Purported ISIS ‘Hit List’ With 1,482 Targets Includes State Department Names

Posted: 6:52 pm EDT

to CNN, a group calling itself the Islamic State Hacking Division recently posted online a purported list of names and contacts for Americans it refers to as “targets,” according to officials.

Though the legitimacy of the list is questionable, and much of the information it contains is outdated, the message claims to provide the phone numbers, locations, and “passwords” for 1400 American government and military personnel as well as purported credit card numbers, and excerpts of some Facebook chats.

The Guardian describes the list as a spreadsheet, published online last week which exposes names, email addresses, phone numbers and passwords. The 1,482 names include members of the U.S. Marine Corps, NASA, the State Department, the U.S. Air Force, and the FBI.

The Daily Mail  reports that the list includes an accompanying message that reads:  ‘Know that we are in your emails and computer systems, watching and recording your every move, we have your names and addresses, we are in your emails and social media accounts.’

The list apparently also includes the names of eight Australians and UK government personnel. In Australia where there this is huge news, Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the press, “We’ve just discovered that it’s actually able to launch cyber attacks in this country so this is a very sophisticated and deadly threat to us even here in Australia.” A chief executive of a forensic data firm in the country went so far as to advise that Canberra’s public servants get off social media. He also recommended that “on the day [ADFA] cadets enlist, their entire electronic lives be erased” and that “they should not exist on digital networks until they retire from Defence.”

The reaction here is a little less ZOMG!  Last week, then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said in a press conference that “this is the second or third time they’ve claimed that and the first two times I’ll tell you, whatever lists they got were not taken by any cyber attack.”

“This is no different than the other two,” Odierno said. “But I take it seriously because it’s clear what they’re trying to do … even though I believe they have not been successful with their plan.”

CNN reports that Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool also cautioned that many of the military email addresses looked at least several years old, based on their suffixes. He said that shortly after this list was posted, a reminder went out to service personnel that they should limit the personal information they put on social media. “If any of your information on it is accurate, you’re very concerned,” former Homeland Security adviser Fran Townsend told CNN, “as are government officials.”

According to the Washington Examiner, State Department employees comprise about a quarter of the alleged personal information on the list. That would be about 370 names. It also says that at the bottom of the leaked document, originally posted on zonehmirrors.org, are receipts from State Department employees along with their credit card numbers.  The report notes that Islamic State supporters tweeted a link to the document and also tweeted, in one instance, information claiming to be the personal details of a staff member from the U.S. embassy in Cairo that said: “To the lone wolves of Egypt.”

Technology security expert, Troy Hunt,  writes that “nothing makes headlines like a combination of ISIS / hackers / terrorism!” and has taken a closer look with an analysis here. Mr. Hunt’s conclusion — drawn merely from looking at the leaked list and applying what he observed from experience with previous data dumps leaked list —  is that “the data is almost certainly from multiple locations and very unlikely to be from a single data breach.” Also that “most of the data is easily discoverable via either existing data breaches or information intentionally made public.” He writes, “Even the source of the amalgamated data is unverifiable – it could be someone who does indeed wish harm on the individuals named, it could be a kid in his pyjamas, there’s just not enough information to draw a conclusion either way.”

In his analysis of the ISIS list, Mr. Hunt says that “there are many sources from which attributes in this list can be compiled.” As an example, he cited the Adobe breach of 2013 in which 152M records were leaked, which includes 257k .gov email addresses. He writes:

The ISIS list has a lot of state.gov email addresses – Adobe leaked 1,657 of those and they look just like this:

state.gov email addresses in the Adobe data breach

state.gov email addresses in the Adobe data breach via Troy Hunt (used with permission)

“Adobe also leaked password hints so you can begin to quite easily build a profile around people working in the US State Department,” he said.

Would be good to know if any of the names in the Adobe breach are showing up in the ISIS list. We have not seen the purported ISIS list or the names from the Adobe hack but we hope somebody at State is looking at those names. Folks probably need to work on their password hints, too.

In a separate post, Mr. Hunt also notes this:

“The hyperbole and the fear, uncertainty and doubt that spread over this was just off the scale compared to the significance of the actual data. Here we have what amounts to little more than easily discoverable information mostly already in the public domain and suddenly it’s become a huge terror hack. [….] However, the legitimacy of the claims that this was an “ISIS hack” appear to have gotten in the way of a good story and the news has simply run with it.

A couple more reading clips below from Troy Hunt:



There’s not much one can do with the Adobe, Target, Home Depot, OPM hack except to sign up for credit monitoring service or put a credit freeze on one’s account. That is, if we’re concerned about identity thief. But those services  will not work against potential blackmails related to a foreign government hack, or online threats related to potentially scraped data, collected from websites and social media accounts.

We are persuaded by Mr. Hunt’s analysis that this was not a real hack. But real or not, the information is out there and thinking about ‘lone wolf’ offenders seduced by ISIS’ call, in the U.S. or elsewhere is not paranoid.  Folks might consider this a good excuse to review their digital footprint.

The threats online — whether real or part of propaganda — is not going to abate anytime soon. This is the world as it is, and not an attempt at hyperbole.  Employees overseas can report these threats to RSOs but hey, have you seen the rundown of the RSO’s managed programs?   We don’t even know what specific office at State tracks these breaches or who has responsibility for online threats. Was anyone notified by State when the Adobe breach occurred in 2013 and leaked hundreds of official emails? Were those emails changed?  A talkinghead writinghead would like to know.

Also some of USG’s overseas posts still display the official email addresses of personnel in public affairs, and those dealing with contracts, solicitations, and acquisitions on their websites. Those should be generic e-mail accounts not linked to an individual’s name but linked instead to the section, function or office, e.g. Sanaacontracts@state.gov. Makes better sense as people rotate jobs anyway.

We’re trying to find if Diplomatic Security has any response, guidance, reminder for State Department personnel given this report and the Burn Bag received earlier.  Would be a good time as any to issue an opsec reminder. We will have a follow-up post if/when we get an official response.


The Purposeful and Targeted Cultivation of a Relationship with a Consular Officer

Posted: 1:04 am EDT


Former FSO Michael T. Sestak was arrested in Thailand on May 7, 2013. He was initially arraigned on September 13, 2013 and pled guilty on November 6, 2013.  He is scheduled to be sentenced on August 14 before Judge John D. Bates at the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia. The USG is recommending (#303) that Mr. Sestak be sentenced to a term of 84 months of incarceration followed by 3 years of supervised release.

The USG in its memorandum in aid of sentencing writes:

The U.S. State Department is dedicated to administering its visa programs fairly and without graft or corruption. SESTAK and his co-conspirators damaged the reputation of the U.S. State Department by tainting the process and likely preventing deserving applicants from obtaining visas.

