Category Archives: Iraq

Monday Inbox: US Embassy Baghdad’s Conrad Turner Recites a Russian Poem, And ….

– Domani Spero

Updated on 3/24 at 11:24 pm PST: The YouTube description now indicates that this is “One of four videos celebrating international poetry during the visit to Iraq of poets from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop.”

The video below was published by U.S. Embassy Baghdad on March 4, 2014 on YouTube. The video includes the English and Arabic text translation of a Russian poem.  The speaker is the embassy’s Public Affairs Counselor in Baghdad reciting a poem by Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in Baghdad. The embassy’s AIO also recited a poem last February; can’t say whose work he is reciting here, can you?

Oh, please don’t get us wrong, we love poetry.  We love Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese and  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Underwear“and Keats, and Yeats, and Billy Collins, too.  But somebody from that building sent us an email asking if this is “really clever use of PD time and money?” So we went and look.  The YouTube post is 1:40 min in length, has 256 views, and does not include any context as to why our U.S. diplomat in Baghdad is reciting a Russian poem. What’s the purpose why this video is up, anyways? Was this part of a larger event? Nothing on the embassy’s website indicate that it is.  Was he just feeling it?  We can’t say, no explainer with the vid.  This could, of course, be part of celebrating poetry month, but the National Poetry Month in the U.S. has been celebrated in April since 1996.

In related news, according to iraqbodycount.org, the March civilian casualties in Iraq is currently at 749; the year-to-date count is 2,755 deaths.

Well, what do you think –  is this “really clever use of PD time and money?” or is this Reality Detachment, a chapter in Peter Van Buren’s future novel?

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Filed under Digital Diplomacy, Foreign Service, FSOs, Iraq, Peter Van Buren, Public Diplomacy, Social Media, U.S. Missions, US Embassy Baghdad

No Publicity Zone — 2012 Judicial Actions Involving Foreign Service Grievance Board Rulings

– Domani Spero

We’ve  heard from the FS grapevine about an agreement that there will be no publicity of grievance results.  If that’s true, well, that’s a terribly bad agreement, right?

So if you want to keep up with Foreign Service grievance cases that went to court, you can check FSGB’s annual report to Congress which details judicial actions related to Board cases during the year.   We have listed them below from the 2012 report and have included the links to PDF files for all the court rulings but one.  In he future, most of the cases should be available via the GPO but if not available there, you can also try looking them up using pacer.gov (requires registration and payment for document view/download).

Karl Hampton v. Tom Vilsack | PDF

Karl Hampton is a former Foreign Service Officer with the Department of Agriculture who was terminated for cause after a hearing before the Board in 2007. He subsequently filed a Title VII suit against USDA, claiming discrimination on the basis of race, retaliation for engaging in protected activity, and a hostile work environment. Last year the District Court for D.C. granted USDA’s motion for summary judgment on nine of the ten counts alleged, and later dismissed the tenth count. Karl Hampton v. Tom Vilsack, 760 F. Supp. 2d 38 (D. D.C. 2011). Hampton appealed that decision. In a de novo review, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the District Court’s ruling. Karl Hampton, Appellant v. Tom Vilsack, Secretary, United States Department Of Agriculture, Appellee, 685 F.3d 1096; (U.S. App. D.C. 2012).

Richard Lubow, et al., v. United States Department of State, et al., | PDF

The plaintiffs in Richard Lubow, et al., v. United States Department of State, et al., 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10780, (D.D.C. 2013) were five Diplomatic Security Agents who had served in Iraq in 2004. They grieved the Department’s application of a cap on their premium pay and its decision not to grant them a waiver of repayment of the amounts that the Department had paid them in excess of that cap. The FSGB concluded that, contrary to the Department’s findings, the grievants were not at fault in incurring the overpayments and thus were eligible for a waiver of their debts. However, the Board also found that it was within the Department’s discretion to decline to grant the waivers, and that the Department had appropriately considered the relevant factors and had not abused its discretion in denying the waivers. The District Court affirmed those findings and granted summary judgment in favor of the Department.

Jeffrey Glassman v. the U.S. Department of State (unable to locate this case. See this article from WaPo: Disabled but determined, U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Glassman sues over forced retirement)

In an order dated September 25, 2012, Judge Rosemary Collyer of the District Court of D.C. dismissed three counts of the plaintiff’s claims in Jeffrey Glassman v. the U.S. Department of State, et. al., Civil Action No. 10-1729, as well as both the Department of State and the Foreign Service Grievance Board as defendants, on procedural grounds. Glassman is a former officer of the Department of State who grieved his involuntary retirement, claiming it was a result of his disability and therefore illegal. The Board denied Glassman’s claim. Glassman appealed that decision to the district court, while also independently claiming a violation of the Rehabilitation Act. While dismissing three counts and two defendants, the court ordered the case to proceed on Glassman’s remaining claim, that the Foreign Service precepts have a disparate impact on him and others with disabilities because of their emphasis on unusually difficult or dangerous assignments, in violation of the Rehabilitation Act. The Secretary of State, as head of the agency, remained as the sole defendant.

