Category Archives: Huh? News

Who killed King Joffrey? And what about the State Dept’s “missing” $6 billion?

– Domani Spero

We recently posted about that $6 Billion Alert. What Does The Spox Say? Goring-ding-ding-ding … “Grossly Inaccurate” But …. On April 3, WaPo went with State Department inspector general issues alert over $6 billion in contracting money.  On April 4, TheBlaze.com reported that The State Department Has Lost Track of More Than $6Billion. On April 4, Washington Free Beacon has State Department Misplaced $6B Under Hillary Clinton. On April 6, Fox News (blog) screamed $6 Billion Went Missing From Hillary Clinton’s State Department …. Also on April 6, the Examiner.com - ‎reported State Department $6 billion missing: ‘Creates conditions conducive to fraud’.  On April 8, ABC News (blog) added a twist with Blackwater Named in State Department Probe, Spent $$ on Pricey  On April 9, AllGov has State Dept. Can’t Locate Files for $6 Billion Worth of Contracts. Russia’s RIA Navosti found itself an expert and ran with $6 Bln Vanished from US State Department Due to Corruption – Expert.

Finally ….

 

 

On April 13, ten days after WaPo first reported the $6 billion contracts and just when we could not stop talking about ‘The Lion And The Rose’ episode of ‘Game Of Thrones‘, State/OIG’s Steve Linick wrote to the editors of WaPo “about the State Department’s “missing” $6 billion:

WaPo, Sunday, April 13

The April 3 news article “State Department’s IG issues rare alert” reported on the management alert issued recently by my office. In the alert, we identified State Department contracts with a total value of more than $6 billion in which contract files were incomplete or could not be located. The Post stated, “The State Department’s inspector general has warned the department that $6 billion in contracting money over the past six years cannot be properly accounted for . . . . ”

Some have concluded based on this that $6 billion is missing. The alert, however, did not draw that conclusion. Instead, it found that the failure to adequately maintain contract files — documents necessary to ensure the full accounting of U.S. tax dollars — “creates significant financial risk and demonstrates a lack of internal control over the Department’s contract actions.”

Steve Linick, Washington

The writer is inspector general for the U.S. Department of State and Broadcasting Board of Governors.

 

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Cuban Twitter: Short Message Service for Displaced People in the Northwest Frontier of Pakistan?

– Domani Spero

The month of April started off with a bang for USAID!  We saw the Twitter Cubano story first, and then there’s USAID’s reportedly $1billion a year “DARPA-like” innovation lab.  Also SIGAR John Sopko accused USAID of cover up in Afghanistan. And no, USAID Administrator is not going to New Delhi as the next US Ambassador to India. We were seriously intrigued by  the ZunZuneo story, the secret Cuban Twitter reported by the Associated Press. Can you blame us?

 

We thought the Associated Press did a great investigative piece. Sorry, we are not convinced that this was ‘breathlessly written.’

In July 2010, Joe McSpedon, a U.S. government official, flew to Barcelona to put the final touches on a secret plan to build a social media project aimed at undermining Cuba’s communist government.

McSpedon and his team of high-tech contractors had come in from Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Washington and Denver. Their mission: to launch a messaging network that could reach hundreds of thousands of Cubans. To hide the network from the Cuban government, they would set up a byzantine system of front companies using a Cayman Islands bank account, and recruit unsuspecting executives who would not be told of the company’s ties to the U.S. government.

McSpedon didn’t work for the CIA. This was a program paid for and run by the U.S. Agency for International Development, best known for overseeing billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid.

For a look on how much the U.S. Government spent on Cuban Democracy between 1996-2011, see a snapshot of the funding here.

In an interview with Popular Science, USAID’s Administrator, Rajiv Shah, who led USAID through the program, defended it.

“One of the areas we work in is in the area of rights protection and accountability,” Shah said. The highest-level official named in the AP documents is a mid-level manager named Joe McSpedon.

But Shah—despite the fact that the program was unknown to the public—said the idea that ZunZuneo was a covert operation is “inaccurate,” and pointed out that there are other USAID programs that require secrecy, such as protecting the identities of humanitarian workers in Syria. “These projects are notified to Congress and the subject of a thorough accountability report,” he said.

 

The AP story mentions two USAID connected companies: Creative Associates International as contractor and Denver-based Mobile Accord Inc. as one of the subcontractors.

According to Denver Business Journal, Mobile Accord is the parent organization of the mGive business, which helps nonprofits raise donation via text message, and of the GeoPoll business handling opinion surveys in developing nations.

The Guardian reports that the money that Creative Associates spent on ZunZuneo was “publicly earmarked for an unspecified project in Pakistan, government data show. But there is no indication of where the funds were actually spent.”

So we went digging over at USASpending.gov. The first contract we located is a State Department contract with Mobile Accord in the amount of $969,000 and signed on September 18, 2009.  The contract description says: “Short Message Service Support to Be Provided to Displaced People in the Northwest Frontier of PAKISTAN.”

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The second contract also with Mobile Accord in the amount of $720,000 was signed in July 8, 2010:

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So if Twitter Cubano was not a “covert”operation, what’s this over $1.6 million contract between the State Department and Mobile Accord for the Northwest Frontier Pakistan about?  The folks who prepared this data for USASpending.gov did not really intend to be inaccurate with this public information, right?  They just inadvetently spelled ‘Cuba’ as ‘Northwest Frontier Pakistan.’