This was not a momentary lapse in judgment for any of the conspirators, including SESTAK. This was a sophisticated scheme that exploited a system and made millions of dollars after months of careful planning and substantial efforts to cover their tracks.
SESTAK has provided substantial assistance to the government from the time of his initial detention on May 9, 2013. On that date, the defendant waived his Miranda rights and agreed to be interviewed. During this initial interview, the defendant acknowledged his guilt and provided investigators with information regarding the conspiracy, including details about how the scheme actually operated and how the proceeds were laundered and moved out of Vietnam. While SESTAK was somewhat naïve and uninformed about the full extent of the conspiracy and the deep involvement of Binh Vo’s family members, he never minimized his own critical role in the scheme.

Mr. Sestak’s lawyer, Gray B. Broughton in his court filing argues that as of August 14, 2015, Mr. Sestak will have already forfeited over twenty-seven (27) months of his liberty in facilities designed for short-term detention and that a thirty-three (33) month sentence will serve as adequate punishment. “As a result of his indictment and conviction, Michael lost his job with the State Department and will never again be able to work in a similar capacity in public service. Even worse than the incarceration and job loss is Michael Sestak’s loss of reputation. The amount of shame and contrition that Michael Sestak continues to carry with him cannot be overstated. The loss of one’s profession and reputation is a severe punishment that serves the retributive goals of sentencing.” 

We will keep tabs on the sentencing set for Friday morning. Meanwhile, below is an excerpt from the court filing which is instructive, particularly, the emails exchanged by some of the conspirators.  If you’re a consular officer and somebody wants to make you an “honorary” brother, or sister, some other pretend relative, or fairy godparent, you gotta run as fast and as far away as possible!

This is what a purposeful and targeted cultivation of a relationship with a consular officer overseas looks like.  Note that this is an excerpt from the defense filing:

When Michael arrived in Vietnam, he had hit a personal low. Michael had become dissatisfied working for the State Department and had contemplated resigning at the end of his assignment to Poland. Michael had witnessed others being promoted who he believed were less deserving than he was. To make matters worse, Michael’s involvement in the fruitless search for WMD throughout Iraq shook his previously unwavering trust in the United States Government.
Most significantly, when Michael arrived in Vietnam, his personal life was totally unfulfilling. Within his first year assigned to Vietnam, Michael turned 40. Michael was unmarried, had no children, and no serious prospects for finding someone to share life together.  One aspect of being a Foreign Service Officer was that Michael changed countries every two years, usually coming back to Washington D.C. for several months in between for training. In both Spain and Poland, Michael had a girlfriend that he met towards the end of his tour. Unable to further develop these relationships in such a short amount of time, Michael arrived at his next assignment unaccompanied. It was during these transitions that Michael began to question the meaning of life and finding true happiness.
It was during this time and with this personal baggage that Michael first met Binh Vo. They met at Michael’s very first Consulate event in Vietnam in August 2010. Binh Vo and a Vietnamese businessman approached Michael and started talking. Binh Vo and Michael were approximately the same age; similarly, Binh Vo was American and well-educated.
Binh Vo slowly became Michael’s closest confident. Their friendship developed to the point where they met almost daily for meals or coffee. Binh Vo introduced Michael to his siblings, who went out of their way to include Michael in “family-only” functions. Binh Vo’s siblings referred to Michael as an honorary “Vo” brother. This circle of new-found friends constituted roughly 80% of Michael’s social activity in Vietnam. As described above, Michael was unable to develop any real friendships with American employees at the Consulate and he didn’t really have any Vietnamese friends; the few Vietnamese men that Michael met who ran in the same circles would ultimately harass Michael for visa “favors.” For the first year and four months of Michael’s time in Vietnam, Binh Vo was the only single male with whom he could communicate and socialize without reporting requirements because Binh Vo was American. Additionally, Binh Vo was always available, had a comparable level of education, and didn’t ask any favors.

Michael felt very fortunate to have stumbled upon a great relationship with Binh Vo and his family. Michael was unaware that Binh Vo and his family had targeted Michael from the onset and that every coffee, meal, family dinner, and drink was an orchestrated, results-driven event with the end goal of executing Binh Vo’s scheme to fraudulently sell non-immigrant visas to Vietnamese citizens.

As the Government stated in its sentencing memorandum for Binh Vo, Binh Vo “purposefully cultivated a relationship with Sestak in order to recruit him to approve visas for the conspiracy.” Government Mem., Doc. 289 at 8. Binh Vo exploited the weakness that Michael tried to hide, but some easily saw.

The Government’s sentencing memorandum illustrates how Binh Vo and his family preyed on Michael’s weakness and transformed him from a law-abiding officer and government official into a willing participant of the Vo’s scheme to enrich themselves:

The defendant [Binh Vo] orchestrated the visa fraud conspiracy from beginning to end. During the summer of 2011, according to electronic communications between the defendant [Binh Vo]’s sister and another co-conspirator, [Binh Vo] cultivated a relationship with [Michael] Sestak in order to get Sestak to approve visas for their family and acquaintances.

In a Google chat dated June 1, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo stated to an acquaintance:

[L]ast night we went out with this guy who works at the consulate — he’s the one that approves peoples visas… and he’s this single guy who wants to find someone to be wth [sic]… and my brother knows that – so he’s been trying to get this guy out and introduce him to people… so then later he can do him favors like … have him approve visas for people.

In an email dated June 1, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo stated to her boyfriend:

This guy who works for the US consulate here came out and joined us for dinner. He’s the guy that approves Visas for Vietnamese people to go to the United States so he’s a really good connection to have. My brother plans on using him to get [a sister-in-law’s] Visa to go to the States so [the sister-in-law] will most likely travel back with me in August . . . he just likes to people watch — he does this with the consulate guy (Mike) and they check out girls.

In a Google chat dated June 27, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo again discussed the sister-in-law referenced in the above paragraph.

I applied for her Visa … so her interview is July 13th … and i told the consulate guy … so he said he’ll pull her file … but now he knows our family … so he’s more trusting … but she’ll most likely get accepted this time … because Mike will pull up her file … and he considers Binh like his best friend.

In another Google chat dated June 27, 2011, co-defendant Hong Vo discussed Sestak:

I have to go out now… it’s freaking 11P and Binh forgot it was Mike’s birthday… this loser guy who works for the consulate but we have to go out because he’s going to help us get [the sister-in-law’s] visa ugh

The USG in its court filing says that “the conduct that led to the present charges appears to be significantly out of character for the defendant.” It has also credited Mr. Sestak for accepting responsibility for his actions and for expression of remorse:

As far as the government is aware, prior to these offenses SESTAK had an unblemished record first as a as a police officer, then a Deputy United States Marshal, a U.S. Naval Intelligence Officer, and finally as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. The fact that he immediately accepted responsibility for his actions at the time of his initial detention and agreed to cooperate with the government from that day forward supports the government’s belief that the defendant is not a career criminal. The defendant’s cooperation has included numerous meetings and debriefings and significant assistance with the sale of the condominiums in Thailand that he purchased with the illegal proceeds from the scheme. Since the time of his initial detention in May 2013, the defendant has repeatedly expressed shame and genuine remorse for his actions.

