Category Archives: Obama

State Dept Responds to an FOIA Two Years After Request — Confusion and Hilarity Follows

– Domani Spero

One of our blog readers asked us about the Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA). Nope, we don’t know much about it except the (b)(6) exemptions which resulted on the redactions of OIG inspectors names from publicly available reports posted online.  In  October 2013, State/OIG finally started disclosing the names of inspectors in publicly available reports, so yay for that.

But because we’re a curious cat, we wanted to know why he was asking us about the FOIA. It turned out, our reader submitted a FOIA request to the State Department in 2012.  He wanted to know about “Meetings between Jeff Gorsky and the AILA.”  Mr. Gorsky is the Chief of the Legal Advisory Opinion Section of the Visa Office of the Bureau of Consular Affairs and AILA is the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the national association of more than 13,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. Our reader, Mr. Requester, shared the confirmation of his FOIA request from 2012:

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After repeated inquiries and prodding, and after almost two years of waiting, a response finally arrived in Mr. Requester’s mail box this year. Note that the subject of the FOIA request is “Jeff Gorsky and the AILA” and the official State Department response to the FOIA request came from Mr. Gorsky himself. Take a look:

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What the hey?

Is it normal or routine that the subject of the FOIA request is also the signatory of the letter that basically says we found 42 documents but they all contain information that is “personal in nature?”

I don’t know, is it?  Help me out here.  These are presumably from work emails, how can they all be “personal in nature?”

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Note: FOIA Exemption (b)(6) – permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Is it bizarre or is it just totally expected that the responding office (b)(6)’ed just about every name that appears on the documents released?  In handwritten notations that look messy and all?  What’s the use of filing an FOIA if all you get are these scrawny (b)(6)s?  The email above concerns a meeting request on “L1 Visas in Singapore.” So, the names of all  pertinent parties to that meeting are also “personal in nature?”

Processing … processing ….screeeccch bang kaplunga!  Ugh! I don’t get it; I must be, like… like….like, a malfunctioned magnet*.

Folks, the White House publishes online its Visitor Access Records, and heavens help them, there are lots of names listed there; some even include middle names!

On March 16, 2009, just as the new president came to office, the State Department’s Bureau of Administration released an FOIA Guidance from the Secretary of State to the department employees.  In says in part:

On his first full day in office, President Barack Obama signed two memoranda on openness in government – one ushering in a new era of transparency in government, the other ordering a presumption of disclosure in the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The State Department will be at the forefront of making this commitment a reality.
[…]
As a Department, we should respond to requests in a timely manner, resolve doubts in favor of openness, and not withhold information based on speculative or abstract fears.
[…]
We need every Department employee to manage the challenge of informing the public and protecting information in a way that fulfills the President’s strong commitment to transparency.

Well, what about that, huh?

In any case, the Department of Justice FOIA Guide on Exemption 6 notes that “Personal privacy interests are protected by two provisions of the FOIA, Exemptions 6 and 7(C). … Exemption 6 permits the government to withhold all information about individuals in “personnel and medical files and similar files” when the disclosure of such information “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” (1)

The Guide also says that “In some instances, the disclosure of information might involve no invasion of privacy because, fundamentally, the information is of such a nature that no expectation of privacy exists. (49) For example, civilian federal employees generally have no expectation of privacy regarding their names, titles, grades, salaries, and duty stations as employees (50) or regarding the parts of their successful employment applications that show their qualifications for their positions.” (51)

Also this: “if the information at issue is particularly well known or is widely available within the public domain, there generally is no expectation of privacy. “

You should know that we have no expertise on FOIAs. But the State Department on this FOIA case managed to use the (b)(6) exemption to redact the names of the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consular and that “Desk Officer for Singapore Visa matters.”

Here’s a person of the street question: Why would anyone think that disclosing Janice J. Jacobs‘ name as Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Consulate Consular Affairs (she is on Wikipedia, by the way) would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy?” 

C’mon, folks, you gotta admit, this is totally hilarious!

 

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Let’s compare this to the  emails released under FOIA on the Keystone XL meetings. Also redacted but as you can see on the emails here, the State Department did not use the (b)(6) exemption and instead used (b)(5) which protects “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency.” But look how this is marked:

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Click on image to read the released emails.

The FOIA super ninja we consulted (thanks J!) suggested that an immediate appeal be filed.  Mr. Requester told us he already sent in an appeal.  We just hope the response to his appeal would not take two years, and would not include scrawny (b)(6)s for decorations.