And this is the official version of  ‘truth in reporting”as public service? What you don’t know can’t harm you?

If this money actually went to Twitter Cubano, and was hidden in plain sight, how are we to believe the accuracy of the data we see on the USASpending website?

Where else do we have similar projects for democracy promotion and/or regime change if possible, do you know?

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One More Expert — Live from Crimea

– Domani Spero

After watching the news for days now, the tween in our house is starting to worry that we are on the verge of World War III.  We are pleased to see TDS’s new Senior Caucasian Correspondent Jordan Klepper deliver this live report from Crimea.

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State/OIG: No More Ambassador Report Cards Cuz They’re Not as Sexy as Debarments?

– Domani Spero

Update, February 28, 2014, 4:23 pm -This blog post has been updated to include a comment from State/OIG spokesman Douglas Welty.

In late January, we learned that the State Department’s Office of Inspector General  no longer issue “report cards” for ambassadors and senior officials during inspections at overseas missions. (See State/OIG Terminates Preparation of Report Cards for Ambassadors and Sr. Embassy Officials).

The Inspector General Office confirmed to us that the practice of preparing these Inspector’s Evaluation Reports (IERs) ended in April 2013.

According to the State/OIG, the official reason for ending the IERs is as follows; let’s call this Razón número #1:

It was an OIG decision, in part based on the points mentioned below that we will continue to comment on executive direction in the course of each inspection in the published report, and because we have seen progress with implementation of the recommendations in the memo report mentioned before (the 360 reviews noted in our 2012 memo report http://oig.state.gov/documents/organization/198810.pdf).

The OIG told Congress in oh, 2009, that the overriding purpose for the IERs is “to assure that upper level post management is not immune to criticism as a result of their positions of authority and physical distance from their own supervisors.”  The OIG was supposed to also issue “corrective” IERs for other employees, “when information surfaces that the EERs for such employees are inaccurate, either in a positive or negative direction.”

After we blogged about this, we received the following explanation from an unofficial source with connections to the relevant office. Here’s Razón número #2:

“The reason OIG stopped writing evaluations on Ambassadors, DCMs, and senior management is because the Department could not successfully challenge grievances by those Ambs, etc.  Because the evaluations were based on anonymous comments, grievance boards would throw them out.”

So the issue here is accountability versus due process, is it?

According to MSPB, due process under the Constitution requires that a tenured federal employee be provided “written notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the employer’s evidence, and an opportunity to present his side of the story.” Cleveland Board of Education v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 546 (1985). The Court has described “the root requirement” of the Due Process Clause as being “that an individual be given an opportunity for a hearing before he is deprived of any significant property interest.” Id. at 542 (emphasis in original). This requires a “meaningful opportunity to invoke the discretion of the decision maker” before the personnel action is effected. Id. at 543.

But as the cases below show, when these IERs are scrupulously done, the Grievance Board hold that the State Department is justified in keeping them on file.  We thought, it might be useful to dig up a few of these IER cases that ended up in the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

Here is a 1987 Foreign Service Grievance Board case G-093(7):

The inspectors’ Memorandum, Report M-3 laid out in detail what they called “serious problems related to the performance of the [title], [grievant], ” and urged that [grievant's] next post, [post], be warned.  The memorandum pointed to: “(A) difficulty in establishing her authority among junior officers and the FSN staff; (B) inability to resolve a festering personnel problem caused by the marginal performance of one FSN; (C) problems in organizing “her own work so as to prevent dysfunctional slowdowns in ; (D) difficulty in managing the system.”

This was issued as an IG memorandum, and the career counselor (or what you would call the Career Development Officer now) informed the onward assignment post that the inspectors had found grievant’s performance in country X wanting.  The FSGB notes in its decision that “had the inspectors’ findings been prepared in the form of an Inspector’s Evaluation Report instead of a memorandum report, copies would have gone only to [grievant], to her performance file, and to the rating inspector’s file.”

The Board find that “grievant has not shown that the criticisms of her performance in the inspection memorandum or the EER were false or that she should be promoted.” They also  find that a report of her performance problems should not have been sent to her next post.  The FSGB decision directed the Department to instruct Embassy [post] to destroy any existing copies of the [year], letter concerning grievant from his career development counselor.  It denied other relief requested by FSO-grievant.

A couple of examples of grievance cases related to IERs that were thrown out and the grievant prevailed:

FSGB Case No. 2008-018

Grievant, a mid-level career FSO, challenged an Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) assessing his performance during a 10-month period when he was chargé d’affaires at [Post].  The IER positively appraised grievant’s overall performance under difficult circumstances, but, based on questionnaire responses from and interviews with a “significant cross-section of American and local employees,” the IER concluded that grievant was prone to outbursts of anger that intimidated some of his staff.  Grievant’s efforts to discover the names and statements of the sources of this criticism were refused by the agency because the employees had been guaranteed confidentiality.  Grievant alleged that the IER was “falsely prejudicial, inaccurate, and highly unjust,” since it was based on a distorted and selective use of comments from a small number of dissatisfied personnel and on anonymous sources he could not challenge and because he had not been counseled regarding the performance criticized.

