including team training, cultural and language training and support for ground, air and remote platform training.

The U.S. Army required  white paper and demo from interested companies with the requirement spelled out here.

The announcement said that the Army lacked the capability to rapidly assess, adapt and replicate the complex nature of the operational environment and applicable Joint, Interagency, International, Multinational (JIIM) enablers to conduct realistic training and develop adaptive Leaders at Home Station. Associated Areas of interest for NIE 15.1 Include:

Provide an Augmented Reality (AR) capability that can be utilized by individual Soldiers or Small units (Company & below) to integrate (simulated) Joint and other combined arms enablers (e.g., indirect/FA fires, aerial delivery of supplies, CAS) during live training events, (with the ability to support multi-echelon training at Home Station when required).

It looks like, the U.S. Army was actually looking not only into the capability gaps, it also knows what that immersive virtual environment will be used for.

We can’t say the same for the State/FSI solicitation for a holodeck.

FSI will have an  Immersive Virtual Environment to train our diplomats but it does not say what kind of immersive training it will be used for. It requires vendor to “provide any necessary training” but does not identify what training content is required.  Is this for an immersive congressional hearing environment?  Language training? Death notification simulations for non-consular officers working as duty officers? Will our diplomats be doing intergalactic diplomatic negotiations on alien planets?  The solicitation does not say.  What’s next?  A follow-up solicitation for vendors to write virtual environment simulations for diplomats? A solicitation for the script for those simulations?

Here’s a clip from The Void, a company that says “you will walk into new dimensions and experience worlds without limits. From fighting intergalactic wars on alien planets, to casting spells in the darkest of dungeons, THE VOID presents the future of entertainment. Only limited by imagination, our advanced Virtual-Reality technologies allow you to see, move, and feel our digital worlds in a completely immersive and realistic way.”

Folks, please let us know when the FSI cafeteria gets a replicator.

 

Via fedbiz:

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the Federal Government’s primary training institution for officers and support personnel of the U.S. foreign affairs community, preparing American diplomats and other professionals to advance U.S. foreign affairs interests overseas and in Washington. At the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC), the FSI provides more than 450 courses, including some 70 foreign languages, to more than 50,000 enrollees a year from the State Department and more than 40 other government agencies and the military service branches.

The NFATC is seeking to have an Immersive Virtual Environment display capability added to its Innovation Lab classroom.

Holodeck Projection Solution

FSI has a space that has three walls arranged in a U-shape with 90° angles between each wall. Each wall is approximately 15ft long by 8ft in height. The vendor will provide a solution to project images on three walls (surfaces) in order to produce an immersive space for training.

The solution must include the following:

• A source computer capable of processing, rendering, and outputting high-end digital video and graphics.

• The source computer must have the ability to have a WiFi network connection, run on latest version of its operating system, and be capable of outputting four (4) video feeds each 1920×1080 or greater; three for the walls/surfaces and one for local monitoring.

• Video processing must…

* Accommodate to the angles in the U shape layout and adjust for the perspective change (i.e. a “wrapped” image). The system must display images from the perspective of a viewer standing in the center of the U as they look around them.

* Be able to show content independently and in a variety of combinations. (i.e. a separate image on each surface simultaneously; two images split between the three surfaces; and other combinations.)

• An audio solution for the immersive space driven from the controlling PC.

• The walls painted or finished with a suitable projection surface.

• Projectors placed so as to minimize shadows from people standing in the immersive environment.

•Projectors with a native resolution of 1920×1080 or greater and a contrast ratio of 2000 to 1 or greater.

This requirement will include all necessary projection equipment, mounts, PC, installation, cabling, wall plates, video processing and wall surface paint/material for a turnkey room.

• Vendor will document all cabling & design and present to FSI in an editable electronic & printed format when the work is completed.

• Vendor will document all equipment serial information and present to FSI in an electronic format (MS Excel or equivalent) when work is completed.

•  Vendor shall provide any necessary training.

Paging Starfleet, is this all you need for a holodeck?

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State Dept’s Consular Database Problems Dash Plans, Dreams … Also Cost Up to $1M/Day in California

Posted: 4:46 pm  EDT

 

On June 12, we posted about the technical problems with the State Department’s overseas passport and visa systems.  Passport applications accepted overseas on or after May 26, 2015 are affected but emergency passports are available.  A hardware failure on June 9 halted the flow of biometric clearance requests from posts to the State Department’s Consular Consolidated Database (CCD). Individuals who submitted online applications or were interviewed for visas on or after June 9 are affected and are asked to reschedule appointments . No emergency visas available. See State Dept’s Overseas Passport and Visa Systems Hit By Glitch Again, Suspends Issuance.

