Category Archives: Huh? News

United States Senate of Disaster. Confirmed.

– Domani Spero

 

So last night, the Senate did a few more selective confirmation, then ran out the door for the real fun stuff (see Sorry FSOs: Senate Confirms Lippert, O’Malley, Nell Crocker, Scheinman, Holleyman and Lenhardt).  There are more than 30 ambassadorial nominations pending in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plus nominations and promotions of career employees awaiting Senate approval.  About three dozens nominees for State/USAID/BBG are stuck on the Senate’s Executive Calendar.

No career diplomat made the confirmation cut during the Senate’s last day in session. Which means, a good number of them will have to wait for confirmation during the lame duck session. Because things will definitely change then. Or not. Failing that, they all presumably will be renominated at the start of the new Congress in 2015, and things will definitely work better then. Or not.

Perplexing thing, though … just the other day, during the Benghazi Select Committee hearing, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress exchanged so many thank-yous “it could have been the Oscars” according to WaPo’s Dana Milbank. At the end of the hearing, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) recalled the four dead Americans, “I want to adjourn in memory of Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Ty Woods and Glen Doherty,” he said. We missed this but according to WaPo, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D- Md.) reportedly also “embraced the theme” saying, “We are Americans … everybody trying to do the best they can to protect our people.”

We missed the group hug but see, they really do care about the career people we send out overseas. Except when they don’t.

In fairness, we must note that the Senate did a full plate of legislative business during its last session including the following:

Adopted S.Res.574: National Estuaries Week

Adopted S.Res.575: Prostate Cancer Awareness

Adopted S.Res.566: South Dakota 125th Anniversary

Adopted S.Res.420 – Naturopathic Medicine Week

Passed S.2040 – Blackfoot River Land Exchange

Passed S.2061 by voice vote – Preventing Conflicts of Interest with Contractors Act

Passed S.2583 – E-Label Act

Passed S.2778 – Secretary of State Reward for Information

 

Clearly, “everybody trying to do the best they can to protect our people “… does not include protecting our people from the Congress.  One might start to think that our elected representatives do not really care about our embassies and career diplomats, they just like saying so when they want to hear themselves talk.

So what if career diplomats are stuck in the Oakwood apartments in waiting mode for a year going on two years?

So what if an embassy has not had an ambassador for over 400 days?

You think the Senate might care more if its a place they want to visit for their next CODEL like Seoul or Paris?  Maybe, but holy guacamole, who’s been on a CODEL to Albania or Timor-Leste in the last 12 months? Anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Confirmed, Congress, Foreign Service, FSOs, Huh? News, Realities of the FS, Staffing the FS, State Department

Tomorrow’s News Today: This Week Could Potentially Be a Heck of a Mess!

– Domani Spero

 

 

The Googles tell me that For the Record is an investigative news magazine on TheBlaze. The show was created by Glenn Beck to “restore the truth” in journalism. We’ve never watched it but just so you know, the show is coming back this week.  It has released two three teasers on YouTube and Twitter; one on September 10, a second one on September 15 and another one on YouTube today.  All flashy clips alleging cover-ups and corruption in the State Department. If you’re an old time Foggy Bottom watcher, you will recognize many of the faces and the names. in these clips.

 

 

 

Here is one posted today on YouTube:

 

It appears from the short clips that this is related to the Richard Higbie case (see Higbie v. Kerry) and the still unresolved? non-public? ongoing? investigation on the CBS News allegations (see CBS News: Possible State Dept Cover-Ups on Sex, Drugs, Hookers — Why the “Missing Firewall” Was a Big Deal).

In November last year, the OIG told us that “the eight cases to which you referred continue to be under review.”

This past spring, we’ve revisited this investigation without much success. (see Murders in Juárez …. And What About That State/OIG Report on Diplomatic Security?). Also  State/OIG Is Hiring! One Senior Investigative Counsel Wanted for Complex/Sensitive Allegations and State/OIG Files Report to Congress, Wassup With the In-Depth Review Over CBS News Allegations?