Mr. Sestak faces 19-24 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The USG is asking for 84 months or 7 years and three years of supervised release. Defense is asking for 33 months. We’ll have to wait until August 14 to hear Judge Bates’ decision.

We’ve posted a couple of the publicly available Sestak documents in the forum’s Document Dump for friends of the blog. Click here to login. It looks like all of Mr. Sestak’s cooperation with the government is related to the cases against the other conspirators and the disposal of properties purchased through illegal proceeds.  We want to know how can the next Sestak be prevented from happening; he maybe in the best position to answer that question. We’ve requested to do an interview with him after the sentencing.  Will keep you posted.


A blog mistake hounds an FSO: Despite a good reputation for work, “there was the blog thing.”

Posted: 3:43 am EDT


There are over 500 Foreign Service blogs by State Department employees and family members. Long-time readers of this blog may remember the tigers who bite bloggers (see Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!).

When I wrote that Rawr piece in 2011, I wrote this:

I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody’s clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among directed at FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either —  unless you call the “push” to retirement a payback kick.

Well, State did yank Peter Van Buren‘s clearance afterwards, but it was for more than just a blog.  Occasionally, I get a request to cite a case where identified individuals got into real trouble due to blogging in the Foreign Service. Except for a small number of cases (PVB, ADA and MLC), I’ve refrained from writing about the blog troubles out of concern that writing about them makes it worse for the individual bloggers. In many cases, the bloggers themselves quietly remove their blogs online without official prompting. Out of the abundance of caution.

A recent FSGB case decided in January 2015 shows a charge of “Poor Judgment” against an FSO based on a post in her personal blog written in October 2008.  That’s right. The blog post was online for barely a day and was taken down in 2008. To be clear, the poor judgment charge related to the blog is just half the charges filed against this employee.  But in January 2013, State proposed a five day suspension for the FSO. Excerpt from the FSGB record of proceeding available online:

The Improper Personal Conduct charges are based on grievant’s personal relationships in the summer of 2008 with two individuals to whom she had previously issued non-immigrant visas, and the Poor Judgment charge is based on a post in her personal Internet blog in October of 2008.
During a flight to the United States during the spring of 2008, grievant unexpectedly encountered another citizen of Country X (Citizen B) for whom she had issued a visa, fell into conversation with him, and exchanged contact information. Upon her return to Country X, grievant was hospitalized in June 2008. While in the hospital, she received a call from Citizen B, who said he would ask his family members to visit her. They did so. Soon after Citizen B returned to Country X, grievant invited him to lunch. Thereafter, the two conducted an intimate relationship for about three weeks.

Later, Citizen A contacted grievant requesting her assistance in issuing a visa to his new wife. Grievant told him she could not be involved in his wife’s visa application process because she knew him. Consequently, another Consular Officer adjudicated and issued the visa for Citizen A’s new wife. Shortly thereafter, grievant posted on her personal blog (using Citizen A’s initials) a comment saying, in effect, that sharing a bottle of wine with someone could be disastrous, especially when that person shows up at your workplace seeking a visa for his new bride. Within a day of this blog posting, grievant was warned by a colleague to take it down, and grievant did so.
In a letter issued on January 31, 2013, the Department of State proposed to suspend grievant for five workdays, based on three charges that arose from conduct occurring in 2008. Ultimately, the suspension was reduced to three workdays. Grievant’s appeal raised issues of timeliness as well as challenges to the substance of the charges. Grievant is a class FS- 04 Consular Officer who was serving abroad in 2008. In May 2009, a co-worker at her Embassy complained to the RSO that grievant had become too close to some visa applicants and their attorneys and was maintaining improper personal relationships with them. The Office of the RSO investigated the allegations and eventually referred the matter to the Consular Integrity Division (CID). In its report of October 2009, CID found no wrongdoing and returned the matter to post. Nonetheless, the RSO referred the complaint of the co-worker to DS for investigation, but did not do so until January 2011. DS, for no articulated reason, did not assign the case to a field agent until September 28, 2011. DS then did not complete its investigation and forward the matter to HR until late October or early November 2012.

The Board concluded that there was no fact-based excuse for the delay at the RSO level and that there was no evidence of necessity for the length of time engulfed in the DS investigation. The Board found that the grievant had been harmed by the overall delay, caused by two different bureaucracies in the Department. The Board identified the harm as the statistically diminished promotability of this particular officer, given her combination of time-in-service and time-in- class.

The FSGB explains in the footnotes that 1) “She [grievant] was unmarried and remained unmarried through at least the date of her suspension. We mention her marital status only because in other disciplinary cases, an officer’s married status has been deemed a risk for coercion if someone knowing of the sexual misconduct threatened to reveal it to the officer’s spouse. Here, however, it does not appear that the grievant’s marital status was relevant to the selection of penalty or the choice of the charges. Noting grievant’s marital status may obviate confusion, if anyone examining other grievances or appeals should consider this case for comparison purposes.” 2) “Because of sensitivity surrounding the country in which grievant served her first tour, both parties refer to it as “Country X…”

In its decision last January, the FSGB held (pdf) that “grievant had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the Department’s delay of over three years in proposing grievant’s suspension was unexcused and unreasonable and that grievant’s promotional opportunities had been harmed as a result of the delay. Grievant is entitled to reversal of the three-day suspension for charges of Improper Personal Conduct and Poor Judgment, as well as removal of the suspension letter from her OPF. Grievant is entitled to promotion to the FS-03 level, as recommended by the 2013 Selection Boards, retroactive to 2013.”

While this case was resolved on the FSO’s favor, I’m taking note of this case here for several reasons:

1) According to the redacted report published online, the misconduct was reported to the agency by one of grievant’s co-workers on May 20, 2009.  An embassy is a fishbowl.  Anyone at post familiar with one’s activities, in real life or online can file an allegation. If you write a blog specific to your post, people at post inevitably will connect you to it. A single blogpost, even if taken down, can reach back and bite. Across many years.  State’s position is that grievant’s argument that the Department had no regulations or guidelines about personal blogs in 2008 “does not make her posting any less wrong.” Interestingly, that official line doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the former secretary of state’s use of private email.

2)  Even if an allegation is dismissed by the Consular Integrity Division (CID), it does not mean the end of it, as this case clearly shows.  After the case was dismissed by CID, the case was forwarded to Diplomatic Security for another investigation.  “Counting from the date on which the behavior was reported (as specific misconduct) to the agency to the date of proposal of the five-day suspension, the period of delay in dispute is three (3) years and eight months.” While I can understand what might have prompted the initial complaint, I’m curious about the second referral.  I’d be interested to see comparable cases to this. I’m wondering if this case would have been referred to a second investigation if she were a male officer? Absolutely, yes, no? But why a duplicate investigation?