Seriously. Do you realize  that if the State Department continue to slap (b)(6)s on FOIA’ed docs so thoughtlessly like this, that the agency will be at the forefront of making President Obama’s commitment to “transparency in government” and “presumption of disclosure” a laughing matter? Pardon me, it is already a laughing matter?  Well, a  competition then on who will be at the forefront.  

Folks, you need to fix this or we may be forced to start a rock band called Twisted Hilarity.    

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Photo of the Day: Secretary Kerry Swears in Ambassador Timothy Broas

– Domani Spero

 

 

Secretary Kerry Swears in Ambassador Broas With Julie Broas looking on, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry swears in Tim Broas as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Secretary Kerry Swears in Ambassador Broas
With Julie Broas looking on, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry swears in Tim Broas as U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2014. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

 

 

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Photo of the Day: President Obama Meets Pope Francis

- Domani Spero

Photo via US Embassy The Holy See/FB

Photo via US Embassy The Holy See/FB Click on image to view more photos

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Photo of the Day: Man on a Mission

– Domani Spero

Via @VP

Screen Shot 2014-03-18

Vice President Joe Biden, joined by US Ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull or @SteveMullUSA to the Twitterati, arrived in #Poland on March 18, 2014 to discuss the situation in #Ukraine with regional leaders.
(Photo via @VP)

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15 Former AFSA Presidents Urge Senators to Oppose Confirmation of Ambassadorial Nominees to Norway, Hungary, and Argentina

– Domani Spero

On March 5, 2014, the AFSA Governing Board resolution says that “AFSA will send letters to the Senate and the White House expressing concern that the recent nominations for chief of mission positions in Norway, Hungary and Argentina appear to be based primarily on their status as financial contributors to political campaigns, which is in violation of the Foreign Service Act of 1980.” 

On Friday, March 7, fifteen former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) wrote to Senators Reid, McConnell, Menendez, Corker, Franken, Klobuchar, McCain, Cardin, Mikulski, Warner, Kaine, Whitehouse  and others, urging the non-confirmation of President Obama’s nominees for ambassadors to Norway, Hungary and Argentina.

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Below is an excerpt from their letter:

Among the nominees for ambassadorships currently under consideration by the Senate, three have generated considerable public controversy: George Tsunis (Norway), Colleen Bell (Hungary), and Noah Mamet (Argentina). The nominations of Mr. Tsunis and Ms. Bell have been forwarded to the full Senate by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

As former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association and trade union of career members of the Foreign Service, we urge you to oppose granting Senate consent to these three candidates. Although we have no reason to doubt that the nominees are conscientious and worthy Americans, the fact that they appear to have been chosen on the basis of their service in raising money for electoral campaigns, with minimal demonstrated qualifications for their posts, has subjected them to widespread public ridicule, not only in the U.S. but also abroad. As a result, their effectiveness as U.S. representatives in their host countries would be severely impaired from the start. Their nominations also convey a disrespectful message, that relations with the host country are not significant enough to demand a chief of mission with relevant expertise.

These three nominations represent a continuation of an increasingly unsavory and unwise practice by both parties.  In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt, “The spoils or patronage theory is that public office is primarily designed for partisan plunder.”  Sadly it has persisted, even after President Nixon’s acknowledged rewarding of ambassadorial nominations to major campaign donors was exposed.
[...]
During his 2008 election campaign, President Obama recognized the appropriateness of these guidelines, and promised to respect them. The time for the Senate to begin enforcing its own guidelines set forth in law for U.S. diplomatic chiefs of mission is now.  The nation cannot afford otherwise.

The signatories of the letter are Marshall Adair, Thomas Boyatt, Kenneth Bleakley, Theodore Eliot, Franklyn A Harris, William Harrop, Dennis Hays, J. Anthony Holmes, Lars Hydle, Susan Johnson, Alphonse La Porta, John Limbert, John Naland, Lannon Walker, and Theodore Wilkinson.

One scenario where this might get off  the hot topics column is if the nominees themselves recognize that their confirmation hearing performance and subsequent public ridicule would have an impact on their effectiveness as President Obama’s top representatives in their prospective host countries, and withdraw their names for consideration. This would be the less messy route, but we do not anticipate this happening or it would have happened already.

Another scenario is if we get to see more Senate confirmation hearings bungled under similar circumstances, with the accompanying public uproar, and more mockery from cable news and comedians day in and day out — which might, just might make President Obama think, “enough already.” If that happens, it might also forced him to  revisit his promise that “the days of Michael Brown, Arabian Horse Judge, are over.”  Well, that’s a lot of ifs and mights, so we’re not holding our breath.