Today, State/OIG told us that as per OIG policy, the office has no comments to make on the status of any possible, pending, on-going or future investigation.

So upfront we must tell you that we don’t know the disposition of these investigations. What we know is that the show will go on tomorrow, September 17 at 8 pm. Due to the titillating and salacious contents of the CBS allegations, we suspect that this will attract enough eyeballs to make it to next day’s news cycle.

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State Department Denies Raymond Maxwell’s Document Scrub Allegations. Peeeeriod!!!!

Domani Spero

 

We did a blog post yesterday on former NEA Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Raymond Maxwell and Benghazi (see Former State Dept DAS Raymond Maxwell Alleges Benghazi Document Scrub Pre-ARB Investigation).

A Fox News report cited State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach denying the allegations:

“That allegation is totally without merit. It doesn’t remotely reflect the way the ARB actually obtained information,” he said in an email. He explained that an “all-points bulletin”-type request went out department-wide instructing “full and prompt cooperation” for anyone contacted by the ARB, and urging anyone with “relevant information” to contact the board. 

“So individuals with information were reaching out proactively to the Board. And, the ARB was also directly engaged with individuals and the Department’s bureaus and offices to request information and pull on whichever threads it chose to. The range of sources that the ARB’s investigation drew on would have made it impossible for anyone outside of the ARB to control its access to information,” Gerlach said. He further noted that the leaders of the ARB have claimed they had unfettered access to information and people. 

Looks like that’s the press guidance.  Below is a clip of  the Deputy Spokesperson of the State Department, Marie Harf, responding to a question on Maxwell’s allegations using similar words — full indirect access, completely without merit, completely ill-informed, ARB co-chairs are of impeccable credentials, period. So she did not call the State Department’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State a liar, she just called him “completely uninformed.” Except that only one of the them was in that room.

Here is the text:

MS. HARF: The ARB had full and direct access to State Department employees and documents. Any accounts to the contrary, like that one you mentioned, are completely without merit, completely ill-informed. It was – these reports show a complete lack of understanding of how the ARB functioned. It collected its own documents directly from anybody in the Department. There was a Department-wide call for information to be given directly to the ARB; that’s what happened. The ARB’s co-chairs, Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, both public servants of impeccable credentials, have both repeated several times that they had “unfettered access” to all the information they needed, period.

 

One could argue that until he was dragged into this Benghazi mess, Mr. Maxwell, a career diplomat of over 20 years was also a public servant of impeccable credentials.  One who initially did not even have access  to what was written about him in the classified report of ARB Benghazi.

Of course, as can be expected, the GOP is embracing this new revelation, and the Dems are simply shrugging this off as old news.  We know that Mr. Maxwell had a grievance case that was dismissed in June this year, we blogged about it. (See The Cautionary Tale of Raymond Maxwell: When the Bureaucracy Bites, Who Gets The Blame?).  But the allegation about this scrub had apparently surfaced about a year ago.  Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, confirmed to FoxNews.com on Monday that Maxwell told him and other lawmakers the same story when they privately interviewed him last year about the attacks and their aftermath. Folks will question that because Mr. Chaffetz is not the most impartial individual to collaborate that story. But if there were Democrats present in that interview, would anyone be wiling to say anything, anyway?

Media Matters deployed its rapid response ninja calling Mr. Maxwell a “dubious source”:

Maxwell himself is a dubious source. He was placed on administrative leave after the Accountability Review Board’s investigation found a “lack of proactive leadership” and pointed specifically to Maxwell’s department, saying some officials in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs “showed a lack of ownership of Benghazi’s security issues.” A House Oversight Committee report released findings from the classified version of the ARB report, which revealed that the ARB’s board members “were troubled by the NEA DAS for Maghreb Affairs’ lack of leadership and engagement on staffing and security issues in Benghazi.”

 

Damn, where is that NEA DAS office for staffing and security issues in Benghazi here?