3) When grievant departed Country X for a new post,  her continued blogging activity prompted other Consular (CID) investigations.  Since there are no public records of these incidents until the cases end up in the FSGB, it is impossible to tell how many FS employees have been referred to CID or DS for their blogging activities. Or for that matter, what kind of topics got them in trouble.  I am aware of cases where FS bloggers had difficulties with onward assignment, but those were never officially tied to their blogging activities; that is, there were no paper trail pointing directly at their blogs.  This is the first case where we’re seeing on paper what happens:

Grievant states in the ROP that “while in [REDACTED] she did not receive any of the initial positions she bid on. Eventually, she was told that even though she had a good reputation for her work, “there was the blog thing.” Also, she recalls that a “handshake” offer of a Consular Chief position in [REDACTED] was rescinded. She attributes this to an unnamed official’s claim that “Embassy decided they did not want me after CID told them about my history (presumably the blog, and my time in Country X).”

4) Beyond the consequences of not getting onward assignments, here’s the larger impact:  “In 2015, the first year her file would be reviewed without any discipline letter, grievant would have been in the Foreign Service for nine years and in class FS-04 for seven years. In point of fact, these lengths of time in service and time in class fall far above the average promotion times for officers moving from grade FS-04 to FS-03.[…]  We conclude, under the totality of circumstances, that the untimely suspension prejudiced her chances for promotion to FS-03 in the years 2015-2018.”

5) Beyond the blog thing — the FSO in this grievance case was an untenured officer serving her first tour at a “sensitive” country the FSGB would only refer to as Country X. When the FSO argue that she was never counseled at post regarding these relationships (other half of charges is for Improper Personal Conduct), the State Department contends that “any lack of counseling “does not erase the perception of impropriety [grievant’s] actions could create if made public, nor does it serve as an implicit concession that [grievant’s] actions were somehow appropriate.”   \

Well, okay, but ….. 3 FAM 4100 is the rules for the road when it comes to  employee responsibility and conduct. Which part of the current A100 or leadership and management classes are these FAM sections incorporated?  While I can understand the  department’s contention above, it also does not absolve the agency from its responsibility to provide appropriate counsel and training, most especially for entry level officers. Or is this a gap in the training of new employees?  When a new, inexperienced officer is first posted overseas, who can he/she ask about delicate issues like this? Is there a Dear Abby newbies can write to or call for counsel at the State Department without the question trailing the employee down every corridor?


June Is PTSD Awareness Month — Let’s Talk Mental Health, Join Us at the Forum

Posted: 11:13 pm  EDT

Join us at the forum today at http://forums.diplopundit.net, noon – 2pm, EST

I’ve blogged about mental health in the State Department for years now (see links below). I know that a mental health issue affecting one person is not a story of just one person.  It affects parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends; it affects the home and the workplace. It is a story of families and communities. While there is extensive support in the military community, that’s not always the case when it comes to members of the Foreign Service.

I once wrote about a former Foreign Service kid and his dad with severe PTSD. A few of you took the time to write and/or send books to the ex-FS employee incarcerated in Colorado, thank you.

I’ve written about Ron CappsRachel SchnellerCandace Faber, FSOs who came forward to share their brave struggles with all of us. There was also a senior diplomat disciplined for volatile behavior who cited PTSD, I’ve also written about Michael C. Dempsey, USAID’s first war-zone related suicide, and railed about suicide prevention resources.  The 2014 Foreign Service Grievance Board 2014 annual report says that eight of the new cases filed involved a claim that a disability, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or other medical condition affected the employee performance or conduct that resulted in a separation recommendation.

With very few exceptions, people who write to this blog about mental health and PTSD do so only on background. Here are a few:

  • A State Department employee with PTSD recently told this blog that “Anyone outside of our little insular community would be appalled at the way we treat our mentally ill.”  The individual concludes with clear frustration that it “seems sometimes the only unofficially sanctioned treatment plan encouraged is to keep the commissaries well stocked with the adult beverage of your choice.” 
  • Another one whose PTSD claim from service at a PRT in Iraq languished at OWCP said, “I can assure you that OER and State Med have been nothing but obstructions… as a vet, I have been treated at VA for the past ten months, else I would have killed myself long ago.”
  • Still another one writes: “VA indicates the average time between trauma and treatment-seeking is eight years. The longer it is undiagnosed and treated, the more difficult to ameliorate. I have a formal diagnosis from VA but could not even get the name of a competent psychiatrist from DoS. The bulk of DoS PTSD claims are still a few years away (2008/2009 PLUS 8), with no competent preparation or process.”
  • A friend of a State employee wrote that her DOS friend was “deployed/assigned to a  war-torn country not too long ago for a year. Came back with PTSD and  was forced by superiors to return to very stressful/high pressure work  duties while also seeking medical attention for an undiagnosed then, but eventually diagnosed (took about 6 months) disease  triggered by environmental conditions where s/he was last posted.”
  • Another FSO said, “I actually thought State did a decent job with my PTSD. After I was subject to an attack in Kabul, the social worker at post was readily available and helpful. He indicated I could depart post immediately if I needed to (and many did after the attack). When I departed post I was screened for PTSD and referred to MED here in DC. After a few sessions here with MED, I was referred to a private psychologist who fixed things up in a few months.”
  • One FSO who suffered from PTSD assured us that “State has come a very long way since 2005” and that it has made remarkable progress for an institution. Her concerns is that PTSD is widespread in the Department in the sense that people develop it in a wide range of posts and assignments. She cited consular officers in particular, who evacuate people from natural disasters and civil wars and deal with death cases on a regular basis, and are particularly at risk.


Screen Shot 2015-06-03

June is PTSD Awareness Month. We are hosting a forum at http://forums.diplopundit.net for an open discussion on PTSD.

It’s not everyday that we get a chance to ask questions from somebody with post traumatic stress disorder. On Monday, June 29, FSO Rachel Schneller will join the forum and answer readers’ questions  based on her personal experience with PTSD.  She will be at this blog’s forum from noon to 2 pm EST. She will join the forum in her personal capacity, with her own views and not as a representative of the State Department or the U.S. Government.  She’s doing this as a volunteer, and we appreciate her time and effort in obtaining official permission and  joining us to help spread PTSD awareness. Please feel free to post your questions here.

Rachel Schneller joined the Foreign Service in 2001. Following a tour in Iraq 2005-6, she was diagnosed with PTSD. Her efforts to highlight the needs of Foreign Service Officers returning from tours in war zones helped prompt a number of changes in the State Department, for which she was awarded the 2008 Rivkin Award for Constructive Dissent.

Prior to joining the U.S. Department of State, Rachel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 1996-98. She earned her MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2001. We have previously featured Rachel in this blog here, and here.

The forum, specifically created for PTSD discussion is setup as an “open” forum at this time; readers may post questions without registration.  We’re hosting, same Privacy Policy apply.