The Board held:  “Grievant met his burden of proof, establishing that critical comments in an Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) were inaccurate and of a falsely prejudicial character.  The agency may not rely on undisclosed anonymous or confidential sources without any independently verifiable evidence in the record to corroborate the criticism in the IER where grievant presents material evidence that directly contradicts that criticism.  The grievance was remanded for the parties to address the question whether grievant would have been promoted in [Year] or [Year], had the erroneous IER not been in his performance folder.”

FSGB 2008-012

The IER stated eleven negative factual findings or conclusions regarding grievant’s managerial performance as head of the [Named Section] during the evaluation period covered by the IER.  These deficiencies consisted, inter alia, of grievant lacking the interpersonal and leadership skills needed to mentor and guide entry level officers (ELOs) and causing or contributing to the resignation or early departure of ELOs in the [Named Section].  The findings and conclusions contained in a “corrective” Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) violate grievant’s rights either because they are contrary to the preponderance of the record evidence, they impermissibly have as their basis sources that remain anonymous or confidential, or they violate grievant’s substantive right to be counseled with an opportunity to improve.

FSGB directed the Department “to expunge the IER in its entirety from grievant’s Official Performance File (OPF) and if grievant has been low-ranked as a result of the inclusion of this IER in his OPF, the Department is directed to rescind such low rankings.”

Some examples of grievance cases related to IERs where the grievance was denied and the Board decided that the State Department was justified in keeping the IERs on file:

FSGB Case No. 2010-031

Grievant, an FS-01 officer serving as [Officer] in [Host Country], challenged an Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) assessing his performance during a 10 month period.  Mr. [Grievant] urged that the IER be expunged from his OPF because the IER process was procedurally flawed and unfair, five specific statements in the IER were falsely prejudicial and inaccurate, and he was not counseled during the evaluation period or given an opportunity to improve his performance.  If the IER were to remain in his file, it would jeopardize any future promotion.  Based on confidential interviews and questionnaires obtained from fifteen embassy staff members by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), the IER concluded that grievant was partly responsible for some embassy officers’ consideration of curtailment from the post, that the grievant had trouble making decisions, that he incurred unnecessary delays because of excessive attention to detail, and that he missed deadlines.  Grievant was held responsible for several problems associated with his failure to focus on internal embassy management.

The grievance board denied this grievance in its entirety.  The FSGB held that “Grievant failed to meet his burden of proof to establish that an Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) was “falsely prejudicial and contain[ed] inaccurate, misleading statements obtained through improper methodology.”  The agency was justified in relying on anonymous, confidential sources which formed the basis of the criticisms within the IER.  Such information was independently corroborated and verified through questionnaires solicited from the same embassy staff that had provided the confidential information.  Grievant was provided with these subsequently obtained questionnaires, including the names of staff members who completed them.  Grievant failed to produce evidence that would cast doubt on the agency’s evidence, nor did he carry his burden to demonstrate that the IER process was in violation of due process or that he was not counseled appropriately. “

FSGB Case No. 2004-064

Grievant asserted that an IER prepared while he was Chargé at a post included false and inaccurate criticisms of his management style, was prepared in violation of the Department’s regulations, and was based on anonymous information from unverified sources.  He alleged that the Inspection team leader’s ill will toward him resulted in an unfairly biased and unbalanced evaluation.  He claimed that the low ranking he received by the 2004 Selection Board (SB) was based on the IER, and was procedurally defective because the SB did not adhere to the precepts when it low ranked him.

The Board denied the grievant’s appeal.  The FSGB held that “(1) An Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) concerning grievant by an OIG team leader was prepared in accordance with applicable procedures and regulations; grievant failed to carry his burden of proving bias of the team leader.  (2) Consideration of the IER as the principal basis for a low ranking by a selection board was proper and in accordance with the precepts.”

FSGB 2004-55

Grievant appealed the Department of State’s (agency) denial of his grievance centered on an Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) prepared while he was serving as the Deputy Chief of Mission at an American Embassy.  He alleges that the agency violated applicable law and regulation by the inclusion in his Official Performance Folder (OPF) of a materially false and inaccurate IER.  The IER, prepared following a post inspection conducted by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), “did grievous injury to [his] professional reputation and career prospects through distorted and defamatory allegations of managerial negligence.”

The appeal was denied in its entirety.  The Board found that grievant had not provided persuasive evidence on argument in support of his contention that the inspection “was intentionally biased and consciously violated the letter and spirit of the OIG mandate and some FAM regulations,” and failed to overcome the presumption of regularity that attaches to the official acts of public officials.  This presumption, established by the federal courts, “supports the official acts of public officers, and in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, courts presume that they have properly discharged their official duties.”  Furthermore, specific evidence is required to overcome the presumption that public officers have executed their responsibility properly.

FSGB 2004-056

{Grievant}, an FE-MC officer with the Department of State (Department, agency), appeals the agency’s denial of his grievance concerning an Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) that he received while serving as the U.S. Ambassador in {Host City, Host Country}.  He contends that the IER is inaccurate and false, and damaged his personal and professional reputation and career prospects.  The IER, while lauding grievant’s efforts to advance U.S. foreign policy initiatives, criticized his management skills.  For example, the IER found that some officers characterized grievant’s loss of temper, occasional yelling and inattention to management issues as dysfunctional and unprofessional.  Moreover, junior officers found his conduct intimidating and some questioned whether they would remain in the Foreign Service.