Extracted from DIPLOMATIC SECURITY | Overseas Facilities May Face Greater Risks Due to Gaps in Security-Related Activities, Standards, and Policies – GAO-14-655 June 2014 (click on image for larger view)

 

This will unfold with Raymond Maxwell either demonized or hailed a hero.   We don’t think he’s either; he’s just a dedicated public servant unfairly tainted by Benghazi who wants his good name back.  It looks like he’ll have to walk through fire before he gets a chance to do that.

We’ve heard about this document scrub allegation this past summer. We understand that there were others who were told about this incident last year. Some NEA folks reportedly also heard this story.

So why now?

Only Mr. Maxwell can answer that.  We hope he gets to tell his full story under oath before the Select Committee.

While we refused to see a conspiracy under every rug in Foggy Bottom, and we did not  support the creation of the Benghazi Select Committee, this changes it for us.

We just hope the Committee can keep its adult pants on and not turn the Benghazi hearings into a clownsport.

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State Department vs. Bill O’Reilly — Volleys Fired But Nothing to Do With Foreign Policy!

Domani Spero

 

Apparently, there is a war going on between the State Department and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News and it has nothing to do with foreign policy or Benghazi! It all started with the following segment of the O’Reilly Factor. At the 2:04 mark, Bill O’Reilly says this:

“With all due respect, and you don’t have to comment on this,” O’Reilly told Rosen. “That woman looks way out of her depth over there. Just the way she delivers … it doesn’t look like she has the gravitas for that job.”

 

That did not sit well with Marie Harf, the deputy spokeswoman of the State Department, who fired a verbal projectile via Twitter:

 

On September 4, Ms. Harf also said this from the podium (mark 3:16 on this video clip):

“I think that when the anchor of a leading cable news show uses quite frankly sexist, personally offensive language that I actually don’t think they would ever use about a man, against the person that shares this podium with me, I think I have an obligation and I think it’s important to step up and say that’s not OK.”

 

We are not a devotee of Mr. O’Reilly, but when the deputy spox picks a fight with the the most watched cable news program in the United States, we’ve got to ask — what was she thinking?  The deputy spokeswoman of the oldest executive agency ever, cannot have a disclaimer saying “tweets are my own.” What she says from the podium and what she tweets are as official as it gets. So this verbal tussle with Mr. O’Reilly is not between her and the cable anchor. None of the headlines says Marie Harf vs. Bill O’Reilly.  It is officially between the State Department and the cable anchor.  Some people may even infer that this is a fight that the Secretary of State signed on. Whether that is true or not, we don’t know. What we know is if it’s from the podium, it represents the official view of the agency and the U.S. government.

And because the other person in the ring is a cable anchor, this is what you get. Watch starting at mark 1:13

 

Mr. O’Reilly called the WH spox, Mr. Earnest “befuddled,” saying “he doesn’t have a lot of credibility.” Mr. O’Reilly, of course, did not say “that man looks uncertain to me.”  We hope Mr. Earnest doesn’t take it upon himself to fire his own objectiles from the White House podium.

Meanwhile, WaPo’s Erik Wemple makes an important point:

“As a housekeeping measure, let’s toss the “personally offensive” claim right in the trash heap. In slighting Psaki, O’Reilly stuck strictly to her performance as a professional, something that is well within his ambit as a cable news anchor. If a SPOKESWOMAN cannot be evaluated on the basis of how she presents herself to the public, then nothing is fair game.”

 

Mr. O’Reilly did used the term “that woman” as opposed to saying , Ms. Psaki “looks way out of her depth over there.That Woman” is the title of the book on Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, one of the most vilified women in the 20th century. It is the title of a comedy drama movies in 1966 and in 2012.  “That woman” reminds us of “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,“in the 1998 chapter of presidential history.  We can understand why that phrase may be objectionable, but the professional person at the podium does not have the luxury of becoming personally upset in public.

One commenter over in WaPo makes a lot of sense:

[N]o State Department spokesperson should wade into a verbal conflict with an American opinion show host (O’Reilly is NOT a “Fox News anchor”) …not on Twitter, and certainly not from the SD press room podium. [...] Had Ms. Harf not tweeted and her initial comments about his opinions had been in response to a press briefing question (unlikely), she could have just said, “We at State do not concern ourselves with the comments of an opinion show host. We have more important matters to attend to.” End of story; Harf looks like a pro. At this point, she looks like a teenage girl in a Facebook cat fight, and that reflects poorly on the State Department, the Obama Administration and our nation.