Richard Baltimore, III v. Hillary Clinton | PDF

In Richard Baltimore, III v. Hillary Clinton, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153253 (D.D.C. 2012), former Ambassador Baltimore appealed a decision by the FSGB sustaining charges by the Department of State involving misuse of an official vehicle and failure to report the gift of a rug, that resulted in a 45-day suspension without pay. Baltimore challenged the Board’s decision as arbitrary and capricious. The D.C. District Court upheld the Board’s reasoning and decision.

Yamin v. United States Department of State | PDF

On November 19, 2012, Jeremy Yamin petitioned the D.C. District Court to review the FSGB’s May 23, 2012 order denying in part his request for attorney fees incurred in a grievance appeal. Yamin is a Department of State officer who had received a one-day suspension in a disciplinary action. In his appeal to the FSGB, the Board upheld the charge, but found the one-day suspension to be excessive and reduced the penalty to an admonishment. Yamin requested attorney fees and expenses in the amount of $71,645.48. The Board approved $12,385.03, denying the rest. Yamin requested a review of this decision.

 

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Filed under AFSA, Ambassadors, Court Cases, Foreign Service, FSOs, Grievance, Iraq, Realities of the FS, Secretary of State, State Department

Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program To End on December 31, 2013

– Domani Spero

We previously posted about Iraqi SIVs in September. (See Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Nationals to End Sept 30, Or How to Save One Interpreter At a Time).  The Department of State’s authority to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Iraqi nationals under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 has now been extended until December 31, 2013.  The US Embassy in Iraq cautions that “No matter what stage of the process you are in, all selected and eligible applicants must obtain their visa by December 31, 2013. There is no guarantee that the SIV program authority will be extended; therefore, you are strongly encouraged to act quickly to ensure you have the best possible chance to complete your case by December 31, 2013.” US Mission Iraq has updated its information on the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program with the following details:

  • Our authority to issue SIVs to principal applicants ends on December 31, 2013. We cannot issue SIVs to any principal applicants after this date.
  • Derivative family members (i.e., spouses, children) of principal applicants who were issued SIVs can still be issued SIVs after December 31, 2013.
  • Applicants are advised to check their email accounts and consult our website regularly for the most recent information regarding the SIV program.
  • Applicants whose cases are pending for additional documents are advised to send the required documents to our office immediately to the address listed in the instructions we provided to you.  Failure to do so may result in your visa not being issued before the December 31, 2013 deadline (principal applicants).
  • Applicants who have been scheduled for an interview are strongly encouraged to attend their appointment as scheduled.  Given the extremely high demand of appointments, we will be unable to reschedule your appointment, should you be unable to attend your interview.
  • The separate U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis remains in place and will continue to be available after December 31, 2013 regardless of whether the Iraqi SIV program ends at that time.  The Embassy encourages SIV applicants to seek out information about the USRAP as the eligibility criteria are very similar to those of the SIV program.  For more information on USRAP, please visit:http://iraq.usembassy.gov/refugeesidpaffairs.html.

Click here for more details including frequently asked questions.

Unless extended by Congress, the State Department’s authority to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghan nationals will also expire in September 2014.

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Filed under Congress, Consular Work, Foreign Affairs, Functional Bureaus, Iraq, Refugees, State Department, Visas, War

Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Nationals to End Sept 30, Or How to Save One Interpreter At a Time

– By Domani Spero

In June this year, we blogged about the potential termination of the SIV program for Iraqis who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq (See Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program: Potential Termination on September 30, 2013). The recent OIG inspection report on the US Embassy in Baghdad and it constituent posts indicate that the impending termination of Iraqi SIVs at the end of September this year has not been publicized because US Embassy Baghdad, and the Bureaus of Consular Affairs (CA), and Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) expect the program to be extended.

On September 12, USCIS sent a reminder and issued a statement that authorization for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqi nationals who worked for or on behalf of the United States government will expire on Sept. 30, 2013. Individuals applying under this program, including family members, must be admitted to the United States or adjust their statuses before Oct. 1, 2013.

The program was created by Section 1244 of Public Law 110-181, as amended by Public Law 110-242. It covers Iraqi nationals who—during the period between March 20, 2003, and the present—have been employed by or on behalf of the United States government in Iraq for a period of not less than one year. The expiration date also applies to spouses and unmarried child(ren) accompanying or following to join the principal applicant.

As announced at its inception, the Iraqi SIV program will expire on Sept. 30, 2013, at 11:59 p.m. EDT unless Congress extends the program. After Sept. 30, 2013, USCIS will reject any petitions or applications filed based on the Iraqi SIV program. Beginning Oct. 1, 2013, USCIS will suspend processing of any pending Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, or Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, filed based on the Iraqi SIV program.

For updates, please check our website at www.uscis.gov or call the National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283. You can also find useful information on the U.S Embassy in Iraq’s website at http://iraq.usembassy.gov/siv-special.html.

If the program will expire in three weeks, and the individual has to be admitted to the United States before October 1, 2013, the door is left with just a crack.  Who can get an SIV in three weeks and slip into that crack?

