Category Archives: Media

U.S. Embassy Yemen Now on Evacuation … No, on Temporary Reduction of Staff Status

– Domani Spero

 

On September 25, the State Department finally ordered the evacuation temporary reduction of USG personnel from the US Embassy in Yemen.  Below is an excerpt from the updated Travel Warning:

The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the high security threat level in Yemen due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.  The Department urges U.S. citizens to defer travel to Yemen and those U.S. citizens currently living in Yemen to depart. This supersedes the Travel Warning for Yemen issued on July 21, 2014.

On September 24, 2014, the Department of State ordered a reduction of U.S. government personnel from Yemen out of an abundance of caution due to the continued civil unrest and the potential for military escalation. The Embassy’s ability to assist U.S. citizens in an emergency and provide routine consular services may be limited. Embassy officers are restricted in their movements and cannot travel outside of Sana’a. In addition, movements within Sana’a are severely constrained and may be further constrained by the fluid security situation.

The security threat level in Yemen is extremely high. The Embassy is subject to frequent unannounced closures.  In May 2014, the Embassy was closed for almost five weeks because of heightened security threats.

Demonstrations continue to take place in various parts of the country and may quickly escalate and turn violent. U.S. citizens are urged to avoid areas of demonstrations, and to exercise extreme caution if within the vicinity of a demonstration.

Read in full here.

In related news, the Official Spokesperson of the State Department released a statement emphasizing that “The Embassy did not suspend operations and will continue to operate, albeit with reduced staff” and that “Consular services have not been affected by this temporary reduction in personnel.”

Serious question — when the USG declares that post is on “temporary reduction” or on “temporary relocation” of personnel, which seems to be the trend these days, are affected personnel considered “evacuees” for allowance and travel purposes?  Or are all the affected personnel put on TDY status to their designated safe havens?  We’re having a hard time locating the citation for “temporary reduction”or “temporary relocation” in the Foreign Affairs Manual.

* * *

Clips via Twitter:

Yesterday:

 

 

Today:

 

 

 

 

About these ads

Leave a comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, Consular Work, Evacuations, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Service, FSOs, Media, Protests, Realities of the FS, Regulations, Security, Social Media, Staffing the FS, State Department, Terrorism, U.S. Missions, War

Tired of Another War? Operation Repeat Iraqi Freedom Officially On In Iraq. And Syria.

– Domani Spero

 

Only yesterday:

 

Before you know it, this fellow on Twitter live-tweeted the strikes :

 

The Pentagon soon confirmed the air strikes:

 

Here is the official statement

 

Here’s a YouTube video of the ISIL strike:

 

The new coalition of the willing includes five Arab countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar:

 

The five Arab countries and their planes:

 

President Obama’s statement on the Syria bombing:

 

Here is the congressional notification:

 

Here is a longer letter (there were two?) citing authority to carry out Public Law 107-40 and Public Law 107-243).  We’re now at war in Syria, and for the third time, in Iraq:

 

Still “no boots on the ground!?”

 

How much will all this cost?

 

Did Congress say/do anything?

 

How about those war predictions?

* * *

As of this writing, the State Department has not announced any new Travel Warning for Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or Qatar.  The last Worldwide Caution notice was published on April 10, 2014.

One post out of the five Arab countries in the coalition, the US Embassy in Jordan, has issued a Security Message noting the coalition strikes against ISIL targets and the likely increased of police presence at public and diplomatic buildings throughout the country.

The only other post in the area to issue a Security Message citing “regional events” is the US Embassy in Lebanon.  Embassy Beirut advises U.S. citizens that coalition airstrikes against Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria have begun and notes an increased in kidnappings in  northern and eastern Lebanon. Both embassies say that there is no specific threat against U.S. citizens in their respected countries but caution citizens to exercise security awareness and maintain a heightened level of vigilance.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, Congress, Consular Work, Defense Department, Foreign Affairs, Media, Obama, Realities of the FS, Security, Social Media, State Department, Terrorism, U.S. Missions, War

Media Operations Centers in Afghanistan: $7.2Million Build/Suspend and Demolish Projects

– Domani Spero

 

They’re called MOCs or Media Operations Centers (MOCs). We’re building them in Afghanistan.  One State Department grant was for the construction of one MOC at Balkh University for $3,782,980. A second grant was for the construction of another MOC at Nangarhar University for $3,482,348. The grant awards totaled $7,265,328, and the periods of performance for both grants were October 1, 2013, through December 31, 2014.   According to State/OIG, these grants were executed in Afghanistan by Omran Holding Group (OHG) with two subcontractors, Capitalize Omran—a company based in Washington, DC, responsible for managing the overall project—and TriVision Studios, the firm responsible for outfitting the MOCs with broadcasting equipment. Apparently, the contraction construction related to both grants was suspended in January 2014 and has not resumed. On September 18, State/OIG recommended the immediate termination of the two grant agreements. Why?