There is, of course, the ultimate scenario that we have seen before, and no doubt, we’ll see again — Senators’ offices will acknowledge the former AFSA presidents’ letter and others like it, and then proceed to confirm the nominees (Senate holds for ambassadorial nominees seem reserved for nutty reasons like the case of an ancient boyfriend or the ethnic origin of the nominee’s wife). It is just a coincidence that some nominees are also contributors to the Senate Majority PAC, the party’s Senatorial Campaign, the party’s victory fund or even to the guys from the other party.  Oh, but we are extraordinarily special and exceptional that way — watch.

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State Dept on Ambo Nominees’ “Certificates of Documented Competency” — Working On It

– Domani Spero

The American Foreign Service Association was in the news yesterday after announcing that it will file a suit against the State Department if, by end of business day today, it does not get the certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees (see AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again).

The topic made it to today’s Daily Press Briefing with the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki answering questions about AFSA’s FOIA requests for these documents which were reportedly filed on July 29, 2013 and a second request filed on February 28, 2014.  Ms. Psaki refused to make a prediction of whether State would respond to AFSA’s request by the close of business today.

At about 3pm EST, ABC News tweeted that AFSA is giving the State Department until tomorrow morning to furnish the requested “Certificates of Documented Competency” for ambassador nominees.

When you look at that AFSA FOIA request delay of 7 months and a week, it might be useful to note that in FY2012, the State Department’s total requests in backlog is 10,464.   In fact, according to foia.gov, State has one of the highest backlogs, second only to DHS. In FY 2011, the average number of days to process a simple case was 156; for complex cases, 342. Some cases have been pending for 5 or 6 years (see State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why).  The oldest pending request, as you can see below is 1,922 days.

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Here is the short version of the March 6, 2014 DPB:

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via Word It Out

Below is the long version from the March 6, 2014 DPB:

QUESTION: The American Foreign Service Association said yesterday that they were going to be filing suit against the State Department if, by end of business today, you don’t provide certificates of demonstrated competence for ambassadorial nominees. So I just wanted to know if you had any reaction to that.

MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, AFSA submitted a FOIA request on July 29th 2013 to our website – this is just some details for all of you to be aware of – seeking certificates of a demonstrated competence for every ambassador from January 1st 2013 to the present. We receive, as many of you know, about 18,000 FOIA requests per year. Generally – we generally process requests on a first in, first out basis. So we’re currently actively processing the request in accordance with the statute and the Department’s regulations, which applies to the specific release they put out yesterday.

In terms of broadly speaking, obviously, in nominating ambassadors, we look – the Administration looks for qualified candidates who represent Americans from all walks of life and who show true zeal for serving their country, and we’ve received interest and recruited talented people from all across the country and all kinds of professional backgrounds, whether they are Foreign Service – well, that’s – they proceed through a different process, there, of course, but political appointees who may be from the business sector, who may be from a public service sector. We feel that this kind of diversity helps represent who we are and the United States around the world.

So long story short, we are reviewing their request. We process requests as they come in. Certainly we welcome the comments of anyone and views of anyone on these sorts of issues, but I think it’s important to remind everyone of what we look at when it comes to ambassadorial nominees.

QUESTION: Jen, they submitted this request in July? How many months ago?

QUESTION: January.

QUESTION: No, July 29th, she said.

QUESTION: I thought you said January.

MS. PSAKI: For every ambassador from January 20 –

QUESTION: Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry.

QUESTION: So how long should they expect to wait until you finish processing your request? And why should they even have to submit a FOIA request for this? Why wouldn’t you just – if they asked for it, why wouldn’t you just turn them over?

MS. PSAKI: They were asking for specific documents that are –

QUESTION: Right. But this is not an organization that has a questionable interest in this. It’s an organization that, in fact, represents – I mean, it is the – basically the union for Foreign Service officers, so it’s not really an outside party.

MS. PSAKI: Well, oftentimes, Matt, there’s a processing aspect that needs to take place with these requests, so –

QUESTION: Right, I’m sure that – I’m sure everyone is thrilled, everyone who’s ever filed a FOIA request to the State Department or any other government agency is thrilled, but I think that –

MS. PSAKI: There are many people who do. That’s part of the challenge in processing them.

QUESTION: Right. Okay, so you just threw this in the big pile, in the in-box with every single other request, even though they clearly have some – they have demonstrated interest in this subject. I don’t understand –

MS. PSAKI: I didn’t say we threw it in a pile, Matt.