Matt Zeller,  a United States Army veteran of the Afghan War and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project writes about a specific visa case, under a similar program in Afghanistan:

From 2011 until July 2013, Janis waited for word that the State Department had approved his visa. Several times the US embassy in Kabul asked him to file additional paperwork and even appear for medical and personal interviews. At every appointment Janis would ask how much longer the process would take, but no one could ever give him a more specific answer other than “months to years.”[...] Going through this complicated process educated me beyond imagination. I’m convinced that the current visa program, while well intentioned, cannot succeed as designed. [...] for Janis to receive his visa, organizations such as the FBI, Homeland Security, and State Department all had to individually approve his visa application during their security background investigation, using their own individual opaque databases.

Read One Veteran’s Battle to Bring His Afghan Interpreter to the United States.

Something else Mr. Zeller did.  He started a Change.org petition and he and Janis did media interviews (by phone from Kabul). Yahoo! News reportedly published the first story about Janis on Sept. 6, and within hours the petition had thousands of signatures.  Here is the HuffPo Live video interview.

Mr. Zeller, a forceful advocate for the person who saved his life also asked supporters to contact their members of Congress and get these elected officials to write and call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the State Department, and anyone else they thought could help expedite Janis’ visa for approval. Note that visa petitions are approved by DHS, once approved, only then can visas be issued by State.  By the time it was over, and 104,588 signatures later, Mr. Zeller won his campaign to secure a visa for Janis Shinwari, his interpreter while he was in Afghanistan.  Now he is on a mission to save his other interpreter, Ehsan.

We admire what Mr. Zeller is doing for his interpreters.   But we worry about applicants who qualify for SIVs both in Afghanistan and Iraq but do not have vocal advocates for their cases.   In a perfect world, we don’t need a Matt Zeller or a change.org for the US Embassy in Kabul or Baghdad to issue these visas.  But the fact that Janis received a visa after a change.org petition and after a lot of press noise, tells us something folks already know — the system is not working as it should but one person can make a difference.   If Mr. Zeller can  replicate this campaign with Ehsan’s case, we suspect that in short order, the State Department will be swamped with similar campaigns.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Contractors, Defense Department, Iraq, Learning, Security, State Department, U.S. Missions, Visas, War

What to do when different voices start delivering multiple démarches in your head?

-- By Domani Spero

 

Below is the State Department’s High Stress Assignment Outbrief Implementation Guide – the FSI/MED Model.

Background of the High Stress Outbrief Program via fbo.gov

The High Stress Assignment Outbrief program was developed after the first groups of employees began coming back from assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 – posts that would have beenin evacuation status in more normal times. Returnees asserted that coming back from those posts wasn’t at all like coming back from a regular foreign affairs community assignment – that theDepartment needed to help with this particular transition in some way. Med’s Office of Mental Health Services asked the Foreign Service Institute’s Transition Center to assist in the development of a prototype training event, which was piloted in 2003. MED/Mental Health convened an Iraq Out-briefing Conference on July 29 & 30, 2004 at the Foreign Service Institute. The Outbrief program was reviewedand discussed by the full cadre of RMO/Ps, Dr. Robert Ursano and Dr. James McCarroll, from theUniformed Services University for Health Sciences, Dr. Carol North, Washington University (St. Louis),with guest presentations by (then) Director General of the Foreign Service Amb. Robert Pearson and others.

The program was endorsed by MED leadership and has run as a partnership between the FSI’sTransition Center and MED/Mental Health Services since then. All subsequent Directors General of the Foreign Service have mandated that all returnees from Iraq (and later Afghanistan) who have served for 90 days or longer be required to attend either a group or individual Outbrief upon return to CONUS.The realities of the Foreign Service assignment system brought complications – many officers had TDY-ed to Iraq or Afghanistan and were returning directly to their former posts. Others PCS-ed directly to follow-on assignments around the world. Clearly, a purely Washington-based program would not be effective in providing the service to all of our employees. Furthermore, many participants did not fit traditional Foreign Service employee profiles – special hiring authority hires (3161s), civil service employees, and third country nationals all stepped up to serve in those war zones. RMO/Ps were instructed to deliver Outbriefs at posts or during post visits, and to communicate the name of the Outbrief participant, date, and place back to the Transition Center for entry into the Department’sofficial training registration database to certify compliance.

Read more below:

 

I’ve requested help in understanding the usefulness of the Outbrief session and received a few responses below:

Comment #1: (from a twice-deployed employee)

“I have taken that half-day course twice in 2009 and 2013.  The class was almost the exact same.  They basically tell you to get sleep and try to adjust back and if needed, see someone.  The class I took in 2013 was 8 months after I returned because HR would not pay to send me to DC before home leave then I was in language training for six months.  If it was really important, HR would allow people to take it as early as possible otherwise, it must not be that important.”

Comment #2 (a State Department employee who served in Iraq and Pakistan)

“The description of the outbrief program seems reasonably accurate – although it’s been a while since I attended (in 2008 after Iraq, but not subsequently after Pakistan).  There’s a certain value to spending a bit of time (three hours?) with people that have been through similar experiences – probably including someone that you knew or at least shared acquaintances with.  It gives you a chance to talk with people who better understand your experiences.   It’s possible that some of our feedback made it back to decision makers in aggregated form.  For example, one of the themes of our discussion was that the Department (USG?) was doing itself no favors by sending warm bodies that lacked core qualifications (e.g. basic competence and a desire to be there.)  I think that the Department is now requesting 360s [360 degree feedback] for everyone that they send – although that may just be part of the general trend towards requesting 360s.  My memory is a bit hazy, but I think a key element was describing what other resources (e.g. clinical/therapeutic) might be available for those that needed them.”

