One of the four men was Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who had covered the Iran nuclear talks. Rezaian was being held on baseless charges of espionage in order to try to extract concessions from the Americans. Our source, State’s Chase Foster, was upset that the U.S. had failed to secure the Americans’ release as part of the nuclear deal, and it was his understanding that the talks had since collapsed. But as we reported out the tip, we discovered that, unbeknownst to Foster, the talks had never really stopped.
What added an extra wrinkle to this ethical dilemma was the State Department official, Foster, Schulberg’s on-the-record source. To describe such a situation as unusual wouldn’t do it justice: State Department officials with specific knowledge of prisoner negotiations don’t talk publicly about them. It just doesn’t happen. Yet to Schulberg’s credit as a reporter, Foster was doing so in this case. His frustration motivated him to speak out — and, eventually, to quit his job, which he did late last year.
Any public official willing to air grievances on the record, whether those grievances are legitimate or not, should be thought of as a whistleblower. And if a whistleblower is willing to risk his career and reputation to share information he thinks the public needs to have, a news outlet needs to have an awfully good reason not to run his story. On the other hand, we never asked him not to talk to other outlets or to take his concerns public on his own, which was always an option, but one he didn’t take. And had he known the talks were once again going on, that may have changed his calculus about going public, which in turn was something we had to keep in mind. And it wasn’t something we could share with him.
When we reached out to the administration, the frontline press folks there were extremely aggressive and served up a bunch of garbage we later confirmed to be garbage. But when we approached administration officials higher up the chain, they told us what was actually happening. They told us that reporters for The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal were withholding details of the talks as well, though neither knew of Foster, whose identity we never revealed to the government. They did not put hard pressure on us to hold our story, but instead calmly laid out their analysis of the possible consequences of publishing, and offered confidence that the talks were moving forward and headed toward a resolution.
More than a year of informal discussions between Sherman and her counterpart, Majid Takht Ravanchi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry official in charge of American and European affairs, led to an agreement, in late 2014, that the issue should be handled separately—but officially—through a second channel. After debate within the Administration, Obama approved the initiative. But it was so tightly held that most of the American team engaged in tortuous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were not told about it.[…] Brett McGurk, a senior State Department official, headed the small American team, which also included officials from the Department of Justice, the F.B.I., and the intelligence community.
According to NYT, Mr. McGurk’s team sat down with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva for the first time in November 2014, according to an account by several American officials on the condition of anonymity.
HuffPo’s source Chase Foster, a Foreign Affairs officer at the State Department since 2012, was reportedly upset that the U.S. had failed to secure the Americans’ release as part of the nuclear deal according to the Huffington Post. FAOs are civil service positions at the State Department that typically requires regional or functional expertise. His LinkedIn profile says that he had an advanced degree in Professional Studies in Persian and speaks Persian. It does not say which bureau he works in. But by the time he quit the State Department in frustration late last year, the negotiations for the prisoners release has been going on for about 13 months.
Foster was willing to risk his career by speaking on the record. That’s not something we often see these days. His heart was in the the right place, and we won’t blame him for it. But he may have also forgotten what François de Callières said about secrecy as being “the very soul of diplomacy.”
If mentorship works at State as it should have, somebody could have counseled him quietly that absence of apparent action does not mean lack of action. The American team working the nuke negotiations was not even told about the second channel secret negotiations. We would not be surprise if the top honchos at the NEA bureau with decades of USG service were also out of the loop. And no one has even mentioned James O’Brien, the newly appointed Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs.
TFW when you resign your State Department post in protest only to learn you just weren't read-in to the negotiations.
This could have easily gone the other way. We’re glad that it didn’t, that senior administration officials did not dish more garbage, that the journalists listened, and the negotiations worked out in the end.
The January issue of the Foreign Service Journal is out. The issue is focused on mental health care for the Foreign Service. Dr. Samuel Thielman, a recently retired regional medical officer/psychiatrist for the Department of State writes about how MED’s mental health program has grown and evolved over the years to address the unusual needs of FS employees and their families serving overseas in The Evolution of State’s Mental Health Services. Chantay White, the chief of the Employee Assistance Program with the State Department Employee Consultation Services and Paulette Baldwin, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker write about Mental Health and ECS—What You Should Know. Dr. Stephen A. Young, the director of Mental Health Services for the State department since September 2015, writes aboutThe Face of Mental Health Services Overseas.
One part of the bureaucracy that is glaringly missing here is, of course, Diplomatic Security. A majority of these comments express concern about DS and security clearance. The most instructive part is probably the section on MED/MHS Checkup: Foreign Service Members Weigh In that offers very candid views from people in the field.
The FSJ writes that the compilation includes 45 responses from FS members in Washington, D.C., and overseas, some entry-level and a few retired, from the foreign affairs agencies, primarily State and USAID. The gender split was about even. “Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, and known concerns about privacy, we took the unprecedented step of offering to print comments without attribution,” the editors write.