Below are some of our previous blog posts on mental health, PTSD, security clearance and the State Department’s programs:

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

USAID’s First War-Zone Related Suicide – Michael C. Dempsey, Rest in Peace

State Dept’s Suicide Prevention Resources — A Topic So Secret No One Wants to Talk About It

Former Foreign Service Kid Writes About Dad With Severe PTSD  (Many thanks to readers who took the time to write and send books to Tony Gooch! We appreciate your kindness).

Ron Capps | Back From The Brink: War, Suicide, And PTSD

Rachel Schneller | PTSD: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

Senior Diplomat Disciplined for Volatile Behavior Cites PTSD in Grievance Case, Fails

Pick the Long or Short Form, But Take the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Screening

On the Infamous Q21, PTSD (Again) and High Threat Unaccompanied Assignments

Ambassador Crocker Arrested for Hit and Run and DUI in Spokane

Quickie | Running Amok: Mental Health in the U.S. Foreign Service

Former FSO William Anthony Gooch: No Mercy for Broken Men?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Ticking Bomb in the Foreign Service

Clinton issues note on mental health; seeking help a sign of maturity and professionalism

EFM shouldn’t have to see three RMOs, do a PPT presentation and wait 352 days for help

Join the Petition: Revised Q21 for the Foreign Service

State Dept’s WarZone Deployment Incentives, Programs, Training and Medical Support

DMW: Mental Health Treatment Still a Security Clearance Issue at State Department

Insider Quote: Returning to the Real World

What’s State Doing with Question 21?


Tweet of the Day: Note to State Department: Don’t be so prickly

Posted: 12:51 am EDT


Burn Bag: Where taking “open door” seriously can ruin corridor reputation … oh woe!

Posted: 2:19  am EDT


When management at your post in crisis tells you they have an open door and want to know how people are feeling, then tells you your (widely shared) concern is insignificant and you are ruining your corridor reputation by bringing it up.



The Buck Stops Where? Ambassador Files Grievance Over an OIG Evaluation Report

— Domani Spero


The following is a Foreign Service Grievance Board case (all names redacted) where an ambassador filed a grievance over a State/OIG Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER). The Board held that the IER be expunged from the ambassador’s personnel file.

Now, you see why State/OIG stopped doing the Inspector’s Evaluation Reports? We don’t like the fact that OIG no longer issues IERs but we can now understand in real terms why.

This is why. Where does the buck stops?

The President sends a Letter of Instruction to all Chiefs of Mission appointed by the President, and the contents of each letter differs according to whether the COM has a bilateral/country or international organization portfolio. The President’s Letter basically gives a COM full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all U.S. Government executive branch employees within the host country or in the relevant Mission to an international organization, except those personnel under the command of a U.S. geographic area military commander or on the staff of an international organization.

We’re shocked it has not been argued yet that ambassadors must first have prior counseling from the President of the United States regarding their performance prior to the issuance of an OIG Inspector’s Evaluation Report. Not that it matters now, since State/OIG has ended the practice of issuing IERs.

Via FSGB Case No. 2013-028

Grievant, a former Ambassador to REDACTED, appealed the Department’s denial of her 2013 grievance, claiming that an IER prepared in November 2011 focused primarily on the performance of her DCM and contained several “inaccurate statements.” Grievant claimed that inclusion of the IER in her OPF was prejudicial because she had not received counseling on the areas of her performance that were criticized in the report. After soliciting feedback from post personnel, the Department expunged portions of two statements in the IER, but otherwise found the remainder to be an accurate reflection of grievant’s performance, as corroborated by numerous statements from identified Mission employees.

The Board determined that grievant was not counseled on matters that were negatively discussed in the IER, nor was she given an opportunity to improve performance problems raised in the report. The Board concluded that regardless of the purpose for the IER, grievant was entitled to be counseled and provided a reasonable opportunity to improve before she could properly be critiqued on performance deficiencies in an IER. The Board held further that grievant met her burden of proving that she was unaware of the shortcomings mentioned in the IER; she had no reason to become aware of these deficiencies; and, therefore, that counseling could not be excused as harmless error. The Board further found that the IER contained a significant number of inadmissible comments about the performance of the DCM, an identified other employee, and was, therefore, written in violation of applicable regulations that govern the preparation of evaluation reports. The Board concluded that the IER is invalid and ordered it removed from grievant’s OPF.

The Foreign Service Grievance Board decision:

HELD: The Department committed a procedural error by placing in grievant’s Official Personnel File (OPF) a prejudicial Inspector’s Evaluation Report (IER) that included inadmissible comments about another identified employee, in violation of agency regulations, and without first counseling grievant on certain performance issues mentioned in the IER, or giving her an opportunity to improve her performance. The IER was ordered expunged from grievant’s OPF in its entirety.

There are clips included in the Report of Proceeding:

“I do believe Ambassador REDACTED was aware that DCM REDACTED activities were exacerbating the rift between the front office and the rest of the mission, but I believe it was a type of willful unawareness, perhaps delusional. . . . If [the Ambassador] was not aware or not willing to admit that this rift existed, she was deluding herself. . . . [In All Hands meetings] . . . to the Ambassador, this kumbaya session was clear evidence that she had her finger on the pulse of the mission. It was a charade, but no one could tell the emperor that he had no clothes.”

Grievant submitted the following statements from post employees:

– “I think she didn’t realize the impact the DCM was causing till [sic] the OIG arrived. . . .”

– “I don’t know if she recognized the seriousness of the problems or not. . . . I don’t know if the Ambassador was aware of them or not.”

– “I believe that Ambassador did not fully recognize the seriousness of problems at Embassy If she had recognized the seriousness of the problems, I believe that she would have addressed them in the beginning and not let things get so out of hand.”

The OIG inspection team leader wrote:

REDACTED showed little awareness of the significant impact on morale cause by front office management practices and actions. She was not aware of the extent of negative sentiment concerning front office communications, nor the depth of employee resentment of the intrusive and imperious management style of the DCM. Although scheduled and conducted numerous regular meetings with employees, staff members told inspectors they volunteered little real feedback to the front office, fearing the reaction and the subsequent damage to their careers.

The best part of this decision is this:

What remains are grievant’s claims that the IER improperly focused on the performance of the DCM and a claim that she had a right to counseling prior to inclusion of negative statements in her IER. As to her complaint about the focus of the IER, grievant points out that although the report was meant to address her management and leadership skills, it is largely directed at the DCM’s behavior and contains several comments that did not pertain at all to her performance. We find that what was at issue in the inspection was grievant’s alleged lack of awareness of, and inattentiveness to, the negative effect on post morale that was purportedly caused by the behavior of her subordinates. Because the concern was how well or poorly grievant was performing as Chief of Mission, we find that the IER should have focused on grievant’s performance vis-à-vis her detection and management of post problems caused by a subordinate.
We think the rule of fundamental fairness applies equally when the performance of an Ambassador is evaluated in an IER, as when an untenured officer receives his first EER. We conclude that “[c]riticisms included in the final [evaluation report] should not come as a surprise to [any] rated employee.” Accordingly, because we see no difference between the impact of performance criticisms in an EER and an IER on an employee’s career opportunities, we conclude that any employee whose work performance is evaluated in an IER, as in an EER, has a right to be notified and counseled about any perceived deficiencies and given a reasonable opportunity to improve before those deficiencies may be included in either evaluative document.

