What happens when you contravene the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy? It depends.

Posted: 4:08  am EDT
Updated: 2:29 pm EDT

 

Our State Department friends have a favorite response to most questions. “It depends.”

About 10 years ago, State/OIG conducted a review of the Visa Referral Process in Nonimmigrant Visa Adjudication.

By law neither an ambassador nor a DCM can direct a consular officer to issue a particular visa. Even the Secretary of State has no authority to override a consular officer’s deci­ sion, pursuant to the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 USC 1104. Recognizing the importance of the visa process both as a bilateral diplomatic issue and as a legitimate diplomatic tool for achieving U.S. aims, and considering the importance of providing as much information as possible to consular officers, the Department has long understood the need for a policy and system to allow all elements of the mission to benefit from the visa system and to protect consular officers from inappropriate pressure. After September 11, 2001, this system has been signifi­ cantly strengthened.
[…]
Based on the results of the survey, observations in the field, and discussions in Washington, OIG concluded that most ambassadors and DCMs appear to under­ stand the importance of their personal oversight of the referral system and that there are serious repercussions, including removal from post, in the most egregious cases of abuse. While Department oversight of referral systems is important, entrusting chiefs of mission with local supervision and responsibility is still appro­ priate and necessary, just as the Department entrusts chiefs of mission with the lives of all employees and dependents in their missions, the management of top secret information, and the conduct of key bilateral relations with the host country.
[…]
Clearly most missions’ front offices are overseeing the referral system as intended by the Department, sometimes after a little persuasion. For example, an officer at a post that was having problems said, “Our recent OIG inspection was helpful in making the front office realize the impact of their interventions with us and the appearance of undue influence. Despite our education of the front office, they have been incredulous that their good causes may pose us problems under the law.” One of the areas of emphasis for OIG inspection teams is border security readiness, which includes oversight of the referral program.

The survey, however, did reveal some disillusionment with the available recourses in those instances when the front office was itself exerting undue influ­ence. One officer at a post in the Near East said, “In general the consular section feels pressure to act simply as a rubber stamp to visa referrals by chiefs of section and above.” Another stated,“The front office is the only section that has ever tried to influence decisions in referral cases. If I were to refuse the case, then I would be hurt in the employee evaluation report (EER) process as my rater is the DCM and the Ambassador is the reviewing officer.”

It’s an instructive read from 2005, see in full here (PDF).

Let’s fast forward to two cases in 2015 specifically mentioned by State/OIG. The following is from the State/OIG inspection report of the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan (PDF). The IG report lists Susan M. Elliott as COM, and Robert G. Burgess as DCM.

The Offices of Visa Services and Fraud Prevention Programs, the Consular Integrity Division, and the front office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs all expressed concern about the embassy’s contravention of the worldwide visa referral policy. In the latter half of 2013, the Ambassador in seven cases and the DCM in two cases contravened the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy by submitting noncompliant referrals and improperly advocating for issuance.

Complications arising from noncompliance with the policy led to deteriorating relations between the consular officer and other embassy offices, perceptions of intimidation and isolation, and increased involvement of and intervention by various offices in the Bureau of Consular Affairs. In response to revised guidance from the Bureau of Consular Affairs on referral policy, dated January 13, 2014, Embassy Dushanbe issued a management notice on January 17, 2014. On October 15 and 17, 2014, the embassy conducted briefings for referring officers and obtained current compliance agreements reflecting the revised policy guidance. The OIG team met with the front office and the consular officer, and they confirm that they understand and are committed to continuing to comply with the policy going forward.

How is it that this consular officer did not get the Barbara Watson Award for demonstrating courage?

C’mon!

The “Worldwide Visa Referral Policy Problems” below is from the State/OIG report of the U.S. Embassy in Armenia (see PDF). According to the IG report, the ambassador at that time was John Heffern:

In at least 15 documented cases, the Ambassador contravened the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy (9 FAM Appendix K, Exhibit I) by contacting the consular chief to communicate information about visa applicants instead of providing referral forms for the applicants. The referral policy states, “Referrals are the only allowed mechanism to advocate for or assist visa applicants prior to visa adjudication.” Some of the cases involved previously refused applicants. Referral policy permits requesting assistance via referral on behalf of previously refused applicants only in extremely limited circumstances. Few, if any, of the violations involved applicants who would have been eligible for visa referrals. The consular chief did not take adequate steps to stop the Ambassador’s inappropriate communications or to report them to the Department, as required by Department referral polices.
[…]
The embassy provides no formal, detailed briefing (“referral school”) as recommended in the worldwide policy. The consular chief gives informal referral briefings on an individual basis to new arrivals at the embassy. Lack of a formal understanding of the referral policy and process can cause misunderstanding or abuse.

Wow! And the consular section chief got harshly treated by the … the um alphabet, which did not quite line up to say he/she was at fault but you get the idea.