Some excerpts below, each paragraph selected from a separate FS member response. The last one It’s No Joke is in full; the contributor appears to be part of US Mission Libya following the 2012 attacks. The full comments are available to read here.
“Dealing with the bureaucracy after having sought mental health treatment is itself enough to cause PTSD.”
“Senior officers, in particular, need to set the example by ensuring that their employees understand that a mental health issue, like any ailment, is best addressed early. Until they do, we will all still sign notes like this as… Anonymous.”
“During a rough patch in a relationship, my partner and I sought couples counseling. When my security clearance was up for renewal, I was grilled by the investigator regarding this counseling. I had to defend myself for wanting counseling, and the harsh and critical tone she took for me wanting to do what I needed for my relationship was upsetting. I got the clearance, but it was a stressful process.”
“After service in Iraq, there is no doubt in my mind that I suffered from PTSD. Now (several years later), I see my symptoms as both classic and obvious. At the time I was suffering, however, I hid my symptoms out of fear that knowledge that I suffered from PTSD would harm my career. That concern was heightened by the intense questioning I endured by a Diplomatic Security agent conducting a security clearance update when I was serving in Iraq. When it became known that I had sought mental health care, I was hassled and forced to repeat the content of a private discussion with a mental health professional to a DS agent with zero mental health training. I found the entire episode both distasteful and inappropriate.”
“My mistake—I was told by MED that I’d be given a Class 2 because of seeking continued therapy. I thought that showing that I’d made arrangements for my mental health would ensure a Class 1, but instead that’s what gave me the Class 2. Geez, why be honest with MED—it could have cost me my assignment.”
“I met with a therapist who told me he never wrote anything down because all of his FS clients were terrified of getting caught seeking assistance for their stress-related problems. It’s sad. Concerns about security clearances have a big effect on whether or not I seek mental health care.”
“I feel that if I had declared myself an alcoholic I would have gotten more attention from MED than when I was traumatized and sat in my office working, feeling like an isolated zombie.”
“Once I joined the Foreign Service, I could easily understand why there is an impression that the Service has an alcohol abuse problem—it’s self-medication that is easy to hide from a clearance process. I find that distressing and disturbing and extremely unsupportive.”
“Despite former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s message a few years ago telling employees that their clearance will not be affected by seeking mental health treatment, that is not what happens in practice. DS investigators zero in on this, considering it a red flag, as if mental health were any different than physical health.”
“No matter what management says about the importance of mental health, if there are no real changes, then the Foreign Service will continue to be an ineffective and unsupportive mental health environment.”
“You also do not know who the regional psychiatrist’s client really is: you or the State Department? Does a psychiatrist see you as a patient who needs help or just a problem for the Foreign Service best remedied by removing you from post?”
“The mandatory out brief improved between the time I returned from Afghanistan in 2007 and 2012, when I returned from Iraq. However, both times I was told that the symptoms in the PTSD questionnaire are normal for six months and not to worry unless they persist. (And I was offended when taken aside after the briefing and asked how pervasive I thought infidelity was in Baghdad.)”
“During the onward assignments process, MED refused to consider my needs as identified by my therapist, instead assigning me to a post where there was no one in-country who could serve as an appropriate psychiatrist. There, I raised an issue of concern with the health unit nurse, who in turn shared it with the management officer, who then told my supervisor that I was “nuts.” This was not only a violation of my privacy; it reflected total ignorance on the management officer’s part of what PTSD and its symptoms are.”
“I would rate the mental health support at 3 out of 10, with 10 being the best. Working in a high-stress post that was not a “high-threat” post, my colleagues and I were given limited support in a time of crisis.”
“I am grateful for the mental health assistance available to me. If it weren’t for grief counseling, I would have qualms about seeing the RMO/P, because I’d need to disclose this in the five-yearly security update. And while that disclosure might not affect my security clearance, I still think there’s a stigma attached to the fact that I needed mental health assistance.”
“As a veteran of two priority staffing post (PSP) tours—one in Iraq (2007–2008) and the other in Afghanistan (2013–2014)—my experience with transition support has been abysmal. Just getting authorization to attend out briefings and to access mental health services was impossible.”
“I am not concerned about medical and security clearances as they relate to mental health care. Most people have seen a therapist at one time or another, and I don’t think it would affect a security clearance. But corridor reputation is a concern. Even when people need to talk to a mental health professional, they’re more worried about their corridor reputation and often won’t seek help due to the stigma of being “weak.”
“In my final post, when I had finally had enough bullying from my fourth bully boss (three of whom were DCMs and one a GS-15), I worked with the regional psychiatrist who prescribed two anti-anxiety/anti-depressants and a sleeping pill to help me cope. I sought assistance from the ombudsman, but received no help, so I resigned.”