The parties do not contest that grievant received no counseling about any of the criticisms about her performance that were stated in the IER at issue. Grievant presented evidence that shortly before the OIG began its inspection at post in November 2011, the DAS from the regional bureau (and the Office Director visited and met with Mission employees in October. It is unclear whether these individuals received the same information as the OIG team, but grievant reports that neither of them counseled her on any of the matters later identified as performance weaknesses by the OIG team. If grievant’s superiors were made aware of any shortcomings in her work performance, then they should have, but did not, counsel her about them. If they were unaware of any performance deficiencies, then the Department must concede that grievant’s superiors could not, and did not, counsel her. In the absence of counseling, grievant did not have the opportunity to try to improve.

The Department argues that grievant was not entitled to be counseled on matters about which her supervisors were not aware. We do not agree. The fundamental fairness of a performance evaluation hinges on the provision of notice to the rated employee of his or her deficiencies, coupled with a reasonable period in which the employee can make efforts to improve. If a supervisor is unaware of the deficiencies, it is true that he or she cannot counsel the employee, but, it follows, then, that, unless the employee was independently aware of performance deficiencies, he or she ought not be negatively evaluated on those deficiencies of which neither the employee nor the supervisor were aware.

The Department also asserts that even in the absence of counseling, the criticisms contained in grievant’s IER should not have come as a surprise to her because she should have known of the morale problems existing at post. In support of this assertion, the Department provides numerous statements from Mission employees expressing their beliefs that grievant was aware of the problems raised in the IER, but failed to manage them. Grievant responds that not only did her supervisors not tell her of the employees’ complaints, but the employees themselves did not inform her. She speculates that “[i]n hindsight, I recognize that the DCM may have been shielding and insulating me from staff dissatisfaction.” She also cites a number of employees who stated that they did not think she was aware of how the DCM was behaving or how it was undermining morale.

Bureaucratic high drama,very instructive, read it below:







Don’t Give Up On Us Baby: State Dept OIG Writes Back on Leadership and Management

— Domani Spero


In the years that we’ve blogged about the State Department and the Foreign Service, we’ve covered the Office of Inspector General (OIG) quite a bit.  The complaints that reports to the OIG were ignored or forwarded to other parts of the bureaucracy are not new.  We have readers bending our ears about that specific issue for years.

Recently, we had a Burn Bag submission saying “The OIG can’t and won’t save us. They stress, the Bureaus, not the OIG, should be the “bad leadership police.”

That is troubling, yes?  To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, if people lose hope, that’s your real disaster. If employees start thinking and feeling that their institution do not care about them, how soon before the employees stop caring about their institution?

So we sent the following questions to the Office of Inspector General:

Is it true that complaints or allegations of bad leadership or mismanagement are forwarded by the OIG to the bureaus to handle?

Do you think that the bureaus are equipped to police their own ranks?

Who do you go to if you have complaints about mismanagement at the bureau level?

If top officials are not accountable for their bad leadership or mismanagement and as these officials are reassigned from one post to the next, doesn’t this build a negative impact on morale and ultimately on the institution?

I am trying to understand why the OIG, which is often, the last resort in many of these cases, does not think effective management and leadership is a priority as he embarks on his new tenure at State?

Yesterday, we received the following response:


Oops, excuse me, that’s Hutch’s 1977 smash-hit single. If you don’t remember him, that’s because I’m officially an oldster protected by ADEA.  And he’s that fellow from the original Starsky and Hutch.


Here’s the official OIG response, republished below in full:

Leadership and management are challenges for the Department and an oversight priority for the Office of Inspector General (OIG). IG Linick has discussed leadership and management issues directly with the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources. Each of the divisions within OIG play a role, often collaborating to hold the Department accountable for ineffective leadership and mismanagement.

OIG’s Office of Investigations (INV) learns of ineffective leadership or management through Hotline reports, from our Office of Inspections (ISP), and in the course of its own investigations. INV addresses complaints about Department leadership and management in a number of different ways. OIG investigators conduct initial reviews of mismanagement involving fraud, waste, abuse, administrative misconduct, or retaliation against whistleblowers, for example, and refer matters to the Department of Justice when there is evidence of possible criminal or civil violations.

There are, however, circumstances that prompt OIG to refer leadership and management concerns to the Department. If, for instance, a complainant’s allegations relate to a personnel matter, such as allegations that an official used abusive language with subordinates, OIG may notify appropriate Department officials about the alleged perpetrator so that they may take action. Thus, if such a complaint were about a COM or DCM, OIG would notify the relevant Assistant Secretary and Director General. Matters referred to the Department are monitored for appropriate follow-up. In other circumstances, when warranted, OIG will send investigators to look into the allegations directly.

OIG’s Office of Investigations notifies OIG inspectors of allegations or complaints about leadership and management at posts and bureaus to help ISP prioritize its work and to identify areas that should be assessed during formal inspections. OIG monitors compliance with its recommendations and brings them to the attention of Congress through formal and informal means. ISP evaluates the effectiveness of leadership and management in the course of its inspections, and it may move up scheduling of a post’s inspection when these types of concerns surface in survey results or by other means.

Over the years, ISP has made recommendations to the Department aimed at improving Department-wide leadership and management issues, such as recommendations that the Department develop directives on leadership or management principles, conduct 360-degree surveys on its leaders, enhance First And Second Tour (FAST) mentoring, and be more innovative in providing sustained leadership and management training to Foreign Service Officers throughout their careers. The Department has already adopted some of OIG’s major recommendations, such as updating the Foreign Affairs Manual to address leadership. It has also begun to conduct its first 360-degree survey of COMs.


We  appreciate State/OIG’s effort  to address our questions. We hope this is helpful to our readers. We will have a follow-up post later on.

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Burn Bag: Who cares? Somebody please care, dammit! 😢

Via Burn Bag:

“Always fun to see the newbies’ burn bag submissions! Adjudicator guy meets girl and divorces wife, CA training is amateurish, and there are crappy managers? Sadly it’s par for this course. Along with: Career diplomat forces staff to have sex with him and gets slap on the wrist but keeps job and pension; married EFMs use Embassy office to hook up; and senior FSO torched by OIG but gets immediate promotion. The OIG can’t and won’t save us. They stress, the Bureaus, not the OIG, should be the “bad leadership police.” The State Dept doesn’t care about you, your family, or your career. The sooner you realize this the better. The good news is you’ve got to be incredibly unlucky to not/not get tenure. Enjoy the ride.”

via replygifs.net

via replygifs.net

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 Note: New officers/specialists are often referred to as “newbies.”  “EFM”stands for Eligible Family Member and refers to a spouse; same sex domestic partner (as defined in 3 FAM 1610); unmarried children under the age of 21; and parents, sisters, or brothers who are at least 51% dependent on the employee or the employee‘s spouse for support; are listed on the employees OF-126 (Dependency Report) or on the official travel orders of the employee.