It is not clear what kind of repercussions are suffered by chiefs of mission who contraven the worldwide nonimmigrant visa referral policy.   According to a FAM update last November 2015, Consular Affairs has now added a NIV Referral Program Ombudsman (see 9 FAM 601.8-8(C).

Oh, wait, there’s more.

There’s an FSGB case where an FP-03 Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Agent (SA) with the Department of State (Department) was warned that there were strict prohibitions against anyone attempting to influence the visa process. The State Department later proposed to suspend him for four days on a charge of Misuse of Position. The proposal was sustained by the Grievance Board on March 3, 2015.

On October 5, 2010, a family friend of his (REDACTED), a (REDACTED) national, applied for a B1/B2 non-immigrant visa at the U.S. Embassy in REDACTED. His stated purpose for the visa request was to visit with grievant in the U.S.  When the application was denied, grievant sent an email on that same date from his State Department account to REDACTED, the Deputy Consular Section Chief in REDACTED voicing his disappointment that his friend’s visa application had been turned down. In the email, grievant asked for assistance, provided additional information on behalf of his friend and cited his own experience as a DS officer who had collaborated with consular officials investigating fraud cases. All of grievant’s emails contained his electronic signature and identified him as “Special Agent, REDACTED, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security.” In response to this email, re-interviewed and approved his visa application. REDACTED subsequently visited grievant in the US.

To make the long story short, grievant was investigated (PDF) by DS for his efforts to procure visa approvals for his friend.

The Department reviewed the DS report of investigation (ROI) and determined that between 2010 and 2012, grievant used official communication channels to contact consular officials in the U.S. Embassy in and identified himself as a DS Special Agent in order to influence favorable decisions on visa applications submitted by his friend. On December 2, 2014, grievant received notice of the Department’s proposal to suspend him for four days on a charge of Misuse of Position. The proposal was sustained on March 3, 2015.

So. Right.

It depends.

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Did We Ship Anyone Off to Timbuktu? Who at Senior Levels Knew What and When About HRC’s Communications

Posted: 2:52 am EDT

 

The WSJ called the oldest executive agency in the union, the Department of Hillary, and accused  the entire State Department of “vigorously protecting Hillary Clinton.” It asks, “how it is that the nation’s diplomatic corps has become an arm of the Clinton presidential campaign?”

That is a sweeping accusation and we do not believe that to be true, but whether it’s true or not is immaterial. The perception is widely shared, even by reporters covering the State Department.  Our interest on HRC primarily relates to her tenure at State. We think that her management of the department — whether it relates to her email server, having a deputy chief of staff holding four jobs, special access to certain groups, operation in a bubble of mostly yes-people — was galling and distressing.  We do agree with Prof. Jonathan Turley when he writes that he “consider the decision to use exclusively an unsecure server for “convenience” to be a breathtakingly reckless act for one of the top officials in our government.”

Last month HRC was also quoted as saying, “I’m not willing to say it was an error in judgment.”

Folks will have to make up their own minds whether they agree with her or not, but the State Department is still paying a price for it. And the way this mess has been handled places at risk the institution’s deeply held tradition that the career service stay above the political fray.

The National Security Archive bluntly writes:

[T]he Federal Records Act, federal regulations on the books at the time (36 CFR 1263.22)[Official as of October 2, 2009], and NARA guidance which the State Department received (NARA Bulletin 2011-03), should have prevented Clinton’s actions, requiring her to provide “effective controls over the creation and over the maintenance and use of records in the conduct of current business”. (Read here for our analysis of why Clinton, and hundreds of others at State, including its FOIA shop and IT department, were in the wrong for not blowing the whistle on her personal email usage.) Read more here.

At some point in the near future, there will need to be a reckoning about what the senior officials, the career senior officials in Foggy Bottom knew about what during the Clinton tenure.

On Saturday, January 24, 2009 8:26 p.m. Lewis Lukens sent an email to M/Patrick Kennedy (email released via FOIA lawsuit by Judicial Watch (PDF). Lukens who was then the Executive Secretary (he was subsequently appointed US Ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau), writes, “I talked to cheryl about this. She says problem is hrc does not know how to use a computer to do email  only bb. But I said would not take much training to get her up to speed.” The email chain talks about setting up “a stand alone PC in the Secretary’s office, connected to the internet” but apparently a separate system not through the State Department system that would allow HRC to “check her emails from her desk.”

What’s the difference between using a State Department system and a stand alone system for somebody who doesn’t know how to use a computer? But more that that, we want to understand why it was necessary to set up a stand alone system. Did previous secretaries of state have their own stand alone systems? Did they have their own private email servers? Can somebody please explain why that was necessary?

This email was sent three days after HRC took the oath of office of Secretary of State (see starting page 6 below or see PDF here).

So, if they were considering setting up a stand alone PC on the 7th Floor and that did not happen, how could anyone in the top ranks of the career service not know when HRC’s people set up a private server away from the building? If they did not know, they were not doing their jobs. But if they did know, what does that mean?  Did anyone speak up and consequently suffer career purgatory? Please help us  understand how this happened. Email us, happy to chat with anyone in the know because this is giving us ulcers.