“I had discussed my mental health with the regional psychiatrist during his visits, but he just gave me Xanax and told me panic attacks were normal. He asked me about work-related stress, but reported the results of our meetings with post leadership, contributing to my stress.”
“When State does not actively intervene in cases of abusive behavior, managers are given the impression that they have carte blanche to do whatever they want. Even if victims get mental health care afterwards, the damage has been done. From what I hear, the problem is getting worse and more widespread. It doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of sending out feel-good cables on workplace atmosphere and bullying, put policies in place that have real teeth. A zero-tolerance policy for workplace bullies, administered neutrally and enforced by D.C., would lead to an instant decrease in unacceptable behaviors and the resulting damage they cause.”
It’s No Joke
The first MED-directed mental health intervention that was provided in Tripoli after the Benghazi attacks on Sept. 11, 2012, was a video conference in April 2013, conveniently less than a week before the Director General arrived for a visit to Libya. Prior to that, the only service provided was a discussion with the nurse about “fostering resiliency” several months after the attack…hardly a useful assist.
The half-day course for those returning from hardship posts is a joke. I took it after my first (!) unaccompanied tour (UT), and both the instructor and some of the other students made fun of me for enrolling, since at the time my tour was seen as one of the “cupcake UTs,” without an active war going on outside the embassy walls. I refused to take the course after my second UT. No one from HR or my bureau asked if I’d taken it or even how I was doing after the second UT.
An RMO/P made fun of some of my coworkers in a high-stress, high-threat post that happened to be a popular destination for American tourists. He told them that they had no idea what serving in an actually difficult post was like, comparing it to the regional city where he was based. Never mind the fact that almost every person at that highly desirable but still challenging post got there via a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.
I have neither respect for nor faith in MED’s mental health efforts. As long as MED is staffed with people who see mental health as an inconvenience, supported by State leadership (from the very top down) who barely pay lip service to mental health and a work-life balance, there’s no hope for anyone who suffers in the aftermath of an emotionally catastrophic tour abroad. At least there is solidarity among those who survived terrible times abroad.
Thank you for your emails alerting us to this! We did not want to start our 2016 blogging about the jerk in the foreign service but today is the 4th day, and there’s a lesson here somewhere, so that’s our excuse.
Somebody’s corridor reputation showed up as toner and ice, stirred, from the latest Clinton email dump of December 31. Sidney Blumenthal calls this John Kornblum’s “unvarnished tone” in his email to then Secretary Clinton.
Ambassador Kornblum, a career diplomat joined the Foreign Service in 1964. He was President Clinton’s Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001. Prior to that assignment, he was the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs from July 3, 1996 – July 1, 1997. Previously, President George Herbert Walker also nominated him to be U.S. Ambassador to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 1991. In that capacity he served as chief of the American delegation to the 1992 Helsinki Review Conference and played a major role in drafting the Declaration approved at the July 1992 Helsinki Summit. According to the state.gov archive, Ambassador Kornblum established the new American delegation to the OSCE in Vienna in August 1992 where he served until April 1994. According to the WSJ, he is now senior counselor for Noerr LLP law firm in Berlin.
Bill Burns was appointed Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (P) on May 13, 2008 and served until July 28, 2011. This Sid email is dated March 11, 2011, about four months before Burns departed post to become Deputy Secretary. We don’t know what happened to the top Foreign Service contenders for the “P” job but we all know Bill Burns was succeeded by non-career appointee Wendy Sherman who was appointed “P” on September 21, 2011.
In September 2015, President Obama nominated career diplomat Thomas Shannon to succeed Ms. Sherman who left office on October 2, 2015. The Shannon nomination has been subjected to Senator Grassley’s hold in the 114th Congress.
In any case, according to AFP, America apparently was left guessing after a tantalizing near-revelation about the “biggest jerk in American diplomacy” email. If you are playing the guessing game on your first day at work in 2016, just remember that the candidate for this title is a he, who purportedly “went over to the dark side” during the Bush administration, and quite possibly, an EUR/NSC/WH hand, high enough in rank/connection to shout down a career ambassador.
And no, we’re not soliciting nominations for this one, so please keep the comments clean.
Like folks often say, your EER gets you promoted, but your corridor reputation gets you your next job.
Three sources informed us that the new CG slated for Istanbul is a newly minted FS-01. For some readers not familiar with Foreign Service ranking, that’s the topmost rank in the Foreign Service below the Senior Foreign Service. An FS-01 is equivalent in rank to a colonel in the U.S. military. Counselor, the lowest rank in the Senior Foreign Service is equivalent in rank to a one star general in the U.S. military. One source put it this way:
While it’s a bit unusual that CDA would grant a senior cede to allow [snip](an FS-01) to take such a high profile SFS job, [snip] was Executive Assistant to the Secretary. I imagine that helped with HR. Some would argue that’s a bit of a scandal (not me though…) but I think we can all agree, even if that is a scandal, it’s a lot less of a scandal, than a political appointee taking that job.