The Department maintains that the IER is accurate and that it was written and issued in accordance with applicable regulations.  Because it received letters of support for grievant, some from junior officers expressing second thoughts about what they had told the inspectors, the agency queried other officers who visited the Embassy at the time of or just after the inspection.  The latter officers confirmed the low morale and lack of proper attention to management issues that led to the critical IER.  The Board held that grievant failed to carry his burden of proof.  On many of the issues raised, grievant simply disagreed with the inspectors’ findings without offering any evidence to the contrary.  On other issues, evidence of grievant’s inappropriate behavior was documented by named witnesses, documents of record, and in some cases his own admissions. The grievance appeal was denied.

We hate to think that the State Department with all its smart people is unable to balance accountability with due process and simply gave up on this.  Folks, you’ve litigated the use of official letterhead, in the past; isn’t this more important than the alleged misuse of official letterhead?

Then, while we were not looking, we received an owl delivery with the following howler from Diagon Alley. Enter Razón número #3:

“Don’t hold your breath–IERs went away BECAUSE of AFSA, not despite it.  New IG is mostly interested in cost-savings and debarments (wants to compete with SIGIR/SIGAR); considers leadership/management issues to be Department’s concern, not IG’s; and has been convinced by Hill/GAO that FS experience is problematic.  Inspection division doesn’t know what hit it.”

Oh dear, doesn’t that make you feel totally like  …

via http://replygif.net/127

via replygif.net

So — which do you think again  is the most feasible reason the Inspector General no longer conduct IERs for ambassadors and senior embassy officials?

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch La Razón by the toe.
If it hollers,well, say “boo!”
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.

Damn, my whole brain is crying; yours, too?

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After this blog post went online, the State/OIG spokesman Douglas Welty sent us a statement, published in full below:

In response to your most recent blog posting,” State/OIG: No More Ambassador Report Cards Cuz They’re Not as Sexy as Debarments?”<http://diplopundit.net/2014/02/28/stateoig-no-more-ambassador-report-ca
rds-cuz-theyre-not-as-sexy-as-debarments/>  transparency is a key component of effective IG oversight.  The Inspector’s Evaluation Reports (IERs), which OIG would produce at the Department’s request, were non-public documents processed internally within the Department and used for performance evaluations of senior Department leadership.  Although OIG no longer produces IERs, senior official performance issues that were previously addressed in IERs are now addressed transparently in OIG inspection reports, which are available to all stakeholders.  OIG’s proper oversight role is to use its reports to alert Department management and other stakeholders (e.g., Congress and taxpayers) so that the Department takes proper management action to address them.

Mr. Welty is a great spox but brain’s still crying.  Next week, we’ll have a publicly sourced exhibit on IERs.

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White House Petition: Appoint Chris Holmes as U.S. Ambassador to Iceland

– Domani Spero

On February 14, A.P. from Los Angeles started a White House petition to appoint Chris Holmes the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland. The petition currently has 186 signatures.  Apparently Mr. Holmes has been to Iceland “a bunch of times” and “knows the best bars.” A good an endorsement as any.  Over on Twitter, one of the endorsers tweets, “Chris Holmes is the chillist perfect 4 da job.” Another tweets, “Love Iceland, love mad scientist werewolf Chris Holmes. Holmes for US Ambassador to Iceland.” 

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Who is Chris Holmes? Below via FB:

On Chris Holmes: released his major label debut Dan Loves Patti under his Yum Yum moniker, an album that Rolling Stone said “more than holds it own in comparison with influences as the Beatles, and Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds.” He has since toured and recorded with The Smashing Pumpkins and Felix da Housecat, co-produced tracks for P. Diddy, worked on Billy Corgan’s solo album and written with Rachael Yamagata and Mandy Moore. Also an established DJ, Holmes appeared on URB’s “Next 100” list and was handpicked by Sir Paul McCartney to open for him at 2009’s Coachella Fest and to tour the world with him in 2011. In addition Chris has toured with Radiohead, Atoms for Peace, and Daft Punk.

Active links added above. To read more, see LAT’s Chris Holmes marches to his own extraterrestrial drummer and Six degrees of Chris Holmes: Obama neighbor, Beck sideman, more. The LA Times also writes that “Indeed, there proved so many fascinating instances of Holmes’ notable connections that, quite simply, they wouldn’t fit in a single article.”  And this:

While a student the University of Chicago, Holmes lived across the street from a then-unknown Barack Obama. “He was a really nice guy,” Holmes recalls. “I first met him when a bunch of professors had a party next door.   They were like, ‘This is Barack -– he lives a couple houses down the cul-de-sac.’ I was the weird dude of the neighborhood, always lighting off fireworks and doing crazy things, and he’d always just be sitting on his porch, smoking and thinking. He was such a chain smoker, we nicknamed him ‘Smoking Guy’ after the character on ‘The X-Files.’