Based on preliminary results of the audited sample, OIG identified areas of concern related to two construction grants being executed in Afghanistan by Omran Holding Group (OHG) that require immediate attention. These areas of concern include misuse of Government funds, significant noncompliance with Federal regulations, and inaccurate financial reporting. Additionally, OHG failed to comply with the terms of one grant agreement by beginning construction without required design approval, and also began construction of the building in the wrong location. We therefore recommended, among other actions, that the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) immediately terminate grant agreements S-AF200-13-CA-012 and S-AF200-13-CA-014 with OHG, and that the Bureau of Administration’s Office of the Procurement Executive (A/OPE) develop Department guidance regarding the use of Federal assistance funds for overseas construction.

 

So one MOC was constructed without the required design approval:

“The grants required that the recipient develop building designs for the MOCs and that these designs be approved by the Department prior to the commencement of construction. However, OHG “jumped” the construction schedule and began to construct the Balkh University MOC in December 2013, without prior approval from the Department. As a result, certain aspects of the newly constructed structure were not in accordance with the Department’s requirements for the building design.”

The same MOC was constructed in the wrong location, and had to be demolished no later than October 31, 2014.

“OHG began the Balkh University MOC construction in the wrong location, based on the direction of a local Afghan government official who did not have the authority to direct the grantee, resulting in the need to demolish the new structure.” 

How did we end up from design/build to build/demolish?

State/OIG may have an answer:

“OIG also noted concerns related to the Department’s oversight of construction grants, in general. Specifically, the Department had no policies or procedures for awarding or overseeing construction grants, which resulted in ineffective construction grant agreements. For example, the OHG grant agreements lacked details that are normally included in construction contracts, and the terms and conditions were created by the GOR without documented input or approval from Department legal representatives or construction specialists.”

The Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA) and the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) concurred with the recommendations with the later noting that the termination letters for each award are currently in the clearance process. A response from the SRAP also notes that the Public Affairs Section (PAS) at embassy Kabul has “obligated more than 975 awards totaling over  $270,000,000  under extraordinarily challenging circumstances.”

Think about that for a moment.

We don’t know how many MOCs have been constructed in Afghanistan, but in January 2013, the State Department announced a $325,000 award for “the completion of the PAS-funded Media Operations Center (MOC) at Herat University”and a maximum award for $200,00 for the  the operation and maintenance of this facility for a period of up to 24 months.  In spring 2013, the US Embassy in Kabul also announced the inauguration of a state-of-the-art Media Operations Center (MOC) at Kabul University.  The Embassy provided a $2.67 million grant to the HUDA Development Organization, to build and equip the Media Operations Center there.

So just to round-up, our precise and active verbs for these Afghanistan projects now include: design, build, suspend,complete, equip, maintain, and demolish. Also terminate.

Although, possibly, terminate is only good until a new grantee can be located to complete these grants.

Read the audit here (pdf) and weep.

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Follow the Money, Foreign Assistance, Govt Reports/Documents, Media, Regional Bureaus, State Department, U.S. Missions, US Embassy Kabul

Snapshot: Top 30 State Department Contractors (Based on Highest Dollar Amounts)

– Domani Spero

 

According to State/OIG, after several media reports were written about the use of confidentiality agreements that limit the ability of contractor employees to report fraud, waste, or abuse to Inspectors General or other oversight entities, it sent a letter in August 2014 requesting information from the thirty companies which have the highest dollar amount of contracts with the Department of State. The list does not indicate their rank in any particular order:

Screen Shot 2014-09-21

Screen Shot 2014-09-21

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Contractors, Media, Snapshots, State Department

Yemen Rebels With “Death to Amreeka” Logo Take Over Sanaa

– Domani Spero

 

On September 13, 2014, ambassadors to Yemen from ten countries, including the United States and the UK released a statement of “grave concern” on the  rising threat to the security of Yemen:

The Group of Ten Ambassadors notes with grave concern the rising threat to the security of Yemen posed by actions of groups and individuals who oppose full and timely implementation of the political transition in accordance with the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative and its Implementation Mechanism, as well as the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, and as called for in UN Security Council Resolutions.  The Group reaffirms its abiding commitment to the peaceful transition process as outlined in the GCC Initiative and calls on all parties to abide by the founding principles of the Initiative aimed at ensuring the security, stability, and unity of Yemen.
[...]