So the good news is that the WH/State Department is not sending an Obama bundler to assume the Consul General’s position in Istanbul. Yo! We can hear your collective sigh of relief all the way here! But we can also hear all the drama going on.
CDA is the Office of Career Development and Assignments at the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources. Since this is a stretch assignment across the senior threshold (think colonel assigned to a general’s position), this would require what’s called a “senior cede” which HR/CDA/SL usually grants only after determining that no senior employee is seeking the senior position.
Seriously, no senior diplomat of the C, MC or CM kind asked to go to Istanbul? Who believes that? Or perhaps the more interesting question is who drove the John Deere high speed dozer to clear the obstacle path from the 7th Floor to Istanbul?
Here’s the Hiawatha by the way, at a ready in Istanbul for whoever ends up going there.
A separate source informed us that the next Consul General to Istanbul was not only a previous member of Secretary Kerry’s staff, the staffer also worked for an Executive Secretary of the State Department. That Executive Secretary is now the U.S. ambassador to Turkey.
We understand that there was “a ton of drama” associated with this assignment. “Crammed down EUR’s throat,” that is, the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs’ throat, we heard. There are apparently, “heartaches” in Foggy Bottom related to this appointment. Another alleged that the assignment was done through “irregular means” and that the “job wasn’t announced in FSBid” among other things.
And just like on teevee, there’s more.
CG Istanbul is a language designated position. That means you either need to already know Turkish or must get the Turkish language level required for the job. Allegations have also surfaced that the State Department has now reportedly waived the language requirement for this position. Language waivers are not unheard of, of course, but … given what’s going on in Turkey ….
Say, is this the best the State Department can do for its diplomatic post and staff in Istanbul?
Our man in Istanbul, Chuck Hunter has been an FSO since 1990, so he has some 25 years of experience in the Foreign Service. He was Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq (2011-12) and served in Damascus as Deputy Chief of Mission and Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy to Syria (2009-11). He previously worked in Cairo, Tunis, Muscat and Jerusalem. In addition to various D.C. tours, he also served as the Babil Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader, based in Al-Hillah, Iraq. He speaks Turkish, Arabic and French.
The principal officer in Adana, the smallest constituent post in Turkey (with four direct hire employees) is Linda Stuart Specht who assumed her duties last August. She has been an FSO since 1989. She has spent about 26 years in some difficult and dangerous places around the world. She previously served in positions in U.S. missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Vietnam, Papua New Guinea, and Suriname. Her most recent previous assignments were as Deputy Director of Pakistan Affairs (2012-2014), Director of the Office of Economic Sanctions and Counter Terrorism Finance (2011-2012), and Deputy Director for Arabian Peninsula Affairs (2009-2011). She speaks Turkish, Dutch, French, and Vietnamese.
We should note that the Consulate General in Istanbul is actually larger than many embassies around the world. So, it looks like next year, an FS-01 will oversee U.S. Government relations in a city that is the commercial, financial, cultural, educational, and media capital of Turkey. The same official will also supervise other FS-01s in Istanbul. The last time we’ve seen a midlevel official successfully appointed to a similar high profile posting was in 2005 when an FS-02 became an Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.
In any case, back in the fall of 2014, there was also a rumor that a staffer from the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, (the Department’s fourth-ranking official), allegedly wanted the Iran Watcher position in London. (see Is This Iran Watcher London Position Not Bidlisted About to Go to a “P” Staffer?). After a fuss was raised, the job apparently went to an FSO. Another Iran Watcher job was reportedly then created in Amsterdam. But there was an Iran Watcher already in language training whose assignment to Erbil, Iraq was cancelled; that individual eventually ended up with the Amsterdam assignment.
Assignments on the 7th floor must be quite hazardous and perilous. One staffer almost end up in London, then Amsterdam, and now one is reportedly going to Istanbul. Who’s next? Secretary Kerry’s pilot as the next Consul General to Bora Bora? Yes, we know there is no CG Bora Bora … well, not yet, anyway.
It’s a good thing that the State Department as an institution has “embraced” what is apparently “an overarching set of Leadership Principles” contained in 3 FAM 1214. This part of the FAM talks about supervisors and managers having “a unique opportunity and responsibility to lead by example.”
Ambassador Chas Freeman did a speech on Diplomatic Amateurism and Its Consequences at Foggy Bottom’s Ralph Bunche Library earlier this month. He also recently spoke about America’s Continuing Misadventures in the Middle East. We need more people like Ambassador Freeman telling it like it is; unfortunately that often puts people like him in the outs with people who do not want to hear what needs to be said. More often than not, the top ranks have large rooms for obedient groupies and not much room for anyone else.