Ouch!

The official spokeswoman, Jen Psaki and her deputy Marie Harf came to the State Department from the Obama campaign.  Previously, Ms. Psaki was the deputy press secretary for John Kerry‘s 2004 presidential campaign and press secretary for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.  Ms. Harf also worked on the 2012 Obama campaign.

People on the inside know that access means a great deal. It is not a given that assistant secretaries of public affairs and/or spokespersons see the secretaries they serve as often as they want.  The most notable exception may be Margaret Tutwiler who was Secretary Baker’s spokesperson and was famously quoted as saying, “If you’re a Ph.D. and have 17 degrees, the press doesn’t care,” she says. “They like to know that you have a fair idea of the person on whose behalf you are speaking. And I do know this President and this Secretary of State very well.”

Ms. Tutwiler later contributed to ADST’s Oral History project and here is part of what she said (pdf):

“I have said before, and I firmly believe it, that podium was not my podium, I was not elected to anything, I am staff and serve at the President’s pleasure as a political appointee and the Secretary of State. …. I believed that part of the spokesman’s job is how you come through that TV screen. If you don’t look convincing and are just mouthing words, then you are not doing your job.”

 

We understand that there are folks in the building who yearn for “spokesmen and [spokes]women that used to be — the class acts that they were” — presumably, an assistant secretary-rank spokesperson speaking on behalf of the United States. Some of Ms. Psaki’s predecessors include Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Philip J. Crowley, FSO Sean McCormack , Ambassador Richard Boucher , James Rubin, and Margaret D. Tutwiler. We do recognize that a spokesperson is only as good as his/her access to the Secretary.  What good is an ambassador or AS-rank spokesman or spokeswoman if the Secretary does not trust him or her?   Secretary Kerry picked these individuals as his spokespersons, that’s his prerogative.  But they also represent the voice of the State Department and the U.S. Government, and sometimes, we fell like the spoxes never got off the campaign trail.

For instance, last year, Ms. Psaki was caught in a lie and had to release another statement acknowledging that her boss “was briefly on his boat.”  (see It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Not Superman On a Nantucket Boat Or How to Make a Non-News Into Big News). Asked where Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power was at one point, she was unable to answer a very simple question.  The point is, even on topics, where we, the public expect a straight-forward answer, the podium is unable to do so. Did Egypt had a coup?  Transparency, anyone?  Just a very brief one on the QDDR at the top of your head?  Folks, over in YouTube, the Jen Psaki Greatest Hits is now on Episode 24. It is not/not fun to watch.

We’d like to think that they’re doing the best they can at these jobs.  Whether we approve of their performance or not, we imagine this can’t be easy work; some days it’s a tour of the world’s ever growing hotspots and spitholes of miseries.  The reporters will push to get their stories, that’s their job; and hey, that’s expected, no need to accuse them of “buying into Russian propaganda.” Of course, the spokespersons will not always have the answers that the press want.  But that’s an old story.  Perhaps, the most important point worth noting here is no matter how shitty the days may be, the official spokesperson or deputy spokesperson of the U.S. Department of State cannot, and should not be the story of the day.

Why?

If nobody is listening to them because people are talking about them, then the spoxes are not doing their real jobs, which is spoxplaining the administration’s policies.

Well … okay then, back to watching the lighthouse. Here’s Johnny Nash’s Sun-Shiny day:

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State Dept Asks A Most Important Question: Folks, the Internet Answers Are Not/Not Pretty

– Domani Spero

 

Last week, the official blog of the State Department posted the following on QDDR 2014:

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), initiated by Secretary Clinton, is an opportunity for State and USAID to look forward a generation at threats and opportunities, and ensure our capabilities, structures, and allocations of resources and personnel are maximizing our ability to advance.