The Group of Ten Ambassadors further condemns Ansar Allah’s public statements, which essentially mean threats to overthrow the Yemeni government and holds the group responsible for the deterioration of the security situation in Sana’a, for not fully withdrawing from Amran, and from engaging in armed clashes in al-Jawf as provided in the UNSC Statements of 11/07/2014 and 29/08/2014.

 

Photo via US Embassy Sanaa/FB

Photo via US Embassy Sanaa/FB

As clashes escalated and advanced into the capital city, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa released an emergency message on September 18.  No updated message has been posted as of this writing:

The Embassy informs the public that ongoing clashes are now affecting the area around 60 Meter Road after Madbah Junction near Eman University.  Due to the continuing civil disorder and the escalating threat of violence, the Embassy advises all U.S. citizens to exercise great caution, avoid travel along 60 Meter Road beyond Madbah Junction, and use Movenpick Road to travel to the airport.    

On September 19, Al Jazeera reports of continued fighting in Sanaa:

On September 20, a tweet from the UK ambassador to Yemen:

 

Also on September 20, a statement from the UN:

A proposal not an agreement:

Curfew imposed:

The UN Yemen deal was signed today, after Huthis rebels swooped on key institutions across Sanaa, including the government headquarters and military sites, after an apparent surrender by security forces, according to France 24:

 

Early on September 21, Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa also tendered his resignation:

A notable part of the newly signed UN-brokered agreement according to Al Jazeera is that the annex, which was not signed by the Houthis, stipulated their withdrawal from Sanaa, Jawf and Amran within 45 days:

 

Need something further to read on this?

 

Okay, now this:

It is.  See this Houthis gallery via Al Jazeera from 2013.

According to Al Jazeera, the Houthis took over several government buildings in Sanaa including the defence ministry’s headquarters, the army headquarters, the parliament building, the Central Bank and the national radio station.

This Middle East Institute piece by Charles Schmitz on the Huthi Ascent to Power says that “The Huthi movement today must choose between pressing ahead militarily and provoking a bloody civil war in the capital or using its considerable political capital to form a wider, more inclusive and legitimate government in Yemen, to begin to address Yemen’s pressing problems. The movement appears to waiver unpredictably between the two options.”

No official statement either from Embassy Sanaa or the State Department concerning the latest developments or movements of personnel has been released.  We will update if we learn more.

* * *

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Americans Abroad, FCO, Foreign Service, Media, Protests, Realities of the FS, Social Media, Staffing the FS, State Department, U.S. Missions

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

– Domani Spero

 

 

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

 

 

 

Here is one posted today on YouTube:

 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Court Cases, Diplomatic Security, Foreign Service, FSOs, Huh? News, Leaks|Controversies, Media, Social Media, State Department

Former State Dept DAS Raymond Maxwell Alleges Benghazi Document Scrub Pre-ARB Investigation

Domani Spero

 

Today via  Sharyl Attkisson of the Daily Signal:

As the House Select Committee on Benghazi prepares for its first hearing this week, a former State Department diplomat is coming forward with a startling allegation: Hillary Clinton confidants were part of an operation to “separate” damaging documents before they were turned over to the Accountability Review Board investigating security lapses surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.

According to former Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell, the after-hours session took place over a weekend in a basement operations-type center at State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C.
[...]
When he arrived, Maxwell says he observed boxes and stacks of documents. He says a State Department office director, whom Maxwell described as close to Clinton’s top advisers, was there. Though the office director technically worked for him, Maxwell says he wasn’t consulted about her weekend assignment.

“She told me, ‘Ray, we are to go through these stacks and pull out anything that might put anybody in the [Near Eastern Affairs] front office or the seventh floor in a bad light,’” says Maxwell. He says “seventh floor” was State Department shorthand for then-Secretary of State Clinton and her principal advisors.