Below is an excerpt from his diplomatic amateurism speech:
In other countries, diplomacy is a prestigious career in which one spends a lifetime, culminating in senior positions commensurate with one’s talents as one has demonstrated them over the years. But, in the United States, these days more than ever, the upper reaches of diplomacy are reserved for wealthy dilettantes and celebrities with no prior experience in the conduct of relations with foreign states and peoples, national security policy, or the limitations of the use of force. Policy positions in our government dealing with such issues are now largely staffed by individuals selected for their interest-group affiliation, identity, or sizable campaign contributions. These diplomatic neophytes are appointed for the good of the political party with which they are affiliated and to reward their loyal service during political campaigns, not for their ability to do the jobs they are given. It is assumed that they can learn on the job, then move on after a while to give others a chance at government employment. But whatever they learn, they take with them when they leave, adding nothing to the diplomatic capacity of our government.
If you tried to staff and run a business or a sports team like this, you’d get creamed by the competition. If you organized our armed forces this way, you’d be courting certain defeat. You can judge for yourself how staffing and running a foreign policy establishment through the spoils system is working out for our country now that our margin for error has been reduced by “the rise of the rest” since the end of the Cold War. Staffing national security policy positions and ambassadorships with people whose ambition greatly outstrips their knowledge and experience is a bit like putting teenagers in charge of risk management while entrusting lifeguard positions to people with no proven ability to swim. Hit and run statecraft and diplomacy were never wise, but they didn’t matter much when America was isolated from the world or so powerful that it could succeed without really trying. Neither is the case anymore
The United States is now the only great power not to have professionalized our diplomatic service. As the trove of diplomatic reporting spewed out by WikiLeaks shows, our career people remain very bright and able. But their supervisors are less prepared to carry out their duties than their counterparts in the diplomatic services of other great and lesser powers. One of the 20th century’s greatest diplomats, Abba Eban put it this way
“The word ‘ambassador’ would normally have a professional connotation but for the American tradition of ‘political appointees.’ The bizarre notion that any citizen, especially if he is rich, is fit for the representation of his country abroad has taken some hard blows through empirical evidence, but it has not been discarded, nor should the idea of diluting a rigid professionalism with manpower from less detached sectors of society be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, when the strongest nation in the world appoints a tycoon or a wealthy hostess to head an embassy, the discredit and frustration is spread throughout the entire diplomatic corps in the country concerned.”
That was in 1983. Quite a bit before that, about 130 years before that, demonstrating that this is indeed a lengthy American tradition, the New York Herald Tribune observed, “Diplomacy is the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle. A man not fit to stay at home is just the man to send abroad.”
These American observations, or observations about American diplomacy, contrast quite strikingly with the views expressed by the classic writer on diplomatic practice, François de Callières. Writing now almost exactly three centuries ago, in 1716, he said:
“Diplomacy is a profession by itself, which deserves the same preparation and assiduity of attention that men give to other recognized professions. The qualities of the diplomatist and the knowledge necessary to him cannot indeed all be acquired. The diplomatic genius is born, not made. But there are many qualities which may be developed with practice, and the greater part of the necessary knowledge can only be acquired by constant application to the subject.
“In this sense, diplomacy is certainly a profession, itself capable of occupying a man’s whole career, and those who think to embark upon a diplomatic mission as a pleasant diversion from their common task only prepare disappointment for themselves and disaster for the cause that they serve. The veriest fool would not entrust the command of an army to a man whose sole badge of merit was his eloquence in a court of law or his adroit practice of the courtier’s art in the palace. All are agreed that military command must be earned by long service in the army. In the same manner, it must be regarded as folly to entrust the conduct of negotiations to an untrained amateur.”
There is indeed every reason for diplomacy to be a learned profession in the United States, like the law, medicine, or the military. But it isn’t. When top positions are reserved for people who have not come up through the ranks, it’s difficult to sustain diplomacy as a career, let alone establish and nurture it as a profession. Professions are human memory banks. They are composed of individuals who profess a unique combination of specialized knowledge, experience, and technique. They distill their expertise into doctrine – constantly refreshed – based on what their experience has taught them about what works and what doesn’t. Their skills are inculcated through case studies, periodic training, and on-the-job mentoring. This professional knowledge is constantly improved by the critical introspection inherent in after-action reviews.
In the course of one’s time as a foreign service officer, one acquires languages and a hodgepodge of other skills relevant to the conduct of foreign relations. If one is inclined to reflect on one’s experience, one begins to understand the principles that undergird effective diplomacy, that is the arts of persuading others to do things our way, and to get steadily better at practicing these arts. But, in the U.S. foreign service, by contrast with – let’s say – the military, there is no systematic professional development process, no education in grand strategy or history, no training in tactics or operational technique derived from experience, no habit of reviewing successes and failures to improve future performance, no literature devoted to the development of operational doctrine and technique, and no real program or commitment to the mentoring of new entrants to the career. If one’s lucky, one is called to participate in the making of history. If one is not, there is yet a great deal to learn from the success or failure of the diplomatic tasks to which one is assigned.