QUESTION: Yeah, you did. You said you get 18,000 requests a year, so – and –

MS. PSAKI: We do. We process them.

QUESTION: So when they –

MS. PSAKI: But obviously, we’re working to review their request and see how we can meet it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: But specifically they asked for it to be by the close of business tonight. Otherwise, they’re going to take their – take this to legal action.

MS. PSAKI: I understand that.

QUESTION: Are you saying that you will not be able to get it to them by end of day tonight?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to make a prediction of that. We’ll see what happens.

QUESTION: Just – can I have one –

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: Where – you are now processing this specific request, correct?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: You’re actually looking at it and trying to satisfy it?

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Okay. If you get 18,000 FOIA requests a year, what is the typical time lag for processing a request? Is it, as in this case, I guess, eight months or – is that typical or is it less, is it more?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any specific time breakdown for you. I’m happy to see if there’s anything like that we can provide.

QUESTION: And was this one –

MS. PSAKI: We’re – they’re about to start the press avail, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. Was this one jumped to the front of the queue for any reason or no? It was processed –

MS. PSAKI: Well, there are cases where – and they asked for expedited processing, and some cases that question is asked. This didn’t satisfy the specific laid out standards for that, but we’re still working to see if we can process this as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: But it was not – was it jumped ahead or no? Or it –

MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re still working to see if we can process it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: No, no, that’s not my question, though. My question is whether it got – I understand that they may have requested expedited processing –

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: – and did not – denied it because they don’t meet the standards, which happens to a lot of people.

MS. PSAKI: And at the same time, we’re still working to expedite – to process this as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Right. Right. Right. No, but I’m sure you’re doing that with the other 17,199, right? I mean, the question is whether you are doing this faster.

MS. PSAKI: Specifically with this one, we are –

QUESTION: Yeah.

MS. PSAKI: – working to process it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: But quicker than everything – others’ stuff?

MS. PSAKI: It doesn’t work in that exact way, but we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.

Ali.

QUESTION: And Jen, they said that – AFSA said that they also filed a second FOIA request on February 28th.

MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So did they express to you their – because I know there was discussion between counsels.

MS. PSAKI: Sure.

QUESTION: So was that part of the aspect, that they didn’t feel that the July request had been processed or addressed within a – expeditiously enough so that –

MS. PSAKI: You’d have to ask them that question. I’m not sure if they are basically about the same thing or not. So I’m happy to check, and you may want to check with them and see what the reason was for the second one.

QUESTION: These documents are – what they’re seeking or these certificates are not classified, are they?

MS. PSAKI: No, but they’re still internal files, and so obviously we go through a process –

QUESTION: Fair enough. But they’re for a very small number of people, 50. Do you have any idea how many pages one of these things is?

MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s every ambassadorial nominee for the last 14 months.

QUESTION: Right.

MS. PSAKI: So –

QUESTION: And how many – well, actually, it wouldn’t have been originally –

MS. PSAKI: 15?

QUESTION: No, because they filed it in July asking for every one that went back to January. So –

MS. PSAKI: But when you meet it, you’re abiding by what the FOIA request –

QUESTION: Fair enough. How many pages is one of these things?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a specific number of pages for you.

QUESTION: It seems to me like this is a very limited request from an organization that’s got a very, very important interest in this subject, and that frankly, they should, if they ask, should be allowed to see – without having to go to through the FOIA processing. Was there any – did – do you know – are you aware if they asked outside of FOIA to get this – to get these documents?

MS. PSAKI: They are closely engaged with our chief of staff and deputy secretary of state, and have a range of meetings. So I know that all of these issues have been discussed. In terms of this specific request, I can check if there’s anything we can share on that.

QUESTION: So in other words, you said no. They asked, you said no, you have to submit a FOIA? Is that –

MS. PSAKI: I’m not saying that’s how it all went down. I’m saying they have many channels for having discussions with people in the Administration. And if there’s more to share on whether they made this specific request outside of the FOIA request process, I’m happy to check into that.

QUESTION: Do you have any idea if there is a chance, even a remote chance, that the processing will be finished by 5 o’clock this afternoon?

MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to predict when it will be finished.

QUESTION: Well, I know, but –

MS. PSAKI: Obviously, we’re working to process it as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: I understand that. But is there a possibility that it could be done by 5 o’clock?

MS. PSAKI: There’s always a possibility.

QUESTION: There is. Okay.

QUESTION: How many nominees are we talking about? Have you got a figure?