Comment #3 (somebody once posted in Iraq— added at 6:48 am PST)
The high stress outbrief  is, as you noted, just an example of CYA– look, we have a program! A couple of voluntary hours with some contractor at cozy FSI with no follow-up, and especially no mandatory individual session is worthless. Many symptoms of PTSD evolve over time, and many returning-to-DC-stresses only become apparent after you have in fact returned to work and gotten the lay of the land in a new office. Speaking out in front of a group is not a core FS trait, and not something any person with real problems does easily. Imperfect as it is, the military does require formal screening and a brief one-on-one session with a counselor. Follow up care (imperfect) is available. At State, you’re told to “get help” without much help in getting it. After all, MED is not responsible for healthcare in the U.S.
 
Still not sure? Check with officers who were MEDEVACed for anything, not necessarily PTSD, and see if any of them got any follow-on from MED other than a new, career-crushing clearance status.

One of our readers commenting on mental health support suggested the following:

“While I know it wouldn’t solve everything, I think that anyone coming out of a post with danger pay should have some sort of mandatory sessions with some sort of licensed therapist. That would take away the stigma of the therapy and maybe get some people some help before they take out their PTSD on themselves or someone else.”

 

Remember the US Embassy Malta road rage meltdown that made the news? (US Embassy Malta Gets a Viral Video But — Not the Kind You Want).  We don’t know this individual nor his story, or which post he previously came from. But assignments to European posts like Malta have typically gone to employees who did tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.   We don’t know if this individual came from an AIP posts. Even if he did, it’s not an excuse for such a behavior, but it might help us understand his demeanor.  American diplomats normally do not go around looking for a fight.

Our concern is simple. We are sending people out to the war/danger zones.  The State Department touts its mandatory High Stress Outbrief, an educational program that only requires presentation/delivery skills from whoever delivers the program.  Less than 60 percent of returnees attend the program, and there are no consequences for non-compliance.  Who does the follow-up? Anybody?

Is it fair to say that the State Department does no follow-up beyond the Outbrief session and expects employees to simply self-report any mental health issue? And because no one fears the social stigma of seeking mental health help and nobody suffers from the fear of losing one’s security clearance over a mental health issue, everyone in the Service can be counted on to self-report if/when different voices start delivering multiple démarches in one’s head?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Diplomatic Life, Foreign Service, FSOs, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Huh? News, Iraq, Leadership and Management, MED, Mental Health, Org Culture, Pakistan, State Department, War

Baghdad Nights by Raymond Maxwell

✪ By Domani Spero

We have previously hosted Raymond Maxwell’s poem in this blog (see Raymond Maxwell: Former Deputy Asst Secretary Removed Over Benghazi Pens a Poem).  That was quite a riot.

What do you think about when you’re taking mortar rounds?

“Baghdad Nights” which originally appeared in FB and published here with Mr. Maxwell’s permission will not be quite so controversial but it stands out as a poem of stoic calm amidst the chaos of war.

We particularly like its auditory images which gives the poem a sense of place but also a sense of that specific moment in time.  A poem of faith or in a fatalistic sense of whatever will be, will be. A total acceptance of what is unknowable.  An inner freedom from fear in the face of a disorderly and dangerous external world.

According to his LinkdIn profile, Mr. Maxwell served in foreign service assignments in Guinea-Bissau, the U.K., Angola, Ghana, Egypt, Iraq and Syria.  In a previous 12-year career with the U.S. Navy, he “served division officer tours (auxiliary engineering and weapons systems) aboard the guided missile destroyer, USS Luce DDG-38 and enlisted engineering tours as a machinist’s mate on nuclear-powered submarines the USS Hammerhead SSN-663 and the USS Michigan SSBN-727 (B).”

 

Photo by US Embassy Baghdad

Baghdad Nights

© By Raymond Maxwell

Baghdad nights

It was a long-assed day.
We had dinner at the DFAC
and returned to the office.
Finally knocked off around 9pm.

The mandatory protective vest
weighs heavy on my already tired shoulders –
while the strap connecting the two sides
cuts into my waist as I try to balance
the weight on my already tired hips -

I lumber on to my tin-foil hootch
in Embassy Estates on the
the Republican Palace grounds…

It is late.  I take a shower and
turn on Fox News,
the only station that works.
“In California today, Senator Clinton says
President Johnson was more important
than Dr. King to getting the Civil Rights Bill
passed.”  Aw shit.  White House better stay white.

I fall asleep while reading “Certain to Win,”
one of those Army War College texts
from the Strategic Studies Masters program
I was falling further and further behind in
with each passing Baghdad day.

2am.  The witching hour.
Time for target practice.
I’m awakened by the sound
of the Duck and Cover alarm.
The concrete reinforced shelter is 100 meters
away from my tin-foil hootch –
100 meters as the crow flies…

Nope.  I’ll sit this one out – and pray –

Bong!  Bong!  Bong!  Bong! The alarm
sounds.  I hear people stumbling,
some drunkenly staggering –
to the safety of the shelter.