So he knew President Obama back when, he’s been to Iceland a bunch of times, and he knows the best bars. He is already on Twitter as @ashtarchris and on Instagram, where a week ago he posted this with a note that says, “C’mon. We can do better.”

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Venezuela (Where Almost No One Has Toilet Paper) Kicks Out Three U.S. Diplomats for “Flaming” Student Protests

– Domani Spero

In October 2013, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro accused the top U.S. diplomat at the US Embassy in Caracas and two other embassy officials of “acts of sabotage” — allegedly, they caused the blackouts that plagued the country — and ordered them to leave (what career track is that?) U.S. Embassy Caracas Charge d’Affaires Kelly Keiderling and two diplomats, reportedly Consular Officer David Moo and Elizabeth Hoffman, who worked in Embassy Caracas’ political section were given 48 hours to leave the country. Soon thereafter, the AP reported that the State Department  expelled Venezuelan Charge d’Affaires Calixto Ortega Rios, Second Secretary Monica Alejandra Sanchez Morales at its embassy in Washington and Consul Marisol Gutierrez de Almeida at the Venezuelan consulate in Houston. (see Venezuela Kicks Out Top US Diplomat, Two Other Officials For … Wait For It ….Blackouts!).

This weekend, Secretary Kerry expressed deep concern over  “rising tensions and violence surrounding this week’s protests in Venezuela.”  His statement also says, “We are particularly alarmed by reports that the Venezuelan government has arrested or detained scores of anti-government protestors and issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. These actions have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to express their grievances peacefully.”Here is Leopoldo Lopez on YouTube. See WSJ Venezuelan Opposition Leader Says He Will Risk Arrest.

The Venezuelan government wasn’t happy with this “interference.” Now the Miami Herald is reporting that Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elías Jaua has given three American diplomats 48 hours to leave the country as  he accused them of fanning the flames of student protests that have rattled the country for more than a week.

The El Universal reports that Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jaua identified the three officials as Vice Consuls Breeann Marie McCusker, Jeffrey Gordon Elsen and Kristofer Lee Clark.  They’ve been accused of  “trying to infiltrate Venezuelan universities under the cover of doing visa outreach.”We should note that the US Embassy Caracas has improved its visa wait time for Venezuelan visa applicants to 70 days in January but it is still #2 in Top Ten Visa Wait Time at U.S. Consular Posts (pdf) via Liam Schwartz’s Consular Corner.

We expect a reciprocal expulsion for three Venezuelan diplomats in the United States to follow. Today, the State Department denied these allegations releasing the following statement:

“The allegations that the United States is helping to organize protestors in Venezuela is baseless and false. We support human rights and fundamental freedoms – including freedom of expression and of peaceful assembly – in Venezuela as we do in countries around the world. But as we have long said, Venezuela’s political future is for the Venezuelan people to decide. We urge their government to engage all parties in meaningful dialogue.”

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“To be Venezuelan today is to live on the edge of the apocalypse, convinced it will happen tomorrow,” said Alberto Barrera, a poet, screenwriter and biographer of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. According to Globe and Mail,  the oil engineers have emigrated to Calgary, the soap opera stars fled to Mexico and Colombia, and women “both rich and poor have cut back to just one blow-dry or manicure each week.”

The country where inflation has been running reportedly at over 50%, where television stations are state controlled,  and where billboards apparently boast that “Venezuela has never been stronger,” almost no one has toilet paper in their bathrooms.

Whether its blackouts, protests or lack of toilet paper in the world’s fifth-largest oil producer – some people claim that there’s always Uncle Sam to blame.  As long as the Mr. Maduro’s government  convinced itself that all the country’s ails come from its powerful neighbor and refused to acknowledge how poorly it has managed Venezuela’s  affairs, nothing will change. It can continue blaming the United States, but sooner or later it will be forced to faced up to reality.  Venezuela produced 2.45 million barrels a day in 2012.  It exports on  average 792,000 barrels a day in the first 11 months of 2013 to the U.S. according to Bloomberg (apparently, the lowest since 1985). The report also says that Venezuela’s export basket price rose to $97.18 a barrel in the week of Jan. 27-31.

So the most important question — with that kind of money, how is it that there is a shortage of toilet paper in the country?

Early this year, LAT reported that U.S.-based American Airlines and United Airlines and Panama’s Copa Airlines were halting ticket sales in Venezuela in lieu of the government’s failure to pay arrears that has totaled $2.6 billion.  According to USA Today, Toyota Motor Co. said it would shut down its assembly operations in Venezuela due to  to the government’s foreign exchange controls.  The country is also running out of newsprint. Last week, the Guardian reported that El Impulso, the country’s oldest newspaper will be reduced to one section because it is running out of paper.

But to President Maduro this is all good since the late Hugo Chavez had reportedly appeared to him as a bird more than once telling him he was doing a good job.

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US Embassy Cairo FSN Ahmed Alaiba Detained Since 1/25–State Dept Still Seeking “Clarity”

❊ If you want to help keep us around, see Help Diplopundit Continue the Chase—Crowdfunding for 2014 via RocketHub ❊

– Domani Spero

Cairo Post reported on February 11 that Egyptian National Security arrested a local employee on Jan. 25 who works for the U.S. embassy in Cairo.  On February 12, NYT’s David Kirkpatrick has additional details:

Security forces have detained an Egyptian employee of the United States Embassy who worked as a liaison to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian news reports said Wednesday, stirring fears of pressure on Western diplomats who communicate with the Islamist opposition.