MS. PSAKI: I don’t have a figure.

Well, then, tomorrow, maybe  – or we’ll wonder who’ll stop the rain …

 

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AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again

Updated on March 6, 10:13 pm PST with the “demonstrated competence” requirement in the FS Act of 1980.

– Domani Spero

Via WaPo’s Al Kamen:

The State Department employees union is demanding that the department turn over key documents on three embattled ambassadorial nominees — and all pending Obama administration nominees, both career Foreign Service and non-career folks — by Thursday evening or face a prompt lawsuit for the materials.

The documents, called “certificates of demonstrated competence,” essentially explain the rationale for nominating  each individual. The 28-member governing board of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) voted unanimously to demand the documents.

AFSA had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents in July, but it has not received them.
[...]
Although the board was very concerned about those particular three nominees, “We’re not going to be satisfied with one or two small victories,”AFSA president Robert Silverman said in an interview. “We want the system to be fixed, it’s broken.”

With the certificates in hand, the board, probably by telephone vote, is expected to deal with those three nominees. On the other hand, if AFSA needs to go to court for the documents, it may not get them before the full Senate votes on the nominations.

On AFSA’s Facebook page, the news has yet to generate a wave of response from its membership. Besides over a dozen likes and a few short “bravos,” a couple of concerns were also posted:

One wrote: “While I appreciate the broader issue, and think that it is nice that the press is focused on the service of career diplomats, I wonder how much efforts like this will go to alienate senior leadership in the Department and Administration who might later be called on to advocate for OCP or other issues of concern for the rank and file. I agree the Service would benefit if a few more Ambassadorships went to career diplomats, but I doubt that the senators who right now might applaud the sideshow generated by a lawsuit will feel similarly disposed when a Republican administration is making its appointments.”

Another comment: “While I am concerned about the quality of our Ambassadors I am even more concerned that AFSA has chosen this matter as the defining issue on which to expend its political capital.  I understand your explanation that no publicity is bad publicity but if the choice is to put our support behind an initiative that will benefit a very select few versus a different initiative that will benefit all, i.e. OCP, then I would rather we back the latter. My fellow proletarians may disagree but this seems to me a much wiser use of resources.”

In responding to one FB comment, Mr. Silverman, the AFSA president wrote in part:

“I want to assure you that we are working very closely on this Chief of Mission Guidelines initiative with the senior leadership at State, other Administration and SFRC. That has been the focus since the initiative’s genesis in August. Informally senior State leaders applaud and support this initiative. And we are collaborating closely with State on our single biggest ask of Congress: the third tranche of OCP. From my perspective as AFSA’s president, this collaboration has never been closer. The unprecedented media attention also strengthens AFSA’s voice in general. The goal is to have it help with OCP, and the most urgent issue in front of us – the Senate holds on 1,300 FS members awaiting tenure and promotion.”

Thursday night is reportedly the deadline.  It’ll be an interesting night, or maybe not.

If the State Department releases these “certificates of demonstrated competence” on “all pending Obama administration nominees,” it will, no doubt, be a media field day. We could be wrong, but we don’t think State will roll over a threat that easily.  If it does’t, AFSA will, of course, have to go to court. It won’t be for the first time.  Since we don’t have a drive-thru court, this will certainty take time winding through the federal district court. By the time a hearing is in sight or folks need to appear in court, the ambassadorial nominees potentially would already be confirmed and off to post.

We have not been able to find anything on these “certificates of demonstrated competence” – not in the FAM or anywhere else in state.gov.  Not even in history.state.gov but it is in the FS Act of 1980:(h/t to M!)

Section 304 (4)
(4) The President shall provide the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, with each nomination for an appointment as a chief of mission, a report on the demonstrated competence of the nominee to perform the duties of the position in which he or she is to serve.

Also,  a little digging in ADST’s oral history project gave us an idea on what maybe in these “certificates.” Below is an excerpt from the ADST interview of Charles A. Schmitz who served in the State Department from 1964 to the early 1990′s. He worked in the Director General’s Office from 1976-1978 and served as AFSA Vice President in 1990 when the association took the State Department to court for these “certificates.” Excerpt below, read the full interview here (pdf).