I shelter in place and
start my usual prayer
(I skip a lot of drills these days):

The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want.
He maketh me ….

SWOOOOOOSH!

A mortar round flies over
the tin foil roof
of my tin foil hootch –

….lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me
beside the Still Waters….–

THUMP.

The round hits the nearby ground.
Maybe it is another dud.
I continue my prayer:

….He restoreth my soul —

KABOOOOOM!

It was not a dud.
But I pinch myself and
I am not dead.

I finish my prayer:

And I will dwell in the House of the Lord,
forever.

Back to sleep.
Tomorrow is another Baghdad day.

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Filed under Foreign Service, FSOs, Iraq, Literature, Poetry, US Embassy Baghdad, War

Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program: Potential Termination on September 30, 2013

— By Domani Spero 

Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, authorizes the issuance of up to 5,000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually through fiscal year (FY) 2012 to Iraqi nationals who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq and who meet certain requirements. The Act opens the SIV process to Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more, and who have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.

The recent OIG inspection report on the US Embassy in Baghdad and it constituent posts indicate that the impending termination of Iraqi SIVs at the end of September this year has not been publicized because they (embassy, CA and PRM bureaus) “expect the program to be extended.”

Excerpt from the report below:

Applications for the Iraqi special immigrant visa program make up approximately 65 percent of immigrant visa cases. The special immigrant visa program, designed for employees and former employees of the U.S. Government in Iraq with at least 1 year of service, was instituted by law in 2008 and will terminate at the end of FY 2013 unless Congress extends the program. Embassy Baghdad, the Bureau of Consular Affairs, and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, each of which handles a portion of the program, have not publicized the imminent termination of the program because they expect the program to be extended. The proposed legislation would extend the application deadline until the end of FY 2018 for applicants who began their employment with the U.S. Government before October 1, 2012. Announcement of the impending termination of the program to affected applicants will allow those individuals who may have qualifying U.S. Government employment to make an informed decision as to whether to apply before the program ends. The approximately 2,000 Iraqi special immigrant visa cases in the Washington pipeline for administrative processing may not be completed before the program’s termination.

Recommendation 18: Embassy Baghdad, in coordination with the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, should alert pending applicants about the potential termination of the Iraqi special immigrant visa program on September 30, 2013. (Action: Embassy Baghdad, in coordination with CA and PRM)

The immigrant visa unit has been holding thousands of Iraqi passports for special immigrant visa applicants and their immediate family members pending the results of administrative processing. Consular sections worldwide are advised not to retain travel documents for indefinite periods because those documents belong to the applicants, not to the U.S. Government. These families cannot leave the country because the consular section has their passports. In addition, if the embassy were to draw down or evacuate, the section would have to destroy these travel documents. Some of these passports have been held for several years.

Recommendation 19: Embassy Baghdad should return the Iraqi passports of special immigrant visa program applicants. (Action: Embassy Baghdad)

The full report is here.

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Filed under Consular Work, Foreign Service, Govt Reports/Documents, Iraq, State Department, Visas

US Mission Iraq: Twelve Things You Might Not Know About the Largest Embassy in the World

— By Domani Spero

State/OIG recently released its inspection report of U.S. Embassy Baghdad and its constituent posts  in Erbil and Basrah.  Here are a few things that you may not know about our largest embassy in the world.

Photo by state.gov/ds

Photo by state.gov/ds

#1.  Staffing Numbers:  Planned Reduction at over 50%

“The embassy is taking steps to reduce the mission’s headcount from over 11,500 in January 2013 to 5,500 by January 2014.”  

We’ll have to revisit this early next year to gauge how successful is that effort.

#2.  Housing: Social Workers Mediate Roommate Conflicts

“Housing remains the single largest morale issue, and the embassy employs two social workers to mediate roommate conflicts associated with a housing shortage that requires, at least temporarily, housing as many as four employees in apartments designed for one person. [...] The roommate policy will continue as sites close and more personnel consolidate on the embassy compound in the 619 apartments.”  

Apparently, only employees ranked FS-01 or GS-15 and above occupy private quarters.  And two social workers will not be enough if you have to mediate roommate conflicts every new rotation cycle of 12 months.

#3.  Estimated Cost of Protective Security Movement for FY2013: $49.8 Million

“Embassy employees traveling outside the international zone in Baghdad require protective security escorts. The security office’s protective security teams averaged 370 movements per month in the first 5 months of FY 2013 for a total of 1,846 movements. FY 2013’s total estimated cost for protective security movements is approximately $49.8 million.”

#4.   Third-Country Nationals: Hiring TCNs Cheaper But Not Cheap

“Third country nationals, originally recruited from embassies worldwide as temporary experts, comprise 24 percent of the non-U.S. direct-hire staff in Baghdad and fill most of the embassy’s senior non-U.S. positions. The embassy employs 56 third country national employees at a cost of about $10 million annually . [...] Support costs for third country national contractors and direct-hire staff, such as lodging, meals, and rest and recuperation travel, average $68,000 per person per year in addition to salaries, which often exceed locally employed staff salaries because of supplemental benefits packages.”