Secretary Kerry has asked for the 2014 QDDR, the second iteration of this strategic review, to “be a blueprint for America’s success in this new world,” and “a product that guides a modern State Department and USAID and empowers our frontline diplomats and development professionals [to] get the job done.” As part of a process of continuous improvement, this QDDR will identify emerging policy and management priorities and the organizational capabilities needed to maximize the impact and efficiency of America’s diplomatic and development efforts.

At the request of Secretary Kerry, Special Representative Thomas Perriello joined the Department in February to conduct the 2014 QDDR and oversee its implementation. He is a former Member of Congress from Virginia who has worked extensively on transitional justice and conflict prevention overseas.  Deputy Secretary Heather Higginbottom and Administrator Raj Shah serve as co-chairs to foster a participatory process that engages State and USAID personnel, Congress, interagency partners, thought leaders, non-governmental organizations, the business community and the American public.

The State Department also posted the following video on the blog and in YouTube. Interested individuals are invited to send their ideas to QDDRideas@state.gov:

 

The State Department  then tweeted about it, and asked the Twitterverse about what it must think is a most important question.

 

The U.S. not only must right the world’s wrong, it must now also work on “improving the world?”

Oops! The AP’s Matt Lee tweeted what we were thinking.

 

A lucky thing the blog post and video went online on a holiday weekend. That said, the Internet, nonetheless, responded.  We’re sorry to report that the answers are not/not pretty. Below are the tamer selection:

 

 

 

 

Ouch!  This 21st Century public square is pretty wild. You never know who’s going to show up or what you’re gonna hear or who are going for the slug feast.  But a serious question; for purposes of the upcoming QDDR, how is this really helpful?

The current QDDR office is staffed with one special rep, Mr. Perriello, one deputy director, a staff assistant, two senior advisors and three policy analysts. This is the group tasked with engaging with State and USAID personnel, Congress, interagency partners, thought leaders, non-governmental organizations, and the business community. In addition, the same group presumably will have to comb through the submitted ideas the State Department is soliciting through QDDRideas@state.gov from the American public.  We’d like to see how much of the publicly generated ideas would make it to the QDDR 2014 report and how “a better job” would actually be measured.

We have to admit that our jaded slip maybe showing here but how come we feel as if this has a campaign flavor of sort? We’re almost afraid they’re going to ask us for $25 for a chance to have coffee with Mr. Perriello.  Sorry, that’s just us, sweet ones. If you’ve got ideas, they want it need it at QDDRideas@state.gov.

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Burn Bag: Oh, Mr. Personality, Your Visa Stamp So Sexy 😍 !!!

Via Burn Bag:

“Those consular adjudicators who met a “high bar for qualifications and underwent a rigorous screening process”? I’m not sure it’s a good idea to skip the rigorous screening process that normally applies to Foreign Service officers (FSOs), as these adjudicators have the very same powers as FSOs and appear to the outside world to be diplomats. For example, at my post, the very first time one officer represented the Mission at a representational event, he spent the time picking up women, rather than working (he’s married, and here with his family). Within two weeks, he’d told his wife their marriage was over. I can’t believe this represents the kind of good judgement the FS is looking for, any more than I believe the woman he picked up is interested in his personality.”

 

hello-I-love-you-Patrick

Via reactiongifs.com

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Filed under Americans Abroad, Appointments, Consular Work, Foreign Service, Hall of Shame, Huh? News, State Department, U.S. Missions, Visas

Churn News — Conflict & Stabilization Bureau’s Top Official to Step Down

– Domani Spero

 

Secretary Kerry was still on his around the world trip when his office released the following August 13 statement on Rick Barton’s resignation as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO).

After five years in the Administration, the last three as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO), Ambassador Rick Barton has announced his resignation, effective September 30.

Assistant Secretary Barton has provided bold leadership in establishing a new bureau to prevent and respond to conflict and crises worldwide, laying the groundwork for civilian-led efforts to break cycles of violence. Under Rick’s stewardship, CSO took on some of the toughest cases from Syria and Somalia to Honduras, Burma, Kenya and Nigeria. CSO delivered practical solutions through sound management that used the taxpayers’ money efficiently.