A related item about communications — in March 2009, the then Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security, Eric Boswell sent a memo to HRC’s Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills concerning the use of Blackberries in Mahogany Row. In that memo, also released via FOIA litigation with Judicial Watch, Boswell writes that “Our review reaffirms our belief that the vulnerabilities and risks associated with the use of Blackberries in Mahogany Row [redacted] considerably outweighs the convenience their use can add to staff that have access to the unclassified OpenNet system on their desktops. [redacted] We also worry about the example that using Blackberries in Mahogany Row might set as we strive to promote crucial security practices and enforce important security standards among State Department staff.”

The last paragraph of the memo says “If, after considering the vulnerabilities that I describe above and the alternatives that I propose, the Secretary determines that she wants  a limited number of staff to use Blackberries in Mahogany Row …. [redacted].” (See below or see PDF here)

What the  career professionals proposed can, of course, be ignored or dismissed by the political leadership. How much of it can one tolerate? Some of it, all of it?

Below is an August 30, 2011 email between then HRC deputy chief of staff Huma Abedin and Steve Mull, who we believed succeeded Lukens as Executive Secretary of the State Department. Following that assignment, he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to Poland, and last year, he was appointed Lead Coordinator for Iran Nuclear Implementation.  The Daily Caller obtained the emails through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed on its behalf by Cause of Action and has reported about the emails here.  It shows the top officials who were loop in on the secretary’s communications setup, but it also points to what we suspect has always been the rationale on the server and email setup that now has consequential repercussions for the agency.  In one part of the email, the executive secretary writes, “We’re working with …. to hammer out the details of what will best meet the Secretary’s need.” (See below or see ScribD file here).

It is not surprising that the career folks worked to accommodate the needs of their principals.  We doubt anyone would last long in any assignment if they simply tell their boss blah, blah, blah can’t be done.

But — no individual in the upper ranks, career or noncareer, has so far been shown to stand up to a principal by saying “no, this is not allowed” or “this is not acceptable,” or even something like  — “this is not against the rules but it looks bad.” 

Does one draw a line between public service and service to a political leadership? Are they one and the same? What would you do?

Last September 2015, WaPo reported this:

But State Department officials provided new information Tuesday that undercuts Clinton’s characterization. They said the request was not simply about general rec­ord-keeping but was prompted entirely by the discovery that Clinton had exclusively used a private e-mail system. They also said they first contacted her in the summer of 2014, at least three months before the agency asked Clinton and three of her predecessors to provide their e-mails.
[…]
But the early call from the State Department is a sign that, at the least, officials in the agency she led from 2009 to 2013 were concerned by the practice — and that they had been caught off guard upon discovering her exclusive use of a private account.

Well, we’re sure the rank and file was caught off guard but which State Department officials were actually caught off guard? At least according to the Mull-Mills email exchange of August 2011, S/ES and M were aware of the existence of Secretary Clinton’s personal email server.

So when unnamed State Department officials talked to the Washington Post journalists last year, dammit, who did they say were actually caught off guard?

If anyone at M who has oversight over IT, Diplomatic Security, FOIA and federal records cited the Federal Records Act between 2009-2013 was shipped to Timbuktu for bringing up an inconvenient regulation, we’d like to hear about it.

Make no mistake, the perception that the Service had picked a side will have repercussions for the Foreign Service and the State Department.  If there is an HRC White House, we may see old familiar faces come back, or those still in Foggy Bottom, may stay on and on and just never leave like Hotel California.

But if there is a Trump or a Whoever GOP White House, we imagine the top ranks, and who knows how many levels down the bureaus will be slashed gleefully by the incoming administration. And it will not be by accident.

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USAID: That time when an employee wrote to Rajiv Shah and said, “Do us a favor and quit…” #ClintonEmails

Posted: 12:42 am EDT

 

The email addressed to then USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah was sent in October 2010 by a USAID employee. It was shared by Dr. Shah with senior USAID and State Department officials and forwarded to HRC by Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.  Dr. Shah was USAID Administrator from January 7, 2010 to February 19, 2015. He was succeeded by Gayle Smith as USAID Administrator in December 2015.

Shah writes that he was “somewhat amazed” that somebody actually sent such a letter to him and says that he “really believe our overall narrative lacks credibility and do believe the qddr will need be a key document in terms of trying to win over the building.”

He also writes that, “For everyone one (sic) of these totally crazy emails/people there are 100 moderate people that we need to win over – and they are watching with skepticism right now.”

HRC’s response is to first “do a background check on who she is,”  referring to the USAID employee.  She calls the email “a typical DC bureaucratic rant,” and says it reminds her of “some of the town hall questioners I’ve had.”  

The email below from a USAID employee whose name is redacted is pretty brutal, calling the then administrator of less than a year, “a patsie,” and “a puppet” while urging the USAID boss to “quit with at least some dignity…”

We have not been able to find a trail on what if ever was USAID or State’s response.  Mills writes to HRC that she wants “to be helpful and creative in thinking through a response.”  This document is part of the latest Clinton email dump.