Some problems with hiring TCNs: with TCNs rotating as temp. experts, there may not be enough interest in growing Iraqi FSNs into a cadre of local experts; with American supervisors rotating every 12 months, who trains the Iraqi FSNs for more responsible roles?  Problems with local recruitment:  Mission does not have a pipeline of applicants; security vetting process has an overall average rejection rate of 47%. Almost half the applicants cannot work for the mission due to counterintel issues.

#5.  Iraq’s Service Recognition Package: No Longer The Most Attractive

“Last year, the Department filled about 92 percent of Iraq positions with volunteers. The Department is in the process of reducing selected employee benefits to reflect improvements in security and living conditions….The Department expects in coming months to offer service recognition package benefits to other missions, such as Libya and Yemen, which could be more attractive than the package for Iraq.” 

#6.  Embassy’s Airline — Embassy Air at $128.2 million in 2013

“Based in Amman, Jordan, Embassy Air carried 19,306 passengers to destinations around Iraq during a recent 6- month period. Embassy Air is the mission’s most secure lifeline to the outside world and the only means of medical evacuation countrywide. The combined cost of Afghanistan-Iraq air operations stands at $128.2 million this year.”

#7.  Embassy Hospitals: How Many by 2014?

“The Department is rapidly reducing the scope of its contracted medical services, estimated at $85 million for FY 2013, as activities at OSC-I locations around the country close by the end of the year. The embassy operates 11 hospitals and clinics throughout the country under contract with Comprehensive Health Services Middle East. Operations include four diplomatic field hospitals geared to trauma and mass casualty stabilization and clinics that deliver primary care, evacuation stabilization, and laboratory services.”

#8.  Largest IVP in the World

US Mission Iraq “manages the largest International Visitor Leadership Program in the world with 149 participants in FY 2012.”

#9.  Arabic Speakers: Only Three Can Conduct Interviews Unassisted 

“Consular Management The section’s effectiveness is hampered by a dearth of Arabic-language speakers, limited cultural insight, and an insufficient number of useful local contacts, largely due to the limited role the five Iraqi employees play in the overall operation. Fewer than half the consular employees—both U.S. and non-U.S. direct hires—speak Arabic and only three of the Arabic- speaking officers can conduct the full range of interviews unassisted.”  

This shortage of expertise is not confined to language.  Elsewhere in the report, the inspectors note that many Washington-based employees have more historical knowledge than some employees working in Iraq today.

#10.  Diplomatic Compounds:  Larger Than Normal

“The embassy and Consulate General Basrah occupy more than 100 acres each, while the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center site totals 350 acres. A typical new embassy compound sits on approximately 10 acres.”

So that’s ten times larger than normal. But then, no one ever said the U.S. Mission in Iraq was ever normal.

#11. Bleeding Green Bucks: Over $270 Million Down the Drain

At “[t]he Erbil Diplomatic Support Center, the Department canceled ongoing construction in February 2013, after expenditures of approximately $85 million, with the decision to cease Department operations at the location by July 2013. In September 2012, with the reduction of the Police Development Program, the U.S. Government turned over the unfinished Baghdad Police Academy to the Government of Iraq after investing an estimated $108 million in construction. In addition, the Department contributed $48 million in Police Development Program funds to the construction of the Basrah consulate general, because the Police Development Program intended to be a tenant in that facility. During the inspection, in preparation for turnover to the Government of Iraq, mission operations drew down at Embassy Annex Prosperity, where a $32 million construction project was halted. The final phase of the Prosperity site closure requires construction of a new $11.5 million heavy vehicle maintenance facility on the embassy compound.”

So that’s over $270 million down the drain for lack of appropriate planning, and $11.5M more for new construction, which may or may not be needed in a year or two.

#12.  Iraq Tax With No End in Sight Will Strain Diplomatic Facilities Worldwide

“Funding levels from multiple sources in support of Mission Iraq operations have been so substantial that the mission has not been subject to normal fiscal constraints, nor has it evaluated process and program priorities rigorously. The Department allotted $3.23 billion for Mission Iraq operations in FY 2012. The mission also oversaw $1.33 billion in foreign assistance in that same time frame.  Inevitably, the contingency funding that is a remnant of Iraq’s status as a war zone, and enabled so much of the mission’s growth and security programs, will dwindle. Even with the Department’s increased focus on protecting personnel and facilities in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, the mission is considering ways to reduce its operational and security budgets, although the sheer size and scope of the physical plant, both in Baghdad and at the consulates,will require significant funding for years to come.”

So the reduction of USG footprint in Iraq does not mean the end of the Iraq tax on staffing, but going forward, you may now add resource allocation demands.  The OIG inspectors believe that as US Mission Iraq operates in a “traditional diplomatic environment” its maintenance and repair costs will come out of the regular budget.  The Vatican-size embassy even with “rightsizing” at 5,500 staff will still be the largest embassy in the world. Security and movement protection will still remain expensive. And as contingency funds end, and as US Mission Iraq starts to get funding from State’s regular budget, it will “strain  support for diplomatic facilities worldwide.”