“I asked her, ‘But isn’t that unethical?’ She responded, ‘Ray, those are our orders.’ ”

Continue reading, Benghazi Bombshell: Clinton State Department Official Reveals Details of Alleged Document Review. 

* * *

A quick note: We’ve previously written about Raymond Maxwell in this blog; the latest was this oneThe Cautionary Tale of Raymond Maxwell: When the Bureaucracy Bites, Who Gets The Blame?  Last year, we also posted, with his permission,  his poem “Invitation“ in this blog.  (see Raymond Maxwell: Former Deputy Asst Secretary Removed Over Benghazi Pens a Poem

In Ms. Attkisson’s report, Mr. Maxwell criticizes the ARB for failing to interview key people at the White House, State Department and the CIA, including Secretary Clinton.  We actually see no point in the ARB interviewing Secretary Clinton, given that she tasked the ARB to do the investigation and that the report is submitted to her. The regs as it exist right now does not even require that the Secretary submits the actual report to Congress, only that the Secretary of State “report to the Congress on any program recommendations and the actions taken on them.”

12 FAM 036.3: The Secretary will, not later than 90 days after the receipt of a Board’s program recommendations, submit a report to the Congress on each such recommendation and the action taken or intended to be taken with respect to that recommendation.

So we’re not hung up on the fact that she was not interviewed  But who gets the actual ARB report is probably one more thing that Congress really do need to fix in the regs.

Mr. Maxwell also named other officials who allegedly were never interviewed by the ARB: 1) Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, who managed department resources in Libya; 2) Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro; and 3) White House National Security Council Director for Libya Ben Fishman.

ARB Benghazi in its public report never identified all the people it interviewed in the conduct of its investigation. ABB Kenya/Tanzania did that and the list is online.   We still cannot understand why those names in the Benghazi investigation are not public. What kind of accountability is it when we can’t even tell who the ARB investigators talked to? Redact the names of the CIA people if needed, but the names of those interviewed should be public unless there is a compelling security reason not to do so. There is an opportunity here for the State Department to declassify that part of ARB Benghazi’s report.

At the heart of this latest bombshell on Benghazi is that the weekend document session, according to Mr. Maxwell, was reportedly held “in the basement of the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters in a room underneath the “jogger’s entrance.”

This would be the 21st Street entrance; and the room is underneath the jogger’s entrance [insert room number for prospective Foggy Bottom visitors].  We understand that FOIA has had offices there in the past but that most of the FOIA offices moved to SA-2.  Apparently, the only office the A organization chart shows to be in the Harry S. Truman basement are B2A61 the Facilities Managment Office and B258 the Office of General Services Management.  But which office is called the Emergency Management Operations Center?  Some media sites are already calling this the “boiler room operation.”

We have generally been disappointed with the Benghazi investigations.  The fact that it has become a political football to throw back and forth with all the offense and defense attendant of the game makes us cringe; even more so, every “new” book  or revelation gave us a sad.

But we think this one is a most serious allegation and cannot be swatted away by a  State Department spokesman simply calling the implication that documents were withheld “totally without merit.”  A State Department spokesman also told Ms. Attkisson that “it would have been impossible for anybody outside the Accountability Review Board (ARB) to control the flow of information because the board cultivated so many sources.” So, hypothetically, if folks scrubbed through the documents as alleged, then an instruction went down to IT to removed those docs from the system — that could not really happen, could it?

If this is not true, if no document scrub happened in the basement of the State Department as alleged by a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, then we’d like the agency spokesman to say so clearly and call out Mr. Maxwell on this.   Security access records should also indicate if these five individuals were at the State Department that weekend, when this alleged “review” took place.

So, let’s hear it people. But. Without the word salad, please.

In any case, now that this allegation is out in the open, the individuals named or positions cited in the Attkisson report are presumably candidates for an appearance before the Benghazi Select Committee:

1)  two officials, close confidants of Secretary Clinton (Congressman Chaffetz said that he was told then-Clinton Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills and Deputy Chief of Staff Jake Sullivan were there and overseeing the operation)

2) one office director (??? from NEA bureau)

3) one intern (??? about to become the second most famous intern in Wash, D.C.)