 

 

Related items:

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Burn Bag: US Embassy Madrid’s Wise Use of Taxpayer Funded Employee Time?

Via Burn Bag:

“Last year and the year before, Embassy Madrid hosted the biggest (or one of the biggest) July 4th celebration with roughly 4,000 guests.  Plans for this year call for a bigger celebration.  Wise use of taxpayer funded employee time?”

Madrid_4Juk16

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DGHR’s Conversations on Leadership and Not Throwing People Under the Bus

Posted: 1:54 pm EDT

 

The Director General of the Foreign Service Arnold Chacón has started a podcast series on Conversations on Leadership. The first one was with Ambassador Kristie Kenny, formerly the Ambassador to Thailand (12 minutes), and the second one with AF Assistant Secretary Linda Thomas Greenfield and DS Assistant Secretary Greg Starr (13 minutes).  The podcast starts with a telephone ringing,  a brief introduction by DGHR Chacon, then the conversation with senior leaders in the Department.

Since “you don’t have to have a title or a rank to be a leader,” perhaps, the next guests for these conversations should include midlevel and entry level officers and what they think of leadership and how it can be improved in the State Department.

 

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False 360 Feedback Input in a Denial of Tenure Case Makes It to the Grievance Board

Posted: 3:32 am EDT

 

We’ve written previously about the 360 degree feedback tool as practiced by the State Department, most recently last fall when a Speaking Out piece was published in the Foreign Service Journal urging that the Department reevaluate its use of the 360-degree reviews (see The State Dept’s 360 Degree Feedback as Placement Tool, and Probably, a Lawsuit Waiting to Happen).

In a recent Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) case, an FS-2 officer who works for USAID, appealed the denial of his grievance in which he challenged the denial of tenure by the 2014 Tenure Board, on the grounds that a principal document on which it based its decision was fatally flawed. And it includes an example of the 360 feedback gone wild.

The 2013 Tenure Board had deferred grievant for tenure consideration for one year. Grievant alleges that the recommendation for deferral was based mainly on anonymous, negative 360 degree input that was the polar opposite of grievant’s accumulated Appraisal Evaluation Forms (AEFs) and other, positive 360 degree information. When the 2014 Tenure Board rejected grievant for tenure, the Agency decided to terminate him. The centerpiece of his grievance and appeal is the 2014 Tenure Board’s alleged improper reliance upon a single, stale and flawed 2013 TEF. Furthermore, grievant complains that the Agency denied him substantive due process because it failed to provide him with reasonably specific and timely notice of his deficiencies and an opportunity to improve his job performance before the denial of tenure.

Grievant joined the Foreign Service in May 2009 as an FS-2 officer, as part of the USAID’s recruitment program to attract mid-career professionals under the Development Leadership Initiative (“DLI”).

The AEFs Before the Tenure Board.  The package of information considered by the 2013 Tenure Board included a collection of three AEFs, covering grievant’s performance from April 1, 2009 through March 31, 2010 , from April 1, 2010 through March 31, 2011 , and from April 1, 2011 through March 30, 2012. All three were uniformly positive, and they did not include any complaints that grievant was not performing adequately in any skill areas or that he was deficient in any work objective.
[…]
The 2013 TEF. This document is found in the record as Attachment J to grievant’s Appeal Submission. The author of this January 3, 2013 TEF (hereinafter REDACTED) was the Director of the agency’s REDACTED Office in USAID/Washington. He described himself as “the employee’s Office Director for five months,” indicating that he was evaluating grievant’s performance for the period of July 2, 2012 to December 19, 2012. He stated specifically that he “relied heavily on the 360 degree input provided by senior tenured officers who observed the employee’s performance in his two overseas assignments and his short stay in AID/W.” His reference to “360 degree input” denotes a certain type of information that a rater is permitted to obtain in preparation of an AEF. The use of 360 degree sources is also permissible in the preparation of a TEF.*3

In the Precepts for the Employee Evaluation Program (ADS Chapter 461) , “360 degree sources” are defined as: “Customers, peers, other managers, subordinates, and other individuals with whom or for whom an employee may have worked who can provide feedback, from their various perspectives, about the employee’s performance during any period of performance currently being evaluated.” The Precepts contain instructions for how a rater and rated employee must collaborate to select the particular 360 degree sources, some of whom are required to be solicited even if they do not respond.

According to the Record of Proceeding, at that time that the supervisor wrote the TEF, the Precepts did not explicitly direct or authorize the inclusion of 360 degree information in a TEF, although such authorization had become explicit by the time the 2014 Tenure Board made its decision. See ADS Chapter 414mad, 3.3.3 (“Responsible officials should use all appropriate sources of information in preparing the TEF, including AEFs, Appraisal Input Forms (AIFs), and 360 feedback.”).