Oh, there is no mention in this report of the alleged “underground drug ring” operating near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad; or a drug ring which allegedly supplied State Department security contractors with drugs.

This report only mentions “drug” in one instance: “The Department has approved continuing annual assistance for anti-corruption, the justice sector, drug demand reduction and police, with $23 million requested for FY 2014.” 

That’s expensive but not nearly as exciting news.  Now, let’s go invade another country so we can do this all over again.

(ú_ú)

-05/31/13   Inspection of Embassy Baghdad and Constituent Posts, Iraq (ISP-I-13-25A)  [617 Kb]  Posted online on June 3, 2013

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Filed under Foreign Affairs, Govt Reports/Documents, Iraq, Legacy, Realities of the FS, State Department, U.S. Missions, US Embassy Baghdad

US Mission Iraq: Shrinking to 5,500 Personnel by End of Year, Never Mind the Missing Details

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, we were greeted with news about a wave of bombings in Iraq which killed 65 people and wounded over 200.

Then CNN came out with this piece on Iraq war for oil.

And retired FSO Peter Van Buren went on Fox News to talk about $15 million a day spent on  projects in Iraq (did you think he was going away?).  We heard from a nosy source that a former US ambassador to Iraq was reportedly on the phone to offer a, what do you call it — a counter-point, during the segment but the line went dead as a door nail when informed that Mr. Van Buren was the guest. Them phone signals can get occasionally wacky, must be that dry western climate.

Oh, and Mr. Rumsfeld made a serious tweet (can you hear Tehran celebrating the 10th anniversary with a roar?).

Screen Shot 2013-03-20

He got grandly pummeled over in Twitterland. Except that if he did not care what people think ten years ago, would he really care what folks think today? Of course, he is now an octogenarian on Twitter. Hopefully, he’s occupied enough not to plan on liberating any more countries between now and going forward.

Another news doing the rounds is the reported shrinking of US Mission Iraq – from a Gigantosaurus of embassies (projected at 17,000 in 2011 by Ambassador Jeffrey during a SFRC hearing) to hopefully something like a smaller, more agile Postosuchus.

Via the Middle East Online

The US mission in Iraq — the biggest in the world — will slash its numbers by two-thirds by the end of this year from its peak figure of over 16,000, the American ambassador to Baghdad said.

Overall staffing levels at the US’s embassy in Baghdad and its consulates in the southern port city of Basra, the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil and the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, will drop to around 5,500, including contractors, by the end of the year.

“A year ago, we were well above 16,000, now we’re at 10,500,” Ambassador Stephen Beecroft told reporters. “By the end of this year, we’ll be at 5,500, including contractors.”

As a prospective 5,500-person mission, it would probably still be one of the largest embassies in the world, if not still the largest (anyone knows what is the personnel-complement of US Mission Afghanistan?).

We’ve asked the Press Office of the US Embassy in Baghdad how many career Foreign Service personnel will be expected in Baghdad and constituent posts by end of year and what they are planning to do with all that space that will soon be vacated. We forgot to ask but we also are curious on what they’ll do with the Air Embassy planes (and pilots) and district embassy hospitals and equipment (embassy auction?).  Or how many ambassadorial rank senior officers they will have by end of the year.

Unfortunately, we haven’t got any response to our inquiry. Obviously the folks at the embassy’s Public Affairs shop are professionals who always respond to inquiries from the public even from the pajama-wearing sector who wants to know what’s going on.  Unless, of course, they are overwhelmed with drafting their performance evaluations (we understand it’s EER time).  It is also  entirely possible they were not read in on what they actually are doing by end of this year.  That is, besides the simple math announced on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion.  Poor sods.

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Filed under Ambassadors, Counting Beans, Follow the Money, Foreign Service, Huh? News, Iraq, Peter Van Buren, Public Diplomacy, State Department, U.S. Missions, Uncategorized, US Embassy Baghdad

US Mission Iraq: War Over, Danger Pay and Hardship Pay Go Down, Oh, But It’s Confusing

According to the State Department’s allowances website, all State Department posts in Iraq have been designated 35% danger pay and 35% post (hardship) differential pay posts.  The US mission in Iraq designation at the top 35% danger/35% hardship pay bracket has been in effect since March 5, 2006.  All of 2004 and 2005 it was at 25%/25%.  All of 2003, it was between 20%-25%.

We recently learned that the State Department has nudged four Iraq regions down for both danger and hardship pay:

Danger/Hardship Pay, February 2012

Danger/Hardship Pay, February 2012

Our understanding is that these new rates are now in effect but the Allowances website has yet to catch up.  This would be the first time in almost 7 years that US Mission Iraq is not at the top danger/hardship differential bracket.  This would also leave just the posts in two countries at the top danger rate bracket of 35%, one officially a war zone, while the other is not:

  •  Afghanistan: Kabul, Others
  •  Pakistan: Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Rawalpindi (except Quetta which remains at 25%)

The State Department’s Office of Allowances does say on its website that “since conditions at Danger Pay posts are reviewed periodically to ensure that the Danger Pay continues only during the existence of conditions justifying such payment, it is possible for the Danger Pay designation to be removed or modified at any time.”