The State Department, in a most conniving, almost criminal way, connived to keep from the public view the description of how bad a lot of these appointees were, in violation of the law. The law requires the State Department to issue a certificate of demonstrated competence for every ambassadorial appointee.
[...]
It is in the Foreign Service Act. It is much ignored, by the way. Pell required it to be written into the law, but then quit taking it seriously. Therefore, the certificate was produced in name only. It was not a certificate of competency at all. It was a brief, usually one page, description of what the person had done. A typical example was of the model…Mr. so-and-so has been a pillar of his community, a successful businessman in running his used car dealership and therefore would make an excellent ambassador of the United States to Spain. It was so bad that these things were not even carefully done. They had typos in them. In one case the last line naming the country was the wrong country.
[...]
Nobody noticed it because they classified it. There is a little operation in the State Department that produced these things. They were not really State Department people, they were White House people sent over to write these things. There were two of them. They then sent them as confidential documents to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That is why we sued him. We said that you can not classify somebody’s resume. Under the National Security Act involving classification this is a violation of the act. We, of course, argued that point until we were blue in the face for months and months with the State Department in negotiations. They refused to move on it, so AFSA sued the Secretary of State in the Federal District Court. Before the matter came to hearing, the State Department compromised and provided AFSA all of the documents which it had withheld until that point. It undertook to provide us the documents as the law should require and denied having done anything wrong.
[...]
These things turned out to be laughable in practice. They were slipshod, superficially done, just marking the boxes So we had to expose that in some fashion. And that was important that it was exposed and ultimately, as I said before, what caused a certain amount of embarrassment. This didn’t defeat any of those nominees, but it may have had some effect on other potential appointees, or the nominators anyway who realized it wasn’t going to be just a free ride to nominate anybody as ambassador.

Remember Battlestar Galactica’s “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again?”  

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AFSA Releases Underwhelming Ambassador Guidelines For “Successful Performance”

– Domani Spero

We’ve been hearing about the AFSA ambassador guidelines for a while now.  We were prepared to be amazed but frankly, given that AFSA has largely ignored the termination of ambassador report cards, we tried hard to contain our expectations (see State/OIG Terminates Preparation of Report Cards for Ambassadors and Sr. Embassy Officials).

Last week, the State Department’s favorite columnist over at WaPo writes, “The cringe-inducing performances in recent weeks by some of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees have raised expectations that the American Foreign Service Association will weigh in next week with some revolutionary guidelines to revamp the nomination process.  Don’t count on it. Thoughtful, yes. Explosive, hardly. Our sense of the guidelines, which AFSA began working on last summer, is that they’re fairly anodyne suggestions, not a call for stricter criteria.”

According to Al Kamen, the AFSA board reportedly approved the draft guidelines on a 17 to 5 vote, with all four former ambassadors on the board voting against the guidelines, “apparently feeling the new ones watered down the 1980 Foreign Service Act’s useless section on ambassador selection.”  We also heard complaints that while AFSA has been working on these guidelines since last summer, the AFSA membership reportedly did not get a chance to provide comments and input until Friday last week. What the hey?!

Below is the relevant section of the Foreign Service Act of 1980

SEC. 304 – APPOINTMENT OF CHIEFS OF MISSION

(a)(1) An individual appointed or assigned to be a chief of mission should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people.

(2) Given the qualifications specified in paragraph (1), positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstance will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.

(3) Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.

We are confident that various administrations since 1980 had their own definitions of what “from time to time” actually means.

So what’s the purpose of releasing these guidelines now?  AFSA says that it offers “this Guidelines paper as a resource to inform the executive and legislative processes of nominating and confirming U.S. chiefs of mission. Chiefs of mission are the president’s envoys to foreign countries and multilateralinstitutions, usually carrying the title of ambassador. They lead our engagement with foreign governments and act as the CEOs of U.S. overseas missions and embassies.”

One retired ambassador who is not an AFSA member asked why ambassadors are even described as CEOs  since they are not — having no bottom line, no shareholders, and no board of directors?  Without all that, we wonder who gets to fire these CEOs to improve “corporate” governance at our overseas missions?

Some of the folks we know who are retired members of AFSA are opposed to the practice of appointing bundlers as ambassadors citing Section 304 of the FSA 1980.   Some see this issue as key to defining an American profession.  Others strongly believe that AFSA as the professional association representing career Foreign Service diplomats, “must–like Cicero–at least take a stand and call out the current system for what it is–plutocratic  corruption.”

Just saw WaPo reporting that AFSA “may oppose Obama ambassador nominees” but that AFSA President Robert Silverman reportedly also “noted that there may be a feeling that AFSA might not “want to get into the middle of a dogfight” while it’s in progress.”

Whose dogfight is this, anyways?  Does AFSA really think that these guidelines would change the current practice of nominating ambassadors ?