The grievant argued that he was harmed by the underlying falsity of some of that information – compounding the impropriety. Grievant stated that some of the negative 360 comments were “literally false information that during the tenure process no one questioned or compared to the accurate facts as reflected in grievant’s OPF.”

Grievant identifies two examples of prejudicially false information that came to light:

One, grievant learned that one of the originally unnamed 360 degree sources was REDACTED who was a Civil Service supervisor of a technical office in the REDACTED in Washington, D.C. The underlying 360 degree source material that sent to was a memorandum of December 11, 2012. In it, he opined that grievant did not have the ability to function at the FS-01 level.  REDACTED added, “The fact that he has been curtailed in his first two overseas assignments in REDACTED and REDACTED by the Agency reinforces [sic] my recommendation.”9 The unchallenged information in the Record of Proceedings in this appeal shows that grievant left REDACTED  because he volunteered for a CPC (Critical Priority Country) assignment in REDACTED. Then, he left the subsequent assignment REDACTED at the end of one year, because one year was the standard length of time for a CPC assignment. Neither departure from post was involuntary or punitive in any way.

Two, another important false statement about grievant came from a 360 degree source later identified as REDACTED.  In an email of December 10, 2012 to he described himself as grievant’s “mentor” in REDACTED . In part, REDACTED stated,

He [grievant] taxed my experience and skills to the max until I finally requested that he be transferred out of our Mission. To cut to the quick, I would not recommend him for Tenuring [sic], I would rate him as negative on all of the FS Precepts for tenuring and I believe that the Agency would be better served employing [grievant] as a PSC. I did not write his AEF but I did have input and discussed his negative performance with his supervisor . . . . He refused to do rotations stating that he knew all about the Agency, our rules and regulations and how other tech and support offices functioned. . . . I had him removed.10

Grievant identifies several false statements about him in this TEF. One, grievant’s AEFs all confirmed that he completed whatever training rotations had been prescribed for him. […]  Moreover, comments reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of grievant’s status as a “mid-level” career candidate, who after the initial few weeks of orientation, was not subject to the types of rotations that applied to “entry-level” candidates. As mid-level, he was assumed to be knowledgeable in his field and was evaluated as a regular employee, not as a trainee – one who, according to his AEF’s, fully met those expectations.

Golly! You folks at USAID know this is wild, right?

Here is the decision of the FSGB: HELD: The denial of tenure by the 2014 Tenure Board was tainted by the flawed and falsely prejudicial 2013 Tenure Evaluation Form (TEF) and was also issued in violation of several Agency Precepts. The denial of tenure is reversed and the case remanded to the Agency with instructions to expunge the 2013 TEF, as well as the letters deferring and denying tenure, and to place grievant’s updated Official Personnel File (OPF) before the next Tenure Board.

Read the ROI of the case below:

 

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USCG Erehwon’s New Year’s Resolutions For Disaster Preparedness

Posted:2:05 am EDT

 

The elves working at the FAM factory worked long and hard to get their directives out.  The elves know very well that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Nonetheless, they sent an ALDAC to all missions with a reminder to remember disaster preparedness as they start 2016.  There are, afterall, 10 Major Natural Disasters Predicted In The Near Future. If that’s not scary enough, here are the 5 Cities That Will Be Wiped Off the Map by Natural Disasters according to cracked.com.  And just because the world did not end in December 2012 despite the Mayan prediction and the Roland Emmerich movie, doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, right?

The elves point out in the ALDAC that per FAM 1812, a crisis unready organization is one that:

  • Does not know where it is at risk
  • Does not routinely communicate internally or externally
  • Has not considered how to respond
  • Has not identified key managers
  • Has unclear policy guidance
  • Has no emergency procedures checklists
  • Has an uncertain/unclear media policy and strategy
  • Cannot anticipate
  • Is concerned more with liability than results

The American Consulate General Erehwon is vulnerable to natural disasters like flood, cyclones, heat waves, even droughts.  One year it almost drowned in flood, and was almost washed away another year by a super cyclone. The principal officer was wondering if the elves were talking specifically about his post when he saw the ALDAC.  He had nightmares that employees under his command were swept away by flash floods and he was eaten then spit out by an giant snake like Jon Voight in Anaconda.  Nightmares. And that my friends, is how USCG Erehwon ended up with the following New Year’s Resolutions For Disaster Preparedness this year.

#1.  The EAP is boring but a must-read.  I need to get familiar with post’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP). This year, no kidding. I now recognize that a plan is just an illusion of preparedness in a binder unless accompanied by training and constant practice.  We all need to know the plan and know the drill. As one ambassador once said, “we drilled for asylum seekers, for bomb threats, for anything we could think of.” I guess, we’ve got to do it.  Per 7 FAM 1812.1, my broadest and deepest responsibility is to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens in the event of a crisis. I will make sure that the plan is tested, that regular radio tests are done, and we go through the mission’s telephone tree, even if I have to run the tests myself.