As an aside, I also don’t believe that, as an institution, the Department of State now understands the difference between bureaucrats and professionals. (I’m not sure it ever did.) Both have their place in foreign affairs but the two are quite different. Bureaucrats are trained to assure uniform decisions and predictable outcomes through the consistent interpretation and application of laws, regulations, and administrative procedures. Professionals, by contrast, are educated to exercise individual, ad hoc judgments, take actions, and seek outcomes autonomously on the basis of principles and canons of behavior derived from experience. They are expected to be creative, not consistent, in their approach to the matters in their charge.
There is an obvious alternative to this bleak scenario. That is that the secretary of state – this secretary of state, who is the son of a foreign service office and who has personally demonstrated the power of diplomacy to solve problems bequeathed to him by his predecessors – will recognize the need for the U.S. diplomatic service to match our military in professionalism and seek to make this his legacy. In the end, this would demand enlisting the support of Congress but much could be done internally.
QUESTION: But do you know who signed off on her having a private server?
MR TONER: Who signed off on her? I don’t, no.
QUESTION: I mean —
QUESTION: Did anybody?
MR TONER: Again, I’m not going to answer that question. I’m not going to litigate that question from the podium.
QUESTION: So you’re saying that nobody signed off on her having a private server?
MR TONER: No. I’m saying – look, everyone – there were – people understood that she had a private server. I think we’ve talked about that in the past.
QUESTION: What level was that knowledge? How high did that go up in this building?
MR TONER: I mean, you’ve seen from the emails. You have an understanding of people who were communicating with her, at what level they were communicating at, so —
QUESTION: Was there anybody in this building who was against the Secretary having her own private server?
MR TONER: I can’t answer that. I can’t.
QUESTION: And just —
MR TONER: I mean, I don’t have the history, but I also don’t have – I don’t have the authority to speak definitively to that.
QUESTION: But —
MR TONER: Again, these are questions that are appropriate, but appropriate for other processes and reviews.
QUESTION: But not the State Department? She was the Secretary of State and —
MR TONER: No, I understand what you’re asking. But frankly, it’s perfectly plausible – and I talked a little bit with Arshad about this yesterday – is for example, we know that the State IG is – at the Secretary’s request – is looking at the processes and how we can do better and improve our processes. And whether they’ll look at these broader questions, that’s a question for them.
[….] QUESTION: So last opportunity here: You don’t know who signed off on Secretary Clinton having her own server?
MR TONER: Again, I don’t personally, but I don’t think it’s our – necessarily our responsibility to say that. I think that that’s for other entities to look at.
Holy Molly Guacamole!
See here? I don’t have enough fingers to count the verbal calisthenics the public is subjected to these days from the official podium of the oldest executive agency in the union.
He’s just doing his job, like … what would you do?
Pardon me? You’re embarrassed, too? Well, I suggest wearing a brown paper bag when watching the Daily Press Briefing from now on.
Are we ever going to reach a point when the career folks at the State Department will say “Enough, I’m not doing this anymore?”
Hard to say. Hard to say. Although that did happen in Season 1, Episode 15 of Madam Secretary, so there is a clear precedent.
We have originally written about the 360 degree feedback in 2008 as it started gaining popularity within the State Department. (see Sexing up the 360-Degree Feedback, Revisited). We thought then, and we still think now, that using the 360° feedback for evaluative purposes, (instead of using it primarily for development), especially when a candidate’s next job is on the line can easily transform this useful learning tool into an inflated, useless material with real consequences for operational effectiveness. We understand from comments received this past July, that this is being used as a developmental tool by Consular Affairs and the Leadership and Management School at FSI (see a couple of feedback), but those are, in all likelihood, the two exceptions. The 360 degree feedback is primarily used as an assignments or placement tool.
In 2013, the Marine Corps Times reported that the Pentagon was expanding its use of “360-degree” reviews for senior officers, but legal concerns may limit their inclusion in any formal promotion or command screening process:
Even if there is interest among the brass to formalize the process, there may be big legal hurdles to expanding the 360-review process beyond a strictly confidential tool for self-awareness.
Officers have valid concerns about anonymous and unverified criticisms seeping into the official process for doling out promotions, command assignments or seats at prestigious schools.
If officers feel their career was damaged by a harsh 360-degree review, they might insist on knowing precisely who lodged the criticisms in order to rebut them. And if the confidentiality is questioned, then the whole endeavor ceases to have much value.
From a legal standpoint, that officer might have a right to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out who submitted that confidential review.
“The more that’s at stake … the more difficult it will be to maintain the anonymity,” the senior official said. “And, of course, if you don’t maintain the confidentiality, then you have a very different product,” because peers and subordinates will be far less likely to offer candid criticism.