Ambassador Freeman on American statecraft — It’s hard to think of anything that has gone right.

— Domani Spero


Ambassador Chas Freeman was the U. S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1989 to 1992 ) during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Chester Crocker during the historic U.S. mediation of Namibian independence from South Africa and Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola.  More notably, he was the principal American interpreter during the late President Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong in China in 1972. He did tours in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe. In the 1990s, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.  He is the author of several books including a favorite of ours, the The Diplomat’s Dictionary published by the U.S. Institute of Peace Press. We  previously blogged about Ambassador Freeman here and here.

On August 19, he gave a speech at The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles California on How Diplomacy Fails.  What’s racking up a remarkably poor track record?  “Hastily-arranged presidential phone calls, hopscotch huddles with foreigners by the secretary of state, scoldings of foreign leaders by U.S. spokespersons, suspensions of bilateral dialogue, sanctions,” etc, etc  —  for starters.  Glad to hear Ambassador Freeman bring these up.  We hope more would speak up.



We are republishing the text of the speech below; a must read as it explains a lot of what ails American diplomacy.

How Diplomacy Fails

We are here to discuss what we can learn from the failure of diplomacy to prevent, halt, and wrap up World War I.  We just heard a masterful review of what happened from Geoffrey Wawro.  He has already said most of the things I wanted to say.  So he’s left me  with no alternative but to actually address the topic I was asked to speak about, which is the failings of today’s American diplomacy in light of the deficiencies of diplomacy in 1914.

There are in fact some very disquieting similarities between the challenges statecraft faced back then and those it faces today.

The eve of World War I was also a time of rapid globalization, shifting power balances, rising nationalisms, socioeconomic stress, and transformative military technologies.  The railroad networks, barbed wire, dynamite, repeating rifles, machine guns, long-range artillery, aircraft and submarines that altered the nature of war then are paralleled by today’s cyber and space-based surveillance systems, drones, precision-guided munitions, sub-launched and land-based anti ship missiles,  missile defense and penetration aids, anti satellite missiles, cyber assaults, hypersonic gliders, and nuclear weapons.  Changes in the European political economy set the stage for World War I.  Changes in technology made it different from previous wars.

Armed conflict between major powers today would reveal that warfare has again mutated and developed new horrors for its participants.  But some factors driving conflict now would parallel those of a century ago.  In 1914, as in 2014, a professional military establishment, estranged from society but glorified by it, drew up war plans using new technologies on the fatal premise that the only effective defense is a preemptive offense.  Then, as now, these plans evolved without effective political oversight or diplomatic input.  Then, as now, military-to-military interactions within alliances sometimes took place without adequate supervision by civilian authority, leading to unmanageable policy disconnects that were revealed only when war actually broke out.

As the 20th century began, successive crises in the Balkans had the effect of replacing the 19thcentury’s careful balancing of interests with competition between military blocs.  This conflated military posturing with diplomacy, much as events in  the East and South China Seas, the Middle East, and Ukraine seem to be doing today.  Then, as now, decisions by the smaller allies of the great powers risked setting off local wars that might rapidly expand and escalate.  Then, as now, most people thought that, whatever smaller countries might do, war between the great powers was irrational and therefore would not occur.  And then, as now, the chiefs of state and government of the great powers practiced attention deficit diplomacy.  They were so engaged at the tactical level that they had little time to give full consideration to the strategic implications of their decisions.

Ironically, in light of what actually happened, few would dispute that the factors inhibiting war in Europe in 1914 were greater than those impeding it today.  European leaders were not only personally acquainted but, in many instances, related to each other.  They and their diplomatic aides knew each other well.  There was a common European culture and a tradition of successful conference diplomacy and crisis management for them to draw upon.  European imperialists could and had often solved problems by trading colonies or other peripheral interests to reduce tensions between themselves.  None of these factors exist today to reduce the likelihood of wars between the United States and China or Iran, or NATO and Russia, or China and Japan or India – to name only the pairings warmongers seem to enjoy talking about the most.

On the other hand, alliances today facilitate cooperation.  In practice, they no longer, as they did in 1914, oblige mutual aid or embody preconcerted common purposes.  This welcome but dishonorable fact reduces the moral hazard implicit in American defense commitments to weaker allies and diminishes the prospect that they might act rashly because the U.S. has their back.  It also reduces the danger of automatic widening and escalation of local wars.

No one wants war of any kind.  But, as events in Europe in the summer of 1914 remind us, discounting the possibility of war and not wanting it are not enough to prevent it from happening.  And, as the president suggested in his commencement address at West Point this May, we need to find alternatives to the use of force to advance our interests in the 21stcentury.  That means strengthening our capacity for diplomacy.

It is said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.  But it is equally true that those who learn the wrong lessons from history must expect reeducation by painful experience.  So it’s not surprising that, since the end of the Cold War, American diplomacy has suffered repeated rebuke from unexpected developments.  Some of these have taken place in the Balkans, where World War I was kindled – and where we have arranged a ceasefire, installed a garrison, and called it peace.

But most challenges to our problem-solving ability are coming from other places and are producing still worse results.  Consider the north Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, Israel-Palestine, 9/11 and our ever-intensifying conflict with militant Islam, regime change in Iraq, the Russo-Georgian war, the Arab uprisings (including that in Syria), “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, the “pivot to Asia” amidst tussles in the South and East China Seas, the collapse of Sykes-Picot and the rise of Jihadistan in the Levant, and the Ukraine crisis, among other tests of American statecraft.  It’s hard to think of anything that’s has gone right.

It’s worth asking what we have got wrong.  Clearly, military strength alone is not enough to guarantee international order or compel deference to U.S. desires.  So Americans are looking for a more restrained and less militaristic way of dealing with the world beyond our borders.

The president nicely captured the national mood when he said that “our military has no peer,” but  added that: “U.S. military action cannot be the only — or even primary — component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”

That insight implies that we should be skilled at measures short of war, that is: diplomacy.  For many reasons, we are not.  To set aside  militarism and redevelop the capacity to shape events abroad to our advantage without a feckless resort to force, we need to unlearn a lot of bad habits and to reexamine some of the presuppositions guiding our approach to foreign affairs.   Military overreach cannot be offset by diplomatic incapacity.

Part of what is required is correcting dysfunctional assumptions about how to deal with ornery foreigners.  Denouncing them and breaking off dialogue with them is petulant.  It doesn’t solve  problems.  Refusing to meet with another government until it accepts and meets our moral standards is a sure recipe for impasse.  “Come out with your hands up or we won’t talk to you” is not a persuasive way to begin negotiations.  Declaratory “diplomacy” and sanctions entrench confrontation.  They neither mitigate it or address its causes.  We are seeing that effect now with Russia in Ukraine.