On June 15, the Bureau of Consular Affairs posted the following update on its Facebook page but not on its travel.state.gov news page:

We continue to experience technical problems with our visa systems. This issue is not specific to any particular country or visa category. We apologize for the inconvenience and we are working around the clock to correct the problem. Currently, we are unable to print most immigrant and nonimmigrant visas approved after June 8, 2015. In addition, U.S. embassies and consulates are unable to process new applications submitted on or after June 9, 2015. If you have a visa interview appointment scheduled for June 14-20, 2015, and you submitted your DS-160 online application **after June 9, 2015,** you should reschedule your appointment. If you submitted your DS-160 online application prior to June 9, 2015, you should plan to attend your scheduled visa interview appointment. Our embassies and consulates will be posting location-specific information on their websites, so please check the website of the location where you applied for your visa for more information. 

The technical issues also affected the Department of State’s ability to adjudicate applications for U.S. passports accepted overseas between May 26 and June 14, 2015. If you applied for a U.S. passport overseas during this time frame and have travel plans within the next 10 business days, please consider requesting an emergency passport at the U.S. embassy or consulate at which you originally applied. Information about how to apply for an emergency passport is available on the embassy/consulate website.

The previous time the CCD crashed big time was last summer (see State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).  It could just be a coincidence (or not!) but the crash has now happened twice during the peak travel season. During the meltdown last summer, CA said that CCD was going to have an upgrade at the end of 2014. It also  said at that time that the upgrade plan included two redundant systems. If this glitch started on May 26th, we’re approaching the three week-mark. And so far, those redundant systems are missing in action.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs on its FAQ states that “This is not the same issue as last year.” But we learned from an unofficial source that “All line officers know that last summer’s CCD glitch was never completely fixed.” 

So, which is it?

On June 15, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CCD glitch has left agricultural workers stranded at the border just as the summer harvest gets under way. Jason Resnick, the general counsel for the Western Growers Association, which represents farmers in California, Arizona and Colorado calls this glitch, “a crisis.” Apparently, more than 1,000 workers who expected H-2A agricultural visas are stuck on the Mexican side of the border, where motels are overflowing.

“The workers are overdue to start harvesting berries and other crops on U.S. farms. Mr. Resnick estimated that California agriculture, already stressed by drought, is losing $500,000 to $1 million for each day of delay.”

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The State Department’s consular operation is an enormous one with many parts and affects a large number of travelers.  The State Department issued 9,932,480 nonimmigrant/temporary visas in FY2014. It issued 467,370 immigrant/permanent visas in FY2014. During the same period, domestic and overseas passport offices issued 14,087,341 U.S. passports (including 1,463,191 passport cards).

A small fraction of those frustrated travelers have taken to Facebook to connect with Consular Affairs.

One who is stuck in Canada and could not return to her 14th month old baby writes:

Hi, do you have any timeline to fix the issues? I live in Boston, US & visited Vancouver, BC consulate on June 10th for my visa interview. visa officer told me that your visa is approved and you will get your passport back in 3 days. However, since June 10th, there is no update on my visa. I also inquired with Vancouver Consulate and they are ready to give me passport back without visa. As a matter of fact, I can’t enter into US legally until and unless I got printed Visa. My 14th month baby is waiting in Boston,MA and I got stuck here. Can’t do anything.

Here’s one waiting to be reunited with a loved one after a long wait:

Waiting is excruciating my husband was approved on june 10th and my mother has passed away. We need him home please get this fixed our application has been in since 2013.

Somebody who is pregnant, stuck in Mexico writes:

I am currently 8 months pregnant and have been waiting for my TD visa renewal since mid May. Since I will soon have travel restrictions to fly back home, does this qualify as an urgent humanitarian situation where I should contact the embassy in Mexico directly?

One who missed grandma’s funeral makes a plea:”

Can you tell us a estimated time??? My case was expedited and I miss my Grandmother funeral. Me and my wife were supposed to travel yesterday. Please get this fixed.please

A family stuck in Mexico:

Do you have an ETA in order for ys to plan accordingly? I had my appointment on friday june 12th and I am stuck in Mexico (H1B renewal) without passport and without the ability to get back to work in Boston. Flight fees, hotel fees and a family of 4 that needs to get back to Boston.