Rick will leave behind a legacy of impact and innovation, harnessing data-driven analysis and leveraging partnerships with local groups to tackle the root causes of destabilizing violence. His focus, creativity and optimism have made him a most welcome presence on my team as we work with our allies to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts.

I thank Rick for his vision and leadership, and I look forward to continued partnership with the stabilization team he has built at State.

More information on the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is available on Twitter and Facebook. For more background on the State Department’s work on civilian security, democracy, and human rights, follow @civsecatstate or visit www.state.gov/j.

 

Wow, who writes this stuff?

Mr. Barton was actually confirmed on March 29, 2012 as Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations. He assumed office on April 3, 2012. Previous to assuming his CSO position, he was with ECOSOC (See Officially In: Frederick Barton to UN ECOSOC).

His official bio says that in 2013, he received a Distinguished Honor Award from the Department “in recognition of your groundbreaking work to create the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, promote peacebuilding and empower women, youth and other change agents seeking peaceful change in their communities and societies.”

In March 2014, the Office of Inspector General released its blistering inspection report (pdf) of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. The report gave us a sad and we blogged about it here. (See QDDR II Walks Into a Bar and Asks, What Happened to the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations?).  The 2014 OIG report famously noted CSO’s top management philosophy of “churn” to prevent people from staying in CSO for more than 3 years.

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Related item:

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some of the World’s ‘Forever’ Rulers Are in Town — Meet Their Fashionable Ladies (Photos)

– Domani Spero

 

Today is the last day of the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C.. According to the White House, this is the first such event of its kind: “the largest event any U.S. President has held with African heads of state and government.”  The August 4-6 Summit is intended to advance “the Administration’s focus on trade and investment in Africa and highlights America’s commitment to Africa’s security, its democratic development, and its people.”

While Africa’s worst human rights abusers did not get their invitations, repressive leaders who have been in power for some twenty-years or more did, and are also in town to network with CEOs and talk about peace, regional stability, investing in Africa’s future and  enhancing governance. Jeffrey Smith, a senior advocacy officer at the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights and Todd Moss, a former senior U.S. State Department official argues that “A robust U.S.-Africa policy for the 21st century cannot be built with these remnants of an old guard who play the terrorism or oil card to deflect legitimate criticism and stifle democracy.” Read more of that here. WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog has an interesting table of African leaders invited to attend the summit, sorted by their country’s most recent Polity IV scores, which characterize how democratic or autocratic a state is.

These remnants of the old guard, of course, brought their first ladies with them.How can we ignore them? Here are the six members of that thankfully, shrinking club:

Mrs. Chantal Biya
President Paul Biya has been President of the Republic of Cameroon since 1982

32 years

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Paul Biya, President of the Republic of Cameroon, and Mrs. Chantal Biya, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. [Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon]

The second wife of President Paul Biya of Cameroon has a fashion style that refused to be ignored. Her pink gown and headdress are enchanting, we dare you to look away. She has a community fan page on Facebook that has more colors than an HTML color chart. Check her out here in 1994 when she married President Paul Biya.  How things have changed.  Her hair now makes news when she comes to town and it even has its very own Tumblr page at http://chantalbiyahair.tumblr.com.  In 2011, PEN USA ran a campaign to protest the imprisonment of author, Bertrand Teyou who wrote the book, La belle de la république bananière: Chantal Biya, de la rue au palais (The belle of the banana republic: Chantal Biya, from the streets to the palace). He was sentenced to a two-year imprisonment for ‘insulting’ the president’s wife.

This couple has been married for 20 years but her husband has been president of Cameroon for much longer; since 1982, so 32 years to be exact. Gosh, remember 1982?  The Falklands War, Menachem Begin & Anwar Sadat in Washington DC.; also ABBA’s final public performance? In any case, she’s here in awesome pinkness. The world has not seen such flamboyance since Imelda Marcos made a splash.