Short of the use of force, without tactfully persuasive conversation very few people and no nations can be convinced to change course.  It is difficult to get an adversary to yield when he believes his political survival as well as his dignity depend on not surrendering.  So as long as we know what we are going to say and what effect it is likely to have, it is better to talk than not to talk.  Those with whom we disagree need to hear directly and respectfully from us why we think they are wrong and harming their own interests and why they are costing themselves opportunities they should want to pursue and risking injuries they should wish to avoid.

It takes time to establish the mutual confidence necessary for such dialogue.  It is counterproductive to stand on our side of the oceans and give other nations the finger, while threatening to bomb them.  It does not make sense to react to problems in other nations by severing communication with them.  As Winston Churchill observed, “the reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment but to secure a convenience.”  Yet, for example, we routinely withdraw military attachés following military coups.  Since our attachés are the only American officials who know and have credibility with the new military rulers, this is the equivalent of gagging, deafening, and blinding ourselves – a kind of unilateral diplomatic disarmament.  Our diplomatic technique badly needs an upgrade.

But the more fundamental problem for U.S. diplomacy is the moral absolutism inherent in American exceptionalism.  Our unique historical experience shapes our approach to our disadvantage, ruling out much of the bargaining and compromise that are central to diplomacy.  In our Civil War, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, we demonized the enemy and sought his unconditional surrender, followed by his repentance, reconstruction, and ideological remolding. The American way of international contention formed by these experiences is uniquely uncompromising.   Our rigidity is reinforced by the mythic cliché of Hitler at Munich. That has come to stand for the overdrawn conclusion that the conciliation of adversaries is invariably not just foolish but immoral and self-defeating.

The Cold War reduced most American diplomacy to proclaiming our values, holding our ground, containing the enemy, and preventing inroads into our sphere of influence – the zone we called “the free world.”  Despite occasional talk of “rollback,” with few exceptions, our approach was static and defensive – the diplomatic equivalent of trench warfare.  In this formative period of American diplomacy, our typical object was not to resolve international quarrels but to prevent their resolution by military means.  So we learned to respond to problems by pointing a gun at those who made them but avoiding talking to them or even being seen in their company.

Without our realizing it, Americans reconceived diplomacy as a means of communicating disapproval, dramatizing differences, amplifying deterrence, inhibiting change, and precluding gains by adversaries.  For the most part, we did not see diplomacy as a tool for narrowing or bridging differences, still less solving them by producing win-win outcomes.  We seem to be having trouble remembering that diplomacy’s usual purpose is  to do these very things.

The experience of other nations causes most to see diplomacy and war as part of a continuum of means by which to persuade other states and peoples to end controversies and accept adjustments in their foreign relations, borders, military postures, and the like.  Given Americans’ history of isolationism alternating with total war, we tend to see diplomacy and armed conflict as opposites.  We describe war as a failure of diplomacy, not as a sometimes necessary escalation of pressure to achieve its aims.

Americans suppose that diplomacy ends when war begins and does not resume until the enemy lies prostrate before us.  We imagine that wars end when the victor proclaims his military mission accomplished rather than when the vanquished is brought to accept defeat.  Lacking a tradition of war termination through diplomacy, we have great difficulty successfully ending wars, as Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya all attest.  We have yet to internalize the need to reconcile enemies to the political consequences of military outcomes and to translate these outcomes into peace agreements – binding acceptances of a new status quo as preferable to its overthrow.

The failure of diplomacy in World War I left most Americans with a very jaundiced view of it.  Will Rogers summed this up when he said “the United States never lost a war or won a conference” and added “take the diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall flat in a week.”  As a nation, despite our seven decades of superpower status, Americans still don’t take diplomacy seriously.  Most of us see it as an expression of weakness – so much namby-pamby nonsense before we send in the Marines.  And, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, we still seem convinced that diplomacy is an amateur sport.

We show this in how we staff our country’s statecraft and diplomacy.  Our military and our spies are professionals.  But, for the most part, our foreign policy is crafted, led, and executed by ambitious amateurs – ideologues, the paladins of special interests, securocrats playing games of musical sinecures, political spin doctors, and the occasional academic.  Our ambassadors in important capitals are selected as a reward for their campaign contributions, not for their experience in diplomacy or competence at advancing U.S. national interests abroad.  All too often these days, our politicians fiddle while the world turns, leaving the diplomatic ramparts unmanned as crises unfold.  As an example, we had no ambassador to Moscow for the five months in which Russophobes and Russians pulled down an already rickety Ukraine, detached the Crimea from it, and reignited East-West confrontation in Europe.  On August 1, the U.S. Senate cast its last votes of the season, leaving 59 countries with no American ambassador.

America’s dilettantish approach to national security is unique among modern states.  We get away with it – when we do – mainly because our diplomacy is supported by very bright and able career officers.  But our foreign service works in an environment contemptuous of professionalism that more often than not leaves its officers’ potential unrecognized, unmentored, and underdeveloped.  (If the highest ranks of the diplomatic profession in the United States are reserved for men and women who have made a lot of money in other professions and avocations, why should our most talented young people – even those who want to serve our country – waste time apprenticing as diplomats?  Why not do something less dangerous and more lucrative, then buy your way in at the top?)  Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the United States has come to be known for its military prowess, not its foreign affairs literacy, the wisdom and imagination of its statecraft, or the strategic sophistication and subtlety of its diplomacy.  This is proving dangerous.  In an increasingly competitive world, diplomatic mediocrity is no longer good enough.

Americans must now consider whether we can afford to continue to entrust our diplomacy to amateurs.  Hastily-arranged presidential phone calls, hopscotch huddles with foreigners by the secretary of state, scoldings of foreign leaders by U.S. spokespersons, suspensions of bilateral dialogue, sanctions (whether unilateral or plurilateral), and attempted ostracism of foreign governments are racking up a remarkably poor track record in the increasingly complex circumstances of the post-Cold War world.  So is the dangerous conflation of military posturing with diplomacy.  If we Americans do not learn to excel at measures short of war, we will be left with no choice but to continue to resort to war to solve problems that experience tells us can’t be solved by it.

To prosper in the multipolar world before us, Americans will need to be at the top of its  diplomatic game.  We are a very long way from that at present.  And time’s a wasting.


Frankly, we’re exhausted watching Secretary Kerry fly here and there. We know he meant well, but what does it say when he is required to do the work that his ambassadors or special envoys should be doing?  As to the spokespersons, we have to confess that there are days, and there are many of them, when we are overwhelmed with great envy that the Pentagon has a Rear Admiral Kirby behind the podium. Well, boo! for me.

The original material is located at http://chasfreeman.net/how-diplomacy-fails/.  Republished here with Ambassador Freeman’s permission.

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