At the DPB yesterday, a reporter asked if the State Department believe that an association or the union for current and retired professional diplomats should have any say in the nomination process.  The official spokesperson Jen Psaki replied, “I’d have to check and see … if we have an official U.S. Government position on that question.” Prior to that question, she did say this:

“Obviously, the nomination process, as you well know, happens through the Executive Branch, which has been a traditional process, and input and thoughts comes from a range of resources. And certainly, we support freedom of speech by anyone in terms of what they view nominees should be able to – should – criteria they should meet. But again, these decisions have traditionally been made out of the White House.”

Seriously now, are you hearing what she’s saying?

AFSA says that the Guidelines are “drawn from the collective experience of a group of distinguished former chiefs of mission, both career and non-career, and from legislative and regulatory sources.” Ten ambassadors, all retired; including Ambassador Donald Gips, our former ambassador to South Africa who also served  as head of the WH office for Presidential Personnel.  In that role, Ambassador Gips managed “the selection of several thousand political appointments for the Obama Administration” prior to his appointment to South Africa.  The working group surprisingly did not include a single member of the active Foreign Service.   How well or how badly these missions are managed have a direct impact on the life and work of our diplomats. So we’re curious — how much input did the active membership provide in finalizing the guidelines that the association issued on its behalf?  

AFSA says that the paper is “non-partisan in nature” and offers the following guidelines:

Under “Leadership, character and proven interpersonal skills,” the Guidelines says “A key skill is the ability to listen in order to better understand the host country’s perspectives.”

You know that every bartender worth his/her salt, actually could do this one just as well, right?

Under “Understanding of high level policy and operations, and of key U.S. interests and values in the country or organization of prospective assignment,” the Guidelines says of the  nominee: “He or she demonstrates the capacity to negotiate, and has the proven ability to take on various challenges, including working with U.S. and foreign business communities and other nongovernmental interests, and providing services to U.S. citizens.”

One could argue that Mr. Tsunis, the hotelier nominated for the U.S. Embassy Norway can demonstrate this just as well. As CEO of Chartwell Hotels, LLC which owns, develops and manages Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, he presumably worked with U.S. and foreign business communities and provide services to American citizens. Every. Single. Day.

The third item in the Guidelines is Management.  The President of the Garden Club of Oz, as well, “possesses experience in setting goals and visions, managing change, and allocating resources.”

The fourth and last item listed is “Understanding of host country and international affairs.“The Guidelines says of the nominee: “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages.”

Experience as a foreign exchange student count, right?

To be clear, your blogger’s household does not pay any dues to AFSA, so we are not a member of any standing.   But after reading  the AFSA Guidelines officially titled, “Guidelines for Successful Performance as a Chief of Mission,”we also had to wonder — what was AFSA thinking?  Yes, it is doing something, but is it doing the right thing?

In fact, we think folks could wave these AFSA Guidelines around to defend even the most controversial ambassadorial nominees.  Let’s try it.

For example, according to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell, producer of The Bold and the Beautiful, graduated with high honors from Sweet Briar College with a bachelor’s degree in political economy, a dual major in political science and economics. She spent her junior year abroad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   Scotland is not Hungary but that is a foreign culture, is it not? You don’t think this is enough for AFSA Guidelines #4?  Doesn’t it say on paper, “of other foreign cultures or languages?” She also produced the world’s most-watched soap opera, viewed in over 100 countries. The show serves 26.2 million viewers, including U.S. citizens. You don’t think that has anything to do with management and understanding of international affairs?

As a taxpayer with a vested interest in the effective functioning of our overseas missions, we have followed AFSA and the Foreign Service closely.  While we are not a voting member of this association, we would have wanted, instead, to see two things from AFSA: 1)  work on strengthening the Foreign Service Act of 1980 through Congress, who is after all, tasked to provide “advice and consent”on ambassadorial nominees under the U.S. Constitution, and 2)  work on the reinstatement of the OIG Inspector Evaluation Reports (IERs)  to promote accountability and successful performance of our chiefs of missions overseas.  The end.

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Norwegian-Americans Petition For Withdrawal of Tsunis Nomination as Ambassador to Norway

– Domani Spero

We didn’t know that  Minnesota has the largest Norwegian-American population in the United States. Apparently, it is also home to major Norwegian groups like the Sons of Norway International.  According to MinnPost, days after George Tsunis, the nominee to be ambassador to Norway bungled his appearance at his SFRC confirmation hearing, a group of Minnesotans took up the cause of preventing the hotel magnate from getting the assignment. Twin Cities attorney T. Michael Davis has organized a campaign to either win Norway a new nominee, or, if that does not work, see that the Senate votes down Tsunis’ appointment.