Embassy officials said the employee, Ahmed Alaiba, was detained on Jan. 25, the third anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising here, and he has been held without charges since then.
[...]
An Egyptian government official briefed on the case said Mr. Alaiba was under investigation for both participating in an illegal demonstration and “communicating with an outlawed group.”
[...]
Mr. Alaiba, an Egyptian citizen, has no diplomatic immunities. But some Western diplomats said that the leaks to the Egyptian news media about his arrest appeared to convey a message to them as well. Many diplomats were already wrestling with fears of possible retribution from the military-backed government if they continued meeting with Brotherhood officials as they did before the takeover.

Questions about Mr. Alaiba’s arrest made it to the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing with Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf. This FSN has been detained since January 25. Besides repeating what has already been reported in the news media, Ms. Harf could only promise to “see if we have more clarity on this.” Eighteen days after the embassy employee was detained, Ms. Harf could not even say what was this employee’s job at the embassy?!

Typically, the local employees who do work overseas like Mr. Alaiba’s are political assistants or political specialists. These are fairly common jobs in diplomatic missions.  We do want to know what the former DCM, now  Chargé d’Affaires Markc Sievers is doing about the detention of a member of his embassy’s staff?  Yes, he’s Egyptian, and a local employee, and he’s one of ours.  If uncorrected, this could become a dangerous precedent. Anyone who works for the U.S. government in Egypt who talks to MB officials or supporters or other opposition figures could just be thrown into jail without charges or some spurious ones.

In some dark corners of the net, the conspiracy theorists are already busy. This is apparently proof of President Obama’s secret support for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Which just shows how little people know about what our official representatives do overseas.  Our diplomats and local employees talk to host country governments and opposition parties/figures around the globe.  What they learn help inform the decisions that our government makes.  This happens whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. Some of the folks our officials talk to are not very nice, some are corrupt, some would not even think twice about stabbing us in the back. But that’s the world we lived in.  To expect that our government officials should only talk to the government in power is idiotic, that gives us only half the story. It also makes it impossible for our people to do substantial work when the levers of power change hands.  So, do think about that when you hear about these nutty stuff.

Now, can we please have somebody at the podium who wears a hat or sash that says, “Clarity is my name” whether it snows or not?

Excerpt below from the greatest mid-day show in town:

QUESTION: I wanted to start by asking about the Embassy employee in Cairo who was arrested for his liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood. First off, what is the reaction of the State Department? What’s being done, I assume, to have him released, if he hasn’t been released already? And then if you could talk a little more broadly about whether or not the State Department or the Administration believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization, and what this says about dealing with a government in Cairo that is refusing to recognize such a significant part of the population in Egypt.

MS. HARF: Absolutely. So we can confirm that a locally employed staff member of the U.S. Embassy was detained on January 25th and that, as far as we understand, he has been held without charges since then. We have been in touch with the Government of Egypt and have requested additional information about his case. The locally employed staff member was detained, I think, over a weekend on January 25th while off-duty, as I think maybe you mentioned.

The United States does not – has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. We have been very clear in Egypt that we will work with all sides and all parties to help move an inclusive process forward. We’ve also repeatedly, both publicly and privately, called on the interim government to move forward in an inclusive manner. That means talking to all parties, bringing them into the process. We’re not saying what the future government should look like specifically other than that it should be inclusive. That, of course, includes the Muslim Brotherhood. We will continue talking to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as part of our broad outreach to the different parties and groups there.

QUESTION: So if he was arrested or detained anyways off-duty, is it your understanding he was – he is being detained because of his liaison with the Muslim Brotherhood, or was there another reason to your understanding?

MS. HARF: Let me see if we have more clarity on this. I’m not sure we have entire clarity about the reasons for his continued detention. Let me check with our folks and see. Again, I’m not sure if we know exactly why he’s being detained.

QUESTION: Because otherwise, I mean I’m sure other employees at the Embassy are – would be reluctant to liaise with the Muslim Brotherhood or any opposition groups that the current government in Cairo seems to not look upon favorably. And –

MS. HARF: Let me see – oh, sorry, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. No, and so I just wonder, as you say, how the Obama Administration and the State Department is going to continue reaching out to the Muslim Brotherhood. How will they do that if employees are being arrested and there’s certain penalties that people have to face in doing so.

MS. HARF: Well – yeah. No, it’s – to be clear, I’m not saying that that was the reason for his detention. I would need to confirm that with folks.

QUESTION: Okay.

MS. HARF: I actually haven’t heard that, so let me check and see that.

Again, he was a locally employed staff member. Our folks that are on the ground there have been talking to the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups as well. So let me see two things if I can get a little more clarity about the reason for his detention and also what his job was at the Embassy. I just don’t have all that clarity.

QUESTION: Okay. So would an American official at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo be able to liaise with the Muslim Brotherhood? I assume they have been.