 Mrs. Hinda Deby Itno

Idriss Deby Itno has been the President of the Republic of Chad since  1990

24 years

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Idriss Deby Itno, President of the Republic of Chad, and Mrs. Hinda Deby Itno, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. [Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon]

 WaPo called the current Mrs. Deby, “the “fourth lady” of Chad or the 13th, depending on whom you ask.” She married President Deby in mid-2000s and “captivated the capital in a way unseen before in this male-dominated society.”Educated in Morocco, France and a college in Montreal, she was reportedly friendly with Brahim, Deby’s son, who “dabbled in college courses.” That’s the presidential son who was killed in Paris in 2007. If this president remains in power until 2019, he’d be in office for 29 years, her age when they got married. Under Deby’s leadership, Chad has been persistently ranked as one of the world’s most poverty-stricken countries, despite abundant natural reserves of oil, uranium and gold according to CBS News.  Mrs. Deby is reportedly known for being well-spoken and for her flowing designer gowns and matching head scarves. Meet the First Lady of Chad in her gorgeous gold and electric blue gown.

 

 Mrs. Constancia Mangue de Obiang

Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been in office since 1979

35 years

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, and First Lady Constancia Mangue de Obiang, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. [Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon]

Who’s Africa’s worst dictator? Probably not Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe but Equatorial Guinea’s very own “whose life seems a parody of the dictator genre,” according to Peter Maass. He is as much as a “nightmare” as Robert Mugabe, except that his country has oil, lots of oil, and ExxonMobil, Marathon Oil, Chevron, and other firms have apparently invested more than $10 billion to extract the black gold. Read his page on CBS’ The World’s Enduring Dictators, he’s a real cupcake. Mrs. Obiang was born in 1952 in the town of Angong, near Mongomo, and according to this, she studied in the school run by nuns in Bata. She was reportedly a graduate of the Martin Luther King University School of Teacher Training. Last year, she was proclaimed “the epitome of perfection”, and “Mother Africa” by a New York-based group. She attended the WH dinner in an embroidered blue caftan.

Chantal Compaoré

Blaise Compaoré has been President of Burkina Faso since 1987

27 years

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Blaise Compaoré, President of Burkina Faso, and Mrs. Chantal Compaoré, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. [Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon]

CBS describes President Compaoré as a graduate of Muammar Qaddafi’s World Revolutionary Center (a.k.a. Harvard for tyrants).  His country has an unemployment rate of 77 percent (ranked 197th in the world.) Wow! Who’s been editing Mrs.Compaoré’s Wikipedia page? The couple has been married since 1985, so way before that October 1987 coup d’état that killed his predecessor.  Mrs Compaoré attended the WH dinner in her lemon and gold caftan.

Queen Inkhosikati La Mbikiza

King Mswati III has been the leader of Swaziland since 1986

28 years

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Majesty King Mswati III, Kingdom of Swaziland, and Her Royal Highness Queen Inkhosikati La Mbikiza, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. [Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon]

In 2011, The Times of India reported: “King Mswati III has a Rolls Royce, 13 palaces and 14 wives, and just received a pay increase, even as a cash crisis forced Swaziland to slash spending, feeding anger against his regime.”The World’s Enduring Dictators notes that “His most heinous act appears to be living an opulent lifestyle “fit for a king” while his country languishes in extreme poverty.”According to BBC News, Queen Inkhosikati La-Mbikiza, is the king’s third wife and was chosen at a reed dance where apparently, no one can object to the king’s choice.That BBC News story and this apple green-black ensemble made us weep.

Mrs. Zineb Jammeh

Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh has been the President of the Republic of The Gambia since 1994

20 years

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet His Excellency Yahya A.J.J. Jammeh, President of the Republic of The Gambia, and Mrs. Zineb Jammeh, in the Blue Room during a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit dinner at the White House, Aug. 5, 2014. [Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon]

President Yahya Jammeh took control of the country in a military coup in 1994 and has won four re-elections since then. According to her official profile, Mrs. Jammeh was born in Rabat, Morocco in 1977 to Ambassador Soumah, “a well respected career diplomat from the distinguished Guinean Soumah family and Mrs. Soumah who hails from Morocco.” Next year, President Jammeh will be in power for 21 years, Mrs. Jammeh’s  age when they got married.  Her profile says: “Madam Jammeh who holds a Diploma in International Systems and Management is currently involved in an extremely busy career as the Gambia’s beloved First Lady.” Mrs. Jammeh attended the WH dinner in her very understated long, blue dress, overshadowed by her husband’s sparkling white kaftan. We understand that those kaftans had to be “waxed and beaten with wooden mallets to create a stiff shiny cloth” before such clothing can be born.