4) State Department ombudsman (Office of the Ombudsman – Ombudsman Shireen Dodson)

One entity not included in the report but potentially a candidate for an appearance in the Select Committee is the Office of the Inspector General. In September 2013, State/OIG under the then acting OIG issued a report on the “process by which Accountability Review Boards (ARB/Board) are established, staffed, supported, and conducted as well as the measures to track implementation of ARB recommendations.”

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under Career Employees, Congress, FSOs, Hearings, Hillary, Leaks|Controversies, Media, Org Life, Political Appointees, Politics, Secretary of State, State Department, Technology and Work

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

Domani Spero

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

One commenter over in WaPo makes a lot of sense:

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

Ouch!

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

* * *

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Huh? News, John F. Kerry, Media, Obama, Public Service, Social Media, Staffing the FS, State Department

Dear Ambassadors — About That ALS #IceBucketChallenge. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

– Domani Spero

 

On August 17, we posted about Ambassador Heyman who took the ALS ice bucket challenge in Ottawa. (see Tweet of the Day: Ambassador to Ottawa Bruce Heyman Takes the ALS #IceBucketChallenge. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro also did the ALS challenge. Today, Ambassador Kenney did the ice dunk in Bangkok without a specific mention of ALS.  There’s a reason for that.

 

 

The State Department reportedly sent out an unclassified cable (14 STATE 101474) to all missions saying that State totally supports the ALS ice water thing but there are regulations to follow. The cable basically informed the ambassadors that they shouldn’t join in the craze since regulations state that they cannot use their position for any sort of fundraising.

I suppose, if you must join the craze,you need to write an action memorandum and first get permission from the State Department. Clearances from L/Ethics and Office of Emergencies in the Diplomatic and Consular Service (M/EDCS) are required before seeking approval from the Under Secretary for Management.

Y’all, welcome to the bureaucracy!

The relevant section appears to be in 2 FAM 960 (pdf) SOLICITATION AND/OR ACCEPTANCE OF GIFTS BY THE DEPARTMENT OF STATE, excerpted below:

No Department employee may engage in solicitation or other fundraising activities for U.S. Government use or for the use of an outside organization, without prior authorization, in writing, from the Under Secretary for Management, except as specifically authorized in 2 FAM 962.1-1 through 2 FAM 962.1-11 or 3 FAM 4123.4.

In order to obtain approval from the Under Secretary for Management for a solicitation or other fundraising request, the requesting office shall prepare an action memorandum and obtain clearances from L/Ethics and the Office of Emergencies in the Diplomatic and Consular Service (M/EDCS), as well as any other relevant offices. The memorandum must include the following:

(1) As much information as possible on the project for which funds will be raised;

(2) The amount of money to be raised;

(3) The potential donors to be approached;

(4) The method of raising money, including the proposed texts for any communications to be used in the solicitation;

(5) The availability of appropriated funds or alternative sources of funding; and

(6) The importance to the U.S. Government of the proposed project.

In addition, M/EDCS will incorporate into the memorandum information concerning any prior Departmental solicitations of the targeted donors.

Approval of solicitation or other fundraising proposals requires balancing the U.S. Governmental policy interests in favor of fundraising against the potential risks of Department involvement in raising money from the private sector. This process inherently requires making judgment calls about issues, such as the importance of the project and the risks that the Department will be subjected to criticism for its activities. In deciding whether to approve a solicitation, the Under Secretary for Management should consider:

(1) The amount of money to be raised;

(2) The degree to which the Department will be directly involved in the fundraising;

(3) Whether the money is being raised for unusual or exceptional expenses (such as capital improvements), which have more frequently been approved, or for ordinary operating expenses of the Department; or

(4) Whether the involvement of the private sector adds value to the project apart from financial assistance. (For example, the financial participation of a nongovernmental group in a public-private partnership may help to establish private sector linkages with the local country.)

The requesting office shall be responsible for providing the necessary information to M/EDCS, and L/Ethics to allow a determination about whether any of these factors exist with respect to a particular proposal.