MS. HARF: Well, they certainly have been. Absolutely.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. HARF: And again, I’m not sure that was the reason for his detention. So before we sort of take this – I’m happy to check and see if we just have some more clarity on that.

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Burn Bag: Yo! A Shout-out From the Starr Man?

❊ If you want to help keep us around, see Help Diplopundit Continue the Chase—Crowdfunding for 2014 via RocketHub ❊

– Domani Spero
Updated @0850

Received entry for the Burn Bag:  “Congrats to Diplopundit on the shout-out from DS’ Assistant Secretary during his latest volun-mandatory town hall meeting.  Notably absent from A/S Starr’s rant was anything related to accountability, transparency, or responsibility…”

Um, thanks?!  A shout-out is usually good, but rants are usually bad. Unless he was ranting raves, which could also be good and bad.  Pardon me? Stop over-thinking it?  Oh, right.   Here’s the Starr man who may or may not have given us gave a shout-out behind the wall – a fairly neutral one, we’re told, like –  “and there’s Diplopundit” in referring to social media and informal news about DS.  Thank you, that’s us, dudes, where do I bow?  We did not hold anyone hostage to get a mention, honest.   To our friends at DS, we have an offer for you — check back tomorrow!

As his wife looks on, Gregory B. Starr (left) is congratulated by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry (right) immediately after Mr. Kerry swore him in as Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security during a ceremony at State Department headquarters in Washington D.C., January 8, 2014.  Mr. Starr is the first Diplomatic Security special agent to hold the position of Assistant Secretary. (U.S. Department of State photo)

As his wife looks on, Gregory B. Starr (left) is congratulated by U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry (right) immediately after Mr. Kerry swore him in as Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security during a ceremony at State Department headquarters in Washington D.C., January 8, 2014. Mr. Starr is the first Diplomatic Security special agent to hold the position of Assistant Secretary. (U.S. Department of State photo)

Also, folks, we understand that an energizer bunny has mirrored Diplopundit’s Burn Bag behind the firewall. Is that  true or is that something we should treat as #RUMINT?

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Indian Diplomat Devyani Khobragade Strip Search Video Is Fake – Here’s Proof

– Domani Spero

There is a video circulating on social media which claims to be showing the CCTV footage of the strip search of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade after her arrest in New York.   The video was “user submitted” on zemtv.com on January 3, 2013 under the headline CCTV Footage of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade being strip searched By U.S Police. The video is online on Tune.pk, Pakistan’s video sharing website where it has 18.9K views, on DailyMotion where it has 123,011 views and on YouTube, where the video is no longer displayed but the following notice is up “Indian diplomat D…” This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Arup Bhattacharya.” Both videos are 1:10 minutes in length and appears to be the same footage.

Screen Shot 2014-01-04

Click on image to view the video on Tune.pk
(Warning: graphic images)

screen capture of YouTube video

screen capture of YouTube video

This alleged CCTV footage of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s strip search is a hoax.  It is ill-intentioned and could put Americans, particularly official Americans in danger.  Given that the Khobragade’s case has already spawned a good number of conspiracy theories, particularly in India, we don’t think that people will just accept it when we say this is a hoax. “Allegedly a hoax” is how the official denial that this video is a hoax is referred to in some parts of social media.

This is not/not “allegedly a hoax” but a real hoax. Nothing but video fakery and we’ve got proof.

The woman in the alleged Khobragade video is not/not the Indian diplomat but Hope Steffey, a U.S. citizen strip-searched by the Stark County sheriff’s department in Ohio in 2006.  The video was obtained by Ms. Steffey’s lawyer and released to the public in 2008 (See 12:44 minute video with Tom Meyer for WKYC-TV, Channel 3, Cleveland, OH)

The screen capture from a report by WKYC-TV (uploaded by a different YouTube user) shows the same woman on a blue mattress being strip searched.

Screen Shot 2014-01-04

Click on image to view video of Hope Steffey in the Stark Country jail in Ohio, 2008.
(Warning: Graphic images)

In June 2010, WKYC-TV reported that the settlement of the Hope Steffey lawsuit against Stark County Sheriff Tim Swanson, accusing his deputies of using brutal and excessive force resulted in the payment of $475,000. The total cost to Stark County to defend and settle the Steffey lawsuit was reportedly more than $705,000.  It also resulted in the insurance premium for the country county to dramatically jump from $34,261 in 2008 to $195,350 in 2010.

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If True That Foreign Diplomats in the U.S. Are “Eligible” for Medicaid — That’s Absolutely Bonkers!

– Domani Spero

In early December, Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and George Venizelos, the Assistant Director-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”), announced charges against 49 current or former Russian diplomats or spouses of diplomats employed at the Russian Mission in the United States for participating in a widespread fraud scheme from 2004 to August 2013 to illegally obtain nearly
$1.5 million dollars in Medicaid benefits. (See 49 Russian Diplomats/Spouses Charged With Picking Uncle Sam’s Pocket in Medicaid Scam).

On December 6, during the Daily Press Briefing, the State Department deputy spokesperson, Marie Harf said this:

“We routinely inform all foreign missions in the U.S. – most recently we did this in November – that we expect their personnel to maintain health insurance coverage. So under U.S. law, nonimmigrants, which diplomats fall under in this case, who meet certain eligibility criteria may apply for and receive federally funded medical care.”