In April 2015, an official Pentagon study concludes that the “360-degree reviews” probably should not be used as a part of the formal military evaluation and promotion process. Below via the Military Times:
[T]he new report cites a long list of legal, cultural and practical concerns that would prevent this type of review’s widespread use in determining who gets selected for promotions, command assignments or slots at prestigious schools.
In 2013, Congress ordered the Defense Department to do a thorough assessment of whether and how 360-degree reviews should be used in the military personnel system.
Rand researchers concluded that the tools should be limited to personnel development programs, which means some troops are subject to 360-degree reviews but the results are provided only to the individual for his or her own benefit, and are not included in any official personnel file.
In the September issue of the Foreign Service Journal, consular-coned officer, William Bent, currently serving at the US Embassy in Barbados pens a Speaking Out piece on the need for the State Department to reevaluate its use of the 360-degree reviews.
Mr. Bent spells out the following concerns as the 360 feedback continue to be used as a placement tool by “assignment decision-makers”:
♨︎ || The reviews are seldom transparent. In current practice, the assessed employee usually has no idea what feedback the deciding official has received, and an employee receiving any negative feedback is rarely, if ever, contacted to discuss the issues raised. This creates the potential for unsubstantiated criticism that can unfairly undermine an employee’s chance for advancement. One does not have to assume deliberate career sabotage here: as a manager, one sometimes has to make unpopular decisions that years later still rankle former subordinates who, because of inexperience, may not have had the full picture.
The Bureau of Consular Affair’s recent development of the Consular Bidder Assessment Tool addresses the issue of transparency by allowing the assessed employee to see the anonymous feedback statements. But the employee is denied the opportunity for a timely discussion of the results (bidders are instructed not to attempt to discuss results until after bidding season is over). This is a surprising approach from the bureau that brought us the innovative CLI.
The DCM/principal officer 360-degree reviews are neither transparent, nor do they provide any opportunity for assessed employees to obtain feedback.
♨︎ || The reviews have little value because the assessed employee chooses the assessor. On the whole, most peers and subordinates resist being frank and candid in their reviews. Having the assessed employee pick his or her own assessors emphasizes this tendency, skewing the results.
It also replicates the EER problem: when everyone walks on water, the decision-makers try to read between the lines, looking for any chinks in an individual’s armor. Paradoxically, this feeds into the concerns discussed above, since any negative review raises bells and whistles and is given extra weight.
♨︎ || Use of 360-degree reviews for purposes other than development remains controversial among human resource experts. Using them to determine assignments is akin to using them as performance appraisals, which some human resource experts see as detrimental to an organization because of its negative effect on personal growth. When the results are not shared in a transparent way, trust is undermined.
[…] ♨︎ || The State Department’s use of 360s in determining assignments was not adequately studied prior to implementation. This practice appears to have been implemented on an ad hoc basis several years ago, with a few bureaus using email as a platform to receive input. The use of 360s has now proliferated, with all bureaus involved in the assignment process utilizing them to make decisions.
Yet there seems to have been no prior centralized review of the ramifications of broad use of the tool on the Foreign Service workforce. The use of SharePoint and other technologies to gather the results also raises confidentiality questions (some 360s have been posted—I assume accidentally—on the State Department’s intranet site).
♨︎ || Some recipients of the results may lack the training and expertise to interpret them effectively. There is a reason there are books and articles written by human resource academics and specialists on how to effectively implement and utilize the 360-degree review process. Has the State Department trained officials using the results in human resource management or the 360-degree review process? Do these officials have goals beyond filling the position in question (e.g., the further career development of an employee)?
Moreover, what role has the Bureau of Human Resources—the one bureau theoretically best placed to manage this process—played in implementing the 360 review requirements? Are career development officers discussing the results of 360s with clients to improve the employee’s chances of strengthening skills?
♨︎ || The annual deluge of 360s creates significant time and resource issues. Let’s face it, the 360 process has become a major time suck for everyone involved, with email inboxes inundated each summer with requests for 360-degree reviews. Although we all have a responsibility to assist our colleagues and the organization as a whole by diligently filling out the reviews, the sheer volume of requests can be overwhelming. This could result in less comprehensive responses that don’t give a full portrait of the assessed employee.
Mr. Bent provides four recommendations including, the immediate suspension of “the use of 360s in the Foreign Service assignment process pending the completion of a study, conducted by an outside consultant, on the effectiveness of their use.”
If the Pentagon’s decision not to jump into the 360 degree bandwagon is not enough to give the State Department pause in its use of the 360 as part of the employes’ assignment process, then perhaps what should give them pause is the potential for privacy and FOIA litigation. 360 results posted online, hello?
We’ve located the Pentagon 360 study conducted by the Rand Corporation. In one part, it quotes a participant of its study saying, “Conventional wisdom in regards to 360-degree assessments from experts and researchers is that the most effective use of 360 assessments is to enhance professional, individual development. Once you change the purpose or intent of a 360 from development to evaluation, you affect the willingness of raters to provide candid or unfettered feedback.” That’s probably the most apt comment when it comes to the 360 degree feedback.