We want the American citizens to have a qualified ambassador in Oslo, and we want the government in Oslo to be dealing with a qualified ambassador,” said Davis, a member of the state’s Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce. “This is just basic common sense.”

Davis and his allies have penned a Star Tribune op-ed on February 12, pushing for the Senate not to approve this nominee (See Obama-Tsunis: Selection for ambassador to Norway cannot stand):

“In a time of hyperpartisanship in Congress — and extreme voter fatigue with respect to party-line loyalties, a bipartisan Nordic community has always had greater hopes and expectations. We, thus, ask our senators to encourage President Obama to withdraw the Tsunis nomination or, barring such, we ask them to work hard in coming days to convince key Senate colleagues to act in the nonpartisan interests of the United States and its taxpayers, and in the interest of our valued ties with Norway, and unanimously reject the nomination of George J. Tsunis.”

Mr. Davis reportedly also wrote White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough directly about the nomination, and he and his allies have been making lots of noises in the Senate.

An online petition at charge.org has also been launched by Tom Lundquist asking for President Obama “to withdraw the Tsunis nomination or, alternatively, that the Senate act in the interests of the U.S., taxpayers, and ties with Norway, thus, rejecting the nomination.” The petition has 308 supporters as of this writing with 192 signatures still needed.

It’s hard to say if these efforts would derail the confirmation of Mr. Tsunis as the next ambassador to Norway.  On February 4, Mr. Tsunis got one step closer to becoming ambassador when the SFRC endorsed his nomination.  The last step in the process is the final vote by the full Senate.

There is, of course, a logjam of nominees over there.  Some have been waiting since January for their confirmation votes.  Given that the votes for these nominations are going in stops and spurts these days, it is likely that Mr. Tsunis’ nomination will be in the waiting line for a while. However, we are guessing that the nomination will squeak by quietly in late spring or early summer when we’re all busy with summer vacations and whatnots.

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White House Petition: Appoint Chris Holmes as U.S. Ambassador to Iceland

– Domani Spero

On February 14, A.P. from Los Angeles started a White House petition to appoint Chris Holmes the U.S. Ambassador to Iceland. The petition currently has 186 signatures.  Apparently Mr. Holmes has been to Iceland “a bunch of times” and “knows the best bars.” A good an endorsement as any.  Over on Twitter, one of the endorsers tweets, “Chris Holmes is the chillist perfect 4 da job.” Another tweets, “Love Iceland, love mad scientist werewolf Chris Holmes. Holmes for US Ambassador to Iceland.” 

Screen Shot 2014-02-23
Who is Chris Holmes? Below via FB:

On Chris Holmes: released his major label debut Dan Loves Patti under his Yum Yum moniker, an album that Rolling Stone said “more than holds it own in comparison with influences as the Beatles, and Beach Boys circa Pet Sounds.” He has since toured and recorded with The Smashing Pumpkins and Felix da Housecat, co-produced tracks for P. Diddy, worked on Billy Corgan’s solo album and written with Rachael Yamagata and Mandy Moore. Also an established DJ, Holmes appeared on URB’s “Next 100” list and was handpicked by Sir Paul McCartney to open for him at 2009’s Coachella Fest and to tour the world with him in 2011. In addition Chris has toured with Radiohead, Atoms for Peace, and Daft Punk.

Active links added above. To read more, see LAT’s Chris Holmes marches to his own extraterrestrial drummer and Six degrees of Chris Holmes: Obama neighbor, Beck sideman, more. The LA Times also writes that “Indeed, there proved so many fascinating instances of Holmes’ notable connections that, quite simply, they wouldn’t fit in a single article.”  And this:

While a student the University of Chicago, Holmes lived across the street from a then-unknown Barack Obama. “He was a really nice guy,” Holmes recalls. “I first met him when a bunch of professors had a party next door.   They were like, ‘This is Barack -– he lives a couple houses down the cul-de-sac.’ I was the weird dude of the neighborhood, always lighting off fireworks and doing crazy things, and he’d always just be sitting on his porch, smoking and thinking. He was such a chain smoker, we nicknamed him ‘Smoking Guy’ after the character on ‘The X-Files.’

So he knew President Obama back when, he’s been to Iceland a bunch of times, and he knows the best bars. He is already on Twitter as @ashtarchris and on Instagram, where a week ago he posted this with a note that says, “C’mon. We can do better.”

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