The when of that is what is curious.

We have previously blogged about the perplexities with State’s danger pay designation (see Where dangerous conditions are not/not created equal … and  State Dept’s New High Threat Posts Are Not All Danger Posts).

Below is a table of Iraq casualties between 2003-2012

Iraq Body Count (2003-2012)

Iraq Body Count (2003-2012)

Danger Pay Rate

2003   3004  2005   2006   2007   2008   2009   2010   2011   2012

20%     25%     25%     35%     35%       35%     35%     35%      35%     35%

We understand that State has its own danger pay factors and since we have no access to that, we’ll have to make do with publicly available information on just how dangerous Iraq was since 2003 based on casualties.  Note that when casualties in Iraq started going up in 2003, the danger pay rate was between 20-25%.  It remained at 25% the entire year of 2005.  It went up to the maximum rate of 35% in March 2006 and remained at the top bracket until this year. The U.S. military pulled out of Iraq in December 2011.  The casualties that year and 2012 remained above 4,000 but below the 12,000 casualties at the beginning of the war. The danger rate stayed at 35%.

Screen Shot 2013-02-24

While the casualties have gone down, the country remains dangerous.  Here is what the embassy’s  2012 Crime and Security Report had to say about Iraq:

Iraq is rated as a critical threat for terrorism and political violence by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security. Despite the general decline in terrorist-related violence, the security situation in Iraq remains fluid. In December 2011, U.S. forces completely withdrew from Iraq. Terrorists and insurgent groups continue to conduct large-scale, lethal attacks that often target personnel and facilities associated with both American organizations and the Government of Iraq.  Insurgents also continue to carry out effective small-scale attacks throughout Iraq that cause fewer casualties but hinder free movement and influence public opinion regarding safety and security.
/snip/
While total attacks against U.S. personnel have decreased over the last three months, the threat of kidnapping, rocket attack, and small arms fire against U.S. interests in Iraq remains high and subject to flux based on domestic political, regional, and international developments.
/snip/
Since the U.S. military has withdrawn from Iraq, the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Iraq have an extremely limited ability to assist Americans in the event of an emergency. Many services which many existed in the past, such as U.S. military-provided medevacs, transportation, convoy support, lodging, Quick Reaction Forces response to incidents, and monitoring of Personnel Security Details, are not generally available via the U.S. Embassy or Consulates.

In August 2012 IRIN/UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had this to say about the situation in Iraq:

Assessments of security trends in Iraq vary wildly depending on who you speak to, how you count the statistics, and which period of time you study. But one thing is clear: bomb blasts, targeted killings or improvised explosive devices are still a daily occurrence in Iraq.

Last week’s coordinated attacks – leaving more than 100 people dead – set a record for the highest number of deaths in a single day in more than two years, displaying the continued ability of insurgent groups to strike. A double bombing in the capital yesterday brought July’s death toll to 245, according to a count by Associated Press.

While the US and the Iraqi government insist that security gains have been made in recent years, UN and independent analysts characterize the situation as having stabilized at an unacceptably high level of violence, albeit now concentrated in more specific areas.

One might argue that the departure of the U.S. military has made working in Iraq more challenging, thus justifying keeping the mission at 35% in 2011 and 2012. But the U.S. military has not returned to Iraq in 2013, so what has changed to merit bumping down the rates?

Is the reason the danger rate is a notch lower due to improved security? Really?  Or is this due to the looming sequestration? Whatever it is, it is muddy as heck.

Here is another interesting example — Yemen.

The US Embassy in Sana’a was a 20% danger post in 2006,  2007 and part of 2008.  On September 17, 2008, the embassy was attacked which resulted in 19 deaths and 16 injuries.  According to Wikipedia, six attackers, six Yemeni police and seven civilians were killed.   On October 26, 2008, the embassy’s danger rate went up to 30% where it remained to-date.

We understand that until last year, embassy personnel were driving their own vehicles, traveling around the country, taking taxis, and living in their own apartments.  For security reasons, they now  live in the old Sheraton Hotel Sanaa (apparently also known as the New Green Zone Sanaa) which has been leased by the US Embassy reportedly until January 2018.  The staff is not allowed to travel anywhere with one exception and only with armored vehicles.  Of course, the embassy lost a good number of its armored vehicles during the mob attack.  Unlike the US Embassy Tunisia where there were publicly available photographic evidence of the damages, the US Embassy Sanaa reportedly kept a tight lid on photos of the embassy damages in the aftermath of the attack.  For what reason, we do not know.  Perhaps they did not want to upset the host country?  In the meantime, the U.S. ambassador and American soldiers at post have a bounty on their heads until June 2013 (see US Embassy Yemen: AQAP Offers Gold Bounty for Ambassador Feierstein). And the danger rate remains at 30%.

Can somebody please grab the tail on what’s going on here? People need to understand the whys of this process. Whether they volunteered or were voluntold, they deserve a good explanation. C’mon guys, don’t make this rocket science.

Also we’re hearing that the priority bidding season for Afghanistan/Iraq/Pakistan or AIP is about to expand to include Libya and Yemen. One of our blog sources wondered out loud if the new bidding season might be called iPLAY.

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