Some people missing a convention:

My wife and I have a flight to ny tom. Our visa were approved on 9th. We are part of 100+ group attending a convention. Do we expect to get our passports with visas today?

Somebody stuck in Guatemala, fears loss of a job:

All my documents were in order and approved June 1st. my husband and I are in a dire situation stuck in Guatemala. I’m at risk of losing my job if I don’t return to USA.

A frustrated somebody who calls out other technical issues:

There’s always something wrong. There are already technical issues with payment of IV fees, DS260 and DS261. This system needs to be revamped. What’s the government doing about this?!

A Romanian group who worked and saved to attend the Genius Olympiad:

We are desperate. We have a plane ticker for tomorrow and we were supposed to go to an international competition (Genius Olympiad) in Oswego, NYC. Apart from the part that we lost thousands of dollars, our hopes got crashed because we worked for a year at our projects and invested a lot of time and monney… For… Nothing?!?!?! How come you have no plan B for solving this issue? We tried making an appointment more than one month ago and they said on the 9th on june will be our interview, we said it s too late for us but they said that the visa will be delivered within 2 days maximum. And here we are 5 days later with no visas, with crashed hopes, tons of lost monney, wasted time… Should i go on??

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State Dept Issues Letters to U.S.Passport Holders With Potentially Compromised Personal Information

Posted: 3:21 am  EDT

 

On May 7, we blogged about the indictment of a domestic passport agency contractor and two others alleged to have used stolen U.S. passport information in Texas (see U.S. Passport Agency Contractor, Two Others Indicted for Alleged Use of Stolen Passport Information; also Bringing Cellphones to Work Ends For Federal Employees in 22 Domestic Passport Offices).

We are presuming that the notice below to U.S. passport applicants regarding compromised personal information is related to the  case in Houston since it refers passport applicants to DOJ for further details. We do not think this is related to the current technical problems with visa/passport issuances.

Letter Regarding Compromised Personal Information | JUNE 5, 2015

The U.S. Department of State mailed letters on June 9 to a limited number of U.S. passport customers whose personal information may have been compromised. The letter provides specific details regarding the breach of personal information, how to contact us for further assistance, and guidance on how to protect yourself from identity theft.

The Department has taken immediate action to help protect you. The letter mentions an offer from the Department to sign-up for one year of free credit monitoring services. This service monitors your credit records at all 3 credit reporting agencies and notifies you when there are certain changes to your credit bureau file(s).  In addition, the identity theft insurance policy will reimburse you for certain out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages in the event you are a victim of identity theft.  We have also flagged your U.S. passport record in our databases to prevent others from using your identity to renew or replace your passport.  Your U.S. passport is still valid for international travel.

We apologize for any inconvenience and concern this incident may cause you.  We are thoroughly examining our information security systems and procedures to safeguard against unauthorized access of passport records.

Customers requesting more details on this case should contact the U.S. Department of Justice  at the number or website address provided in their notification letter.

The case USA v. McClendon et al, criminal case #: 4:15-cr-00233-1 is set for jury selection and trial on October 13, 2015 in the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas (Houston).

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Obama Admin Official Leaks Dismal Stengel-Kerry Memo on ISIS Counter Messaging

Posted: 2:08 am EDT

 

An internal State Department memo paints a dreary view of the Obama administration’s efforts to counter messaging by the Islamic State. And somebody leaked it to the New York Times.

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Why, indeed?

The internal memo, dated June 9 is marked SBU or “sensitive but unclassified.” It was drafted and approved by Richard A. Stengel, the State Department’s under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs (State/R) and a former managing editor of Time magazine.  The memo addressed to Secretary Kerry is cleared only by one person, Susan Stevenson, from Stengel’s own Front Office; there are no other addressee.  It’s hard to say how far this memo traveled in 4-5 days before it was leaked but the source could not be too far away from Stengel and Kerry’s offices.

The question now is motive. Who leaked that memo and why? Is it to garner support from higher ups like those in the WH or is it to torpedo Stengel’s “big proposal and immediate improvement” before it get legs. Who gains, who losses from this leak?

The memo is made available online by the NYT.

Pardon me, you’re waiting for the SBU leaker to get caught? We’ll, we’re also waiting for the trap doors for the leakers of the 2010 secret cables sent by then Ambassador Eikenberry on the Afghanistan strategy, and the 2012 top secret cable by then Ambassador Crocker on Pakistani havens.  To-date, none of those leakers have been caught. So, catch the SBU leaker? Good luck!

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