#2. I will no longer skip the Crisis Management Exercise (CME).  Yes, the CME scenarios are occasionally fantastic but an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown did happen all at the same time at one post. It could happen again elsewhere. Per 7 FAM 1812.1-9, a crisis management exercise at post is an excellent way to test planning and identify problems to address before a crisis hits.  I get that. Really. No, I would not want a Congressional committee asking me on C-SPAN why I missed the crisis management exercise at post.

Debris fills the land in Ofunato, Japan after a tsunami during a search and recovery mission on March 15, 2011. Members of the Los Angeles Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2 are responding to the recent national emergency in Japan due to the earthquake while providing needed care, rescue techniques and tools.

Debris fills the land in Ofunato, Japan after a tsunami during a search and recovery mission on March 15, 2011. Members of the Los Angeles Search and Rescue Team, Task Force 2 are responding to the recent national emergency in Japan due to the earthquake while providing needed care, rescue techniques and tools. 4th Combat Camera Squadron Photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel St. Pierre Date Taken:03.15.2011 Location:OFUNATO, IWATE, JP

#3. Remember the humans, yes I will. People applying for visas show up whether there’s a flood or a cyclone as long as the consular section is open. Local employees show up as long as the office is open. Per 7 FAM 1812.4-1, while the host government and even other embassy sections may exert pressure to keep visa services open, the protection and welfare of U.S. citizens must always take priority over visa services.  Also postponement of a conference or a dinner party is not/not the end of the world. I will be mindful that local staff supporting a conference or a dinner party have family members to take case of in the event of a crisis or a natural disaster.  When flood water is rising or when the cyclone is roaring, post closure “out of an abundance of caution” actually makes sense.

#4. I will be visible, present and attentive. I will show up for my colleagues, post clients and the community before, during, and after a crisis. I heard that leaders who hide or appear removed from the crisis negate their perceived and expected leadership actions.  I will be there for you next time, and every time after that. I know now that I cannot just show up for a photo-op after a crisis, even if the photo is for DipNote. My colleagues rolled their eyes the last time I did that, and there’s apparently a video of that! So never again!

#5. I will work to improve communication. I was personally distressed at the unfolding calamity. I did not do any town halls though I heard that the RSO did one brief radio announcement.  I know now that my staff needed to hear from me before, during and after the incident. I will endeavor to improve my communication skills to avoid misunderstandings, inaccurate information, and misinterpretations.  One ambassador once used the embassy radio network to brief the staff twice a day during a coup d’état.  After things settled down, staff members expressed their appreciation for these briefings, noting how reassuring it was to know what was going on and, moreover, that someone was at the helm. I will try my best to emulate that.

#6. I will learn to prioritize. I am learning that people are more important than events or things. More important than the blasted dinner reception for the principal officer’s conference. Or that antique china cabinet that needs rescuing from rising flood water. Per 7 FAM 1814.2, a disaster checklist would be helpful to capsulate the plan into a streamlined format that outlines what needs to be done, and in what order.  If there are sacrifices to be made – and there will be – I will step up to the plate first. Yes, everyone will get fuel for their home generators before mine. I promised I will be the last one the support staff will need to worry about in a crisis.

#7 . I will attempt to understand the likely response of the host government. What options are available when ports are closed or when roads are dangerous? What happens if shelter in place is no longer the best scenario? Per 7 FAM 1813.3-1, I will make every effort to learn and understand the response infrastructure the government has in place, get to know the officials who would have primary responsibility for crisis management and identify any predetermined sites the host government plans to use, such as communications centers, emergency shelters, mass feeding areas, etc.  I need to know who can assist post if the unthinkable happens and there are no USG assets to rely on.

#8: I will request mental health services for my staff.  I will make it clear that getting treated for a mental health issue is a sign of strength and responsibility, not weakness, and that my request for a visit from RMO/P is not a “check the box” exercise nor to shield myself from criticisms but in recognition that people handle traumas and crises differently.

9. I will do a debrief. From now on, post will do a lessons learned debriefing exercise and endeavor to share it with others. The exercise will include a collective self-analysis of actions taken and leadership decisions, successes and failures, and perhaps most importantly, what can be made better if the same thing happen again in the future.

#10. I will thank people and show appreciation.  I will learn to show appreciation to everyone who made it possible for post to survive the crisis. I will remember to prepare appropriate awards for staff members, and formal commendations appropriate to persons outside of the mission who provided assistance. I will pat myself on the back but only in private and will not self-nominate myself for any award even if I think I did a most excellent job.

Happy First Week of 2016! If I’m not faithful to these new year’s resolutions, you know what to do!

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Related posts:

 

 

 

US Embassy Kabul: Jan 4 Incident is “Getting Lowballed” by US Officials? (POGO)

Posted: 12:29 am EDT

 

We’ve recently posted about the attacks in Kabul (see US Embassy Kabul: January 4 Attacks Target USG Employees at Camp Sullivan and US Mission Afghanistan Contractor Survives Taliban Car Bomb, Takes Photo, Quits Job, Goes on Reddit. On January 7, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) asks, Is the US Embassy in Kabul the next Benghazi?