Whaaat?!

Lest we get all excited, this is the same spokesperson, of course, who could not say what appropriate consular assistance is provided when an American citizen dies abroad.  Or who says from the podium that “It’s not for any State Department official to sign off on any arrests, right, even regarding a foreign diplomat.”  Whoops!  (We heard that the Special Agents of the Diplomatic Security Service toppled over in their swivel chairs when the clip aired on YouTube).

Then on December 14, UPI reported that “Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said “some of the diplomats accused of glomming on to the U.S. healthcare system were actually entitled to do so.”

Entitled to do so?  As in  a legal right or a just claim to receive it?

On December 16, Interfax also reported that Moscow is “already taking disciplinary measures in relation to the Russian diplomats accused in the U.S. of unlawfully receiving Medicaid benefits to cover the pregnancy and childbirth costs.”

The report quotes Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov saying, “This is a disciplinary offence, because, by being insincere in filing applications and citing inaccurate figures to receive some benefits, they violated the host country’s norms and rules, which a diplomat has no right to do. I’d like to stress once again: they are being subjected and will be subjected to disciplinary action.”  Now, the same report repeats this notion that some of the Russian diplomats were “entitled” to apply for such assistance due to their low income:

“We have looked into this. First, the allegation that none of them was entitled to this because they are foreigners is wrong. There are different laws in various states of the U.S. that allow for using Medicaid benefits by foreigners. Second, it is not quite true that the Russian diplomats’ incomes did not make them eligible for receiving such payments through Medicaid,” he said.

“We have studied the files of the said colleagues, and it turned out that at least some of them had salaries that entitled them to apply for such assistance from the U.S. fund at that moment. 

How bonkers is that?  That American taxpayers are subsidizing the health care cost of foreign diplomats in the United States.  Which part of this makes sense? Medicaid is a federally funded program designed to assist low-income families afford health care. And in this case, if the allegations are true, Russian diplomats took public assistance that would have been  helpful to low income Americans.

The big question now is — can we also call this foreign aid?

Screen Shot 2013-12-26

Extracted from Medicaid Renewal Form
(click image for larger view)

Now Congress wants to know Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is going on here. The SFRC is missing on this but U.S. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently expressed “serious concern about foreign diplomats receiving, and reportedly defrauding, U.S. Government-funded benefits programs.” In his letter to Secretary Kerry, Chairman Royce requested a meeting plus written answers to the following questions:

1.      How will the Administration treat the 11 named defendants who, according to the U.S. Attorney, remain in the United States?  Will you ask the Russian government to waive their immunity so that they can be prosecuted?  If not, will the Department declare them persona non grata?

2.      How will the Administration treat the 38 named defendants who, according to the U.S. Attorney, no longer reside in the United States?  Will you request that they be extradited to stand trial?  If not, will the Department impose a U.S. visa ban on them?

3.      How will the Administration treat the unindicted co-conspirators at Russian diplomatic offices in the U.S. who allegedly advised and assisted the named defendants by supplying false documentation to New York officials in support of the fraudulent Medicaid claims?

4.      Will the Administration bill the Russian government for the Medicaid benefits its personnel fraudulently used?  If not, how will New York State’s Medicaid program be compensated for the loss?

5.      On December 5, 2013, Department of State Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “We are still…reviewing the charges that were unsealed.”  How closely did the U.S. Attorney, Department of Justice, or Federal Bureau of Investigation cooperate with the Department of State during the investigation?  What steps did the U.S. Attorney take to coordinate with the Department of State before filing the complaint on November 18, 2013 or unsealing it on December 5, 2013?

This situation also raises a number of important questions about government programs that provide benefits to foreign diplomats.  I therefore would appreciate written answers to the following questions not later than January 13, 2014:

6.      On December 6, 2013, Department of State Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf stated that foreign diplomats in the United States “who meet certain eligibility criteria may apply for and receive federally funded medical care.”  What are the medical programs for which foreign diplomats may be eligible?  What are the eligibility criteria?  Over the last 10 years, how many foreign diplomats have used these programs?  What was the total cost of the benefits provided?  Please provide these data sorted by foreign diplomatic mission or international organization.

7.      Are foreign diplomats eligible for government-funded benefits other than Medicaid (e.g., Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)?  If so, which programs and what are the eligibility criteria?  Over the last 10 years, how many foreign diplomats have taken advantage of these programs?  What was the total cost of the benefits provided?  Please provide these data sorted by foreign diplomatic mission or international organization.

8.      Is the Administration aware of other cases where foreign diplomats fraudulently or inappropriately obtained Medicaid or other government-funded benefits?  Please provide the details of these cases, including the cost of any benefits that were inappropriately obtained.

9.      What is the Administration doing to ensure that foreign diplomats cannot inappropriately obtain government-funded benefits in the future?  Has the Administration asked relevant government benefit agencies to check their rolls for the names of foreign diplomats?  Does the Department regularly provide a list of foreign diplomats to relevant government benefit agencies?

And — if some foreign diplomats in the United States are “eligible” for Medicaid, how about some of their underpaid domestic workers, are they eligible, too?

Oh, for god’s sakes, maybe the State Department should just publish a handbook of freebies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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