See the rest of the photos from the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit White House dinner here.

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

– Domani Spero

 

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

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

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

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

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

On July 27, CA released an update:

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

On July 29, CA posted this on FB:

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

 

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

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

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

 

So who owns CCD?

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

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

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

 

CST Just Got a New Data Engineering Contract

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

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

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


Records Growing by the Day

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

That was almost four years ago.


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Management Alert on Information System Security Program

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.40.37 AM

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 Related items:

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

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

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

 

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U.S. Congressman Loves Bollywood, Mistakes U.S. Officials for Indians Visiting Congress

– Domani Spero

 

You’ve probably seen this last week, but if you haven’t, here is a newly elected member of the House of Representatives from Florida’s 19th district, who the Miami Herald called, the “latest inductee to the Sunshine State’s face-palming club. USAToday notes that the congressman won a special election last month to replace Trey Radel, who resigned following a cocaine bust.

Via The Cable’s John Hudson:

House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday, freshman Rep. Curt Clawson misidentified two senior U.S. government officials as representatives of the Indian government.  The two officials, Nisha Biswal and Arun Kumar, are Americans who hold senior positions at the State Department and Commerce Department, respectively.

 

The hearing was on U.S.-India Relations Under the Modi Government.  Nisha Biswal is the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) at the State Department.   Prior to her appointment as State, she was with USAID. Previously, she also served in the House of Representatives,  as the majority clerk for the House Appropriations Committee Foreign Operations Subcommittee (HACFO) and as professional staff in the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), where she was responsible for South Asia.  Arun Kumar is the Director General of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service and Assistant Secretary for Global Markets, International Trade Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce. 

According to USAToday, Mr. Clawson said, “I made a mistake in speaking before being fully briefed and I apologize.  I’m a quick study, but in this case I shot an air ball.”  He has reportedly apologized to both A/S Biswal and DG/FCS Kumar according to Tampa Bay Times. On Saturday, A/S Biswal tweeted this:

 

 

Still, doesn’t that make you wonder — he wasn’t “fully briefed?”  What was he doing there?   He wasn’t listening to the introductions?  He had a “dog ate my homework” moment?  He never meet U.S. officials of color before?

Peter Beinart writes that the silly gaffe is revealing of our society where whiteness is still a proxy for being American.

He had trouble recognizing that two Americans who trace their ancestry to the developing world are really American.

In today’s Republican Party, and beyond, a lot of people are having the same trouble. How else to explain the fact that, according to a 2011 New York Times/CBS poll, 45 percent of Republicans think President Obama was born outside the United States? Is it because they’re well versed in the details of which kind of birth certificate he released and when? Of course not. It’s because they see someone with his color skin and his kind of name and think: Doesn’t seem American to me.
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There’s no point in continuing to ridicule Clawson. Everyone’s entitled to a dumb mistake. But it’s worth noting how unlikely it is that he would have mistaken an Irish-American for a representative of the government of Ireland or a German-American for a representative of the government of Germany. Throughout our nation’s history, whiteness (itself a shifting category) has been used as a proxy for Americanness. And as Clawson reminded us last Thursday, it still is.

A couple related posts that you might want to check out  —  Video of the Week: Where are you from? Where are you really from? No, where are your people really from? and  Video of the Week: “But we’re speaking Japanese” 日本語喋ってるんだけ

Maybe we’ll start a series of getting to know our official USG representatives.

As a side note, these Indian-American officials do not have it easy. When they go to India on behalf of the U.S. Government, they’re told“It is a bad idea for the U.S. to send Indian-American diplomats here. They end up having to prove their loyalty to the U.S. more than others, and it doesn’t help us.” 

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