Nothing quick or easy. But one other thing to think about — if ambassadors do this for ALS, they may get nudged or challenged to do it for others.  Where do they draw the line of what they will/will not support publicly? That’s why the regs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Ambassadors, Foreign Service, Media, Org Life, Realities of the FS, Regulations, Social Media, State Department, U.S. Missions, Under Secretary, Video of the Week

U.S. Embassy Burundi — Sacrificing Free Time Is Worthwhile, Rinse, Repeat

– Domani Spero

 

State/OIG has just posted its inspection report of the U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura, Burundi. Post is headed by career diplomat, Dawn Liberi who was appointed to post in 2012 and assumed office in January 2013, plus a revolving door of DCMs since late last year.

Below are the key findings:

  • The Ambassador’s vision of growing the size of the embassy is not supported by available resources.
  • Political and economic reporting lacks classified analysis, and the volume is limited.
  • The embassy does not prioritize its personnel and resources, especially in the area of public diplomacy, and its workload level is not sustainable.
  • American staff morale is low, in part a result of work pressure and travel restrictions.
  • The embassy is not reimbursed for all the costs of supporting military personnel assigned to the embassy by the regional combatant command.
  • Funding and staffing levels are adequate for embassy operations.
  • The management section provides good administrative support services.
US Embassy Burundi/FB

US Embassy Burundi/FB

 

Below are additional details extracted from the OIG report. About that New Embassy Compound Bujumbura, here is what the inspectors say:

In October 2012, the embassy occupied the new embassy compound. In addition to the Department of State (Department), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are represented in the embassy. The mission has a total staff of 186, with 33 authorized U.S. direct-hire positions. The embassy occupies a modern compound with an electrical generating capacity equal to that of the entire national grid. The capital cost of the new embassy compound, $137 million, is 25 percent of the national government’s annual budget.

Just pause for a moment and digest that — “equal to that of the entire national grid” of Burundi.

Perhaps the more disturbing part of the report, which is not uncommon in the last few reports issued, has been the deficient leadership at the top of the mission.  This is the kind of ‘taking care of the troops’ that impairs the mission, demoralized employees, impacts the future of the Service and one more reason why we think scrutiny of chief of mission candidates should not be solely focused on political appointees.

The Ambassador as Hub of Embassy Operations?

The embassy staff respects the Ambassador for her achievements, vision, and indefatigable energy in advancing U.S. interests in Burundi but is hard pressed to keep up with expectations. The Ambassador has made herself the hub of embassy operations, with section and agency heads reporting directly to her. This hub-and-spoke organizational structure results in the Ambassador making decisions on issues such as leave requests for U.S. direct hires. She monitors coverage plans for individual absences and occasionally withholds approval, if she deems them inadequate. A revolving door of temporary DCMs, including the embassy’s third-tour political officer, assisted the Ambassador for the 3 months prior to the inspection. The presence of three short-term, acting DCMs—who lacked sufficient time on the ground to gain the Ambassador’s confidence and an understanding of embassy operations—reinforced the Ambassador’s tendency to micromanage.

Multiple interviews of staff members and responses to OIG surveys revealed staff members’ concern that the Ambassador has an occasionally harsh leadership style. This assessment was based on incidents when she scolded individuals in a group setting over performance shortcomings. As a result, staff members have told the OIG team they are less willing to show initiative or take chances, because they are concerned about failing to meet the Ambassador’s high expectations. The arrival of a permanent DCM in April 2014 represents an opportunity for the Ambassador to delegate operational authority.

But why should anyone have weekends?

Despite her self-assessment to the OIG team that the pace and volume of current work at her embassy is unsustainable, the Ambassador either has accepted or initiated many new activities over the past 6 months, such as preparing a quarterly assessment of Burundian conditions indicating a risk of political violence. Embassy staff strains to keep up with work demands; many U.S. direct hires routinely work extra hours to accommodate the Ambassador’s demands on staff to organize special events, draft speeches, and coordinate media coverage. The staff manages these demands by working weekends and staying late in the office on weekdays.

Of course, sacrificing free time is worthwhile, silly!