Quick excerpt below:

Based on exclusive photos, videos, and messages the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has been receiving from sources on the ground in Kabul since the housing compound for US Embassy security guards was hit by a bomb on Monday, it is clear that the scope and severity of the blast was significant. However, the US State Department has not mentioned the attack in any of its daily press briefings this week, nor has it provided updates regarding the safety and security of American embassy personnel in Afghanistan. POGO has asked the agency for updated information, but has not received a response at the time of this writing.

An American on the scene at Camp Sullivan, which houses hundreds of US and Nepalese guards, told POGO the blast radius was 100 meters wide and caused a 15- feet deep crater, indicating an explosive charge of at least 2,000 lbs. He said the incident is “getting lowballed” by US officials. A BBC producer in Kabul Tweeted that it was the second largest bomb ever detonated in the Afghan capital.

According to POGO sources on the ground, multiple Afghan nationals were killed (two, according to the Interior Minister) and 11 Nepalese security personnel and one American citizen were injured and flown from the scene. A Kabul hospital reported that nine children were among the wounded in the attack.
[…]

So, how safe are the US embassy and those who defend it?

That’s the question POGO has been asking officials for years at the State Department, Congress, and the Pentagon. Guards defending the facility have long feared that their daily armored convoys to and from the embassy make them sitting ducks for Taliban attacks.
[…]
“If the embassy were attacked, we’d have a huge problem and I don’t want to think about the casualties,” J.P. Antonio, a former medic at the embassy, told POGO in September 2013.
[…]
When a senior State Department official reassured Congress in September 2013 that the the US embassy in Afghanistan was well-protected, POGO challenged the veracity of the centerpiece of his testimony – that the contractors protecting the compound had proven themselves twice in battle – and forced him to correct his testimony when it became clear there were no such tests of the Kabul embassy guard force.

Read in full here.

 

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Foreign Service Members Offer Candid Views of @StateDept Mental Health Services (via FSJ)

Posted: 3:04 am EDT

 

The January issue of the Foreign Service Journal is out. The issue is focused on mental health care for the Foreign Service.  Dr. Samuel Thielman,  a recently retired regional medical officer/psychiatrist for the Department of State writes about how MED’s mental health program has grown and evolved over the years to address the unusual needs of FS employees and their families serving overseas in The Evolution of State’s Mental Health Services. Chantay White, the chief of the Employee Assistance Program with the State Department Employee Consultation Services and Paulette Baldwin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker write about Mental Health and ECS—What You Should Know. Dr. Stephen A. Young, the director of Mental Health Services for the State department since September 2015, writes about The Face of Mental Health Services Overseas.

One part of the bureaucracy that is glaringly missing here is, of course, Diplomatic Security.  A majority of these comments express concern about DS and security clearance. The most instructive part is probably the section on MED/MHS Checkup: Foreign Service Members Weigh In that offers very candid views from people in the field.

The FSJ writes that the compilation includes 45 responses from FS members in Washington, D.C., and overseas, some entry-level and a few retired, from the foreign affairs agencies, primarily State and USAID. The gender split was about even. “Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, and known concerns about privacy, we took the unprecedented step of offering to print comments without attribution,” the editors write.

Some excerpts below, each paragraph selected from a separate FS member response.  The last one It’s No Joke is in full; the contributor appears to be part of US Mission Libya following the 2012 attacks. The full comments are available to read here.

“Dealing with the bureaucracy after having sought mental health treatment is itself enough to cause PTSD.”

“Senior officers, in particular, need to set the example by ensuring that their employees understand that a mental health issue, like any ailment, is best addressed early. Until they do, we will all still sign notes like this as… Anonymous.”

“During a rough patch in a relationship, my partner and I sought couples counseling. When my security clearance was up for renewal, I was grilled by the investigator regarding this counseling. I had to defend myself for wanting counseling, and the harsh and critical tone she took for me wanting to do what I needed for my relationship was upsetting. I got the clearance, but it was a stressful process.”

“After service in Iraq, there is no doubt in my mind that I suffered from PTSD. Now (several years later), I see my symptoms as both classic and obvious. At the time I was suffering, however, I hid my symptoms out of fear that knowledge that I suffered from PTSD would harm my career. That concern was heightened by the intense questioning I endured by a Diplomatic Security agent conducting a security clearance update when I was serving in Iraq. When it became known that I had sought mental health care, I was hassled and forced to repeat the content of a private discussion with a mental health professional to a DS agent with zero mental health training. I found the entire episode both distasteful and inappropriate.”

“My mistake—I was told by MED that I’d be given a Class 2 because of seeking continued therapy. I thought that showing that I’d made arrangements for my mental health would ensure a Class 1, but instead that’s what gave me the Class 2. Geez, why be honest with MED—it could have cost me my assignment.”

“I met with a therapist who told me he never wrote anything down because all of his FS clients were terrified of getting caught seeking assistance for their stress-related problems. It’s sad. Concerns about security clearances have a big effect on whether or not I seek mental health care.”