The Ambassador, whose position allows her to work from home while others cannot, has not succeeded in convincing her overworked staff that sustaining a high operations tempo and sacrificing free time are worthwhile. She conveys the impression that this kind of 24/7 work rhythm is normal. Personal questionnaires indicate that the embassy’s operating tempo has eroded morale and has also undermined the embassy’s ability to surge should events require. The OIG team counseled the Ambassador on the need to apply, in a disciplined fashion and within existing resources, the embassy’s ICS priorities to its operational activities. Staff morale at the embassy is below average, according to the OIG survey and interviews with personnel. This low morale is due to two sets of factors: the hardship associated with Burundi’s isolation and lack of free-time amenities, compounded by restrictions on travel. Further contributing to the situation are the country’s extreme poverty and uneven availability of ordinary consumer items, the tropical environment, and overtime work to keep up with the Ambassador’s high expectations and operations tempo. The effect is that the U.S. staff is wearing down. This is especially noticeable among the first- and second-tour officers, though as a group they continue to perform at high levels. The arrival of a new permanent DCM is an opportunity to reset the embassy’s operational pace and address morale problems.

Overexposed? Is there a press release for that?

The Ambassador is overexposed in the Burundian media. She has diluted the impact of the small public diplomacy staff with demands for outreach at every opportunity, without regard to prioritizing resources on high-yield activities more likely to receive media attention. In a 1-week period during the inspection, the embassy issued four press releases on the Ambassador’s outside events, but these received scant local media coverage. The OIG team counseled the Ambassador on ways to improve embassy media coverage.

No More Facebook and YouTube?

Burundi has a miniscule audience for digital products. Only 1.7 percent of the public has access to the Internet, and only 17 percent of that audience accesses the Internet for news. Facebook statistics show it has a penetration rate of 0.4 percent. The embassy posted two videos to YouTube, which, at the time of the inspection 9 months later, had combined total views of only 322. Because social media demands regular interaction with users, neither the staffing in the section nor the audience in Burundi can justify this activity. The public affairs officer agreed to focus staff time on the embassy Web site, which needs attention. At the time of the inspection, it featured an announcement for a recruiting effort that had ended more than a month earlier.

Recommendation 14: Embassy Bujumbura should close its Facebook and YouTube pages. (Action: Embassy Bujumbura)

 Professional development and experience gaps?

The embassy does not have a formal, structured program for the professional development of first- and second-tour (FAST) officers. Embassy Bujumbura has eight FAST officers, three of whom are specialists. FAST officers comprise half the Department’s U.S. direct-hire employees at the embassy. Every section has a FAST officer, with the exception of public affairs. Only one Department employee in the embassy has had more than three assignments overseas.
[...]
Consular Training and Backup. The officer who will replace the current consular chief in summer 2014 has no previous consular experience. To ensure an adequate level of performance and compliance with regulations, the new consular chief will need embassy-specific training and clear, detailed guidance, in addition to standard consular training in Washington, to help her fulfill the many obligations she will face as the new consular chief.

Please, more of everything here!

In the embassy’s ICS and Mission Resource Request, as well as in OIG interviews, the Ambassador has made clear her ambitions to grow the embassy from a Class 2 to a Class 3 mission.1 In her view, more personnel resources are needed for the embassy to carry out its mission. Since the 2007 OIG inspection report, the mission’s U.S. direct-hire staffing has grown by 9 positions: 3 from the Department and 6 from other agencies. LE staffing increased by 59 positions: 52 from the Department and 7 from other agencies. At the same time, the total Department operating budget increased by $1.82 million. By 2018, the embassy predicts a net increase of 23 positions: 7 U.S. direct hires, 1 eligible family member, and 15 LE staff members. In its 2013 analysis, the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation predicts modest increases of only 1 U.S direct hire and 9 LE staff members. The OIG team found no evidence of the Department’s willingness to fund the embassy’s projected growth. The embassy’s rightsizing review does not reflect realistic goals and objectives. The Bureau of African Affairs did not respond to the embassy’s most recent Mission Resource Request concerning plans for embassy growth.

 

This OIG report has a classified annex.  The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between January 6 and 30, 2014, and in Bujumbura, Burundi, between February 18 and 28, 2014. Ambassador Lawrence Butler (team leader), Kenneth Hillas (deputy team leader), Paul Cantrell, Ellen Engels, James Norton, John Philibin, Lavon Sajona, Scott Thayer, Ken Moskowitz, and Timothy Wildy conducted the inspection.

-07/31/14   Inspection of Embassy Bujumbura, Burundi (ISP-I-14-20A)  [301 Kb]  Posted on July 30, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Ambassadors, Americans Abroad, DCM, Facebook, Foreign Service, FSOs, Govt Reports/Documents, Leadership and Management, Media, Real Post of the Month, Realities of the FS, Staffing the FS, State Department, U.S. Missions