“I feel that if I had declared myself an alcoholic I would have gotten more attention from MED than when I was traumatized and sat in my office working, feeling like an isolated zombie.”

“Once I joined the Foreign Service, I could easily understand why there is an impression that the Service has an alcohol abuse problem—it’s self-medication that is easy to hide from a clearance process. I find that distressing and disturbing and extremely unsupportive.”

“Despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s message a few years ago telling employees that their clearance will not be affected by seeking mental health treatment, that is not what happens in practice. DS investigators zero in on this, considering it a red flag, as if mental health were any different than physical health.”

“No matter what management says about the importance of mental health, if there are no real changes, then the Foreign Service will continue to be an ineffective and unsupportive mental health environment.”

“You also do not know who the regional psychiatrist’s client really is: you or the State Department? Does a psychiatrist see you as a patient who needs help or just a problem for the Foreign Service best remedied by removing you from post?”

“The mandatory out brief improved between the time I returned from Afghanistan in 2007 and 2012, when I returned from Iraq. However, both times I was told that the symptoms in the PTSD questionnaire are normal for six months and not to worry unless they persist. (And I was offended when taken aside after the briefing and asked how pervasive I thought infidelity was in Baghdad.)”

“During the onward assignments process, MED refused to consider my needs as identified by my therapist, instead assigning me to a post where there was no one in-country who could serve as an appropriate psychiatrist. There, I raised an issue of concern with the health unit nurse, who in turn shared it with the management officer, who then told my supervisor that I was “nuts.” This was not only a violation of my privacy; it reflected total ignorance on the management officer’s part of what PTSD and its symptoms are.”

“I would rate the mental health support at 3 out of 10, with 10 being the best. Working in a high-stress post that was not a “high-threat” post, my colleagues and I were given limited support in a time of crisis.”

“I am grateful for the mental health assistance available to me. If it weren’t for grief counseling, I would have qualms about seeing the RMO/P, because I’d need to disclose this in the five-yearly security update. And while that disclosure might not affect my security clearance, I still think there’s a stigma attached to the fact that I needed mental health assistance.”

“As a veteran of two priority staffing post (PSP) tours—one in Iraq (2007–2008) and the other in Afghanistan (2013–2014)—my experience with transition support has been abysmal. Just getting authorization to attend out briefings and to access mental health services was impossible.”

“I am not concerned about medical and security clearances as they relate to mental health care. Most people have seen a therapist at one time or another, and I don’t think it would affect a security clearance. But corridor reputation is a concern. Even when people need to talk to a mental health professional, they’re more worried about their corridor reputation and often won’t seek help due to the stigma of being “weak.”

“In my final post, when I had finally had enough bullying from my fourth bully boss (three of whom were DCMs and one a GS-15), I worked with the regional psychiatrist who prescribed two anti-anxiety/anti-depressants and a sleeping pill to help me cope. I sought assistance from the ombudsman, but received no help, so I resigned.”

“I had discussed my mental health with the regional psychiatrist during his visits, but he just gave me Xanax and told me panic attacks were normal. He asked me about work-related stress, but reported the results of our meetings with post leadership, contributing to my stress.”

“When State does not actively intervene in cases of abusive behavior, managers are given the impression that they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. Even if victims get mental health care afterwards, the damage has been done. From what I hear, the problem is getting worse and more widespread. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of sending out feel-good cables on workplace atmosphere and bullying, put policies in place that have real teeth. A zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullies, administered neutrally and enforced by D.C., would lead to an instant decrease in unacceptable behaviors and the resulting damage they cause.”

It’s No Joke

The first MED-directed mental health intervention that was provided in Tripoli after the Benghazi attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, was a video conference in April 2013, conveniently less than a week before the Director General arrived for a visit to Libya. Prior to that, the only service provided was a discussion with the nurse about “fostering resiliency” several months after the attack…hardly a useful assist.

The half-day course for those returning from hardship posts is a joke. I took it after my first (!) unaccompanied tour (UT), and both the instructor and some of the other students made fun of me for enrolling, since at the time my tour was seen as one of the “cupcake UTs,” without an active war going on outside the embassy walls. I refused to take the course after my second UT. No one from HR or my bureau asked if I’d taken it or even how I was doing after the second UT.

An RMO/P made fun of some of my coworkers in a high-stress, high-threat post that happened to be a popular destination for American tourists. He told them that they had no idea what serving in an actually difficult post was like, comparing it to the regional city where he was based. Never mind the fact that almost every person at that highly desirable but still challenging post got there via a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I have neither respect for nor faith in MED’s mental health efforts. As long as MED is staffed with people who see mental health as an inconvenience, supported by State leadership (from the very top down) who barely pay lip service to mental health and a work-life balance, there’s no hope for anyone who suffers in the aftermath of an emotionally catastrophic tour abroad. At least there is solidarity among those who survived terrible times abroad.

Read in full the candid views from the filed via the Foreign Service Journal.

 

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