“I am proud that I found a constructive way to take a stand on an issue that matters to me. But I can’t help wondering what the department would look like if there were more of us willing to speak up about issues that matter, large and small, regardless of whether or not we think we can actually change anything. Or as one senior officer pointed out to me, we dissent every day—but the difference is whom we dissent to and how far we are willing to go with it. At heart, it’s a question of integrity. Sometimes just adding your voice is enough.”
For obvious reasons, we are unable to share the name of the retired diplomat here but we have permission to share this with our readers.
Retired FSO: I was planning on blogging about Hillary’s emails. Title: “If I Did What Hillary Did, I’d Be In Jail.”
Me: Great! Looking forward to reading it!
Retired FSO: But I won’t.
Retired FSO: Just read 3 FAM 4170. I’m retired. I can’t believe I really need to clear my blogposts with PA. I mean, I’d use common sense, you know? I wouldn’t be divulging stuff like, say, our nuclear launch codes, or the chronically malfunctioning air conditioning system at Main State. I’d just focus on how when you become a charter member of America’s political elite, the rules don’t apply to you. That’s all.
Me: Only stuff “of department concern” needs clearance. Max timeframe for blogs, five days.
Retired FSO: But they’ve made me jittery. I don’t fancy jail. They’d probably force me to watch re-runs of “Madame Secretary” every day; let me read only the FAM! The eighth amendment doesn’t allow this kind of cruel and unusual punishment, but Mother State can be as vindictive as a Borgia dowager.
Me: Okay. So, does this mean you’ll stop blogging?
Retired FSO: Nah. Maybe I’ll just write about my pets from now on. Think anybody would read Diplo Doggy’s Adventures?
On July 27, 2015, two months short of Year 3 since Mr. Van Buren retired, the State Department without much fanfare released its new 3 FAM 4170 rules in 19 pages. For the “FAM is not a regulation; it’s recommendations” crowd, we hope you folks have great lawyers.
My! Look who’s covered!
The updated FAM, same as the old FAM, is divided into two meaty parts — official capacity public communication and personal capacity public appearances and communications. The new version of 3 FAM 4170 is all encompassing, covering the following (not exhaustive list):
— all personnel in the United States and abroad who are currently employed (even if in Leave Without Pay status) by the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), including but not limited to Foreign Service (FS) employees, Civil Service (CS) employees (including schedule C appointees and annuitants returning to work on temporary appointments on an intermittent basis, commonly referred to as “While Actually Employed (WAE)” personnel), locally employed staff (LE Staff), personal service contractors (PSCs), employees assigned to fellowships or details elsewhere and detailees or fellows from other entities assigned to the Department, externs/interns, and special government employees (SGEs).
— Former Department of State employees (including former interns and externs) must seek guidance from A/GIS/IPS for applicable review process information. Former USAID employees (including former interns and externs) must consult the Bureau for Legislative and Public Affairs for applicable review process information.
— Employee testimony, whether in an official capacity or in a personal capacity on a matter of Departmental concern, may be subject to the review requirements of this subchapter. Employees should consult with the Department of State’s Office of the Legal Adviser or USAID’s Office of the General Counsel, as appropriate, to determine applicable procedures.
In practical terms, we think this means that if you get summoned to appear before the House Select Benghazi Committee and is testifying in your personal capacity as a former or retired employee of the State Department, these new regulations may still apply to you, and you may still need clearance before your testimony.
Convince us that we’re reading this wrong, otherwise, somebody poke Congress, please.
Also, does this mean that all retired FSOs who contribute to ADST’s Oral History project are similarly required to obtain clearance since by its definition, “online forums such as blogs” and “a person or entity engaged in disseminating information to the general public” are considered media organizations under these new rules?
Institutional interest vs. public interest
We are particularly interested in the personal capacity publication/communication rules because that’s the one that can get people in big trouble, as shown in the Van Buren case. Here’s the equivalent of our bold Sharpie.
3 FAM 4176.4 says: “A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization. In addition, the Final Review Office will evaluate whether the employee’s public communication is highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department, such that preventing those consequences outweighs the employee’s presumptively high interest in communicating and the public’s interest in receiving the communication.”
Institutional interest trumps public interest? Where do you draw the line? You can still write a dissent cable as the “3 FAM 4172.1-3(D). No Review of Dissent Channel Communications” included in the 2009 version of the FAM survives as 3 FAM 4171 (e) in the current rules:
Views on matters of Departmental concern communicated through methods of internal communication (including, for example, the Department’s internal dissent channel) or disclosures made pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 2302(b)(8)(B) are not subject to the review requirements of this subchapter.
Which is fine and all, except — who the heck gets to read your dissent cable except the folks at Policy Planning? The State Department is not obligated to share with Congress or with the American public any dissenting opinions from its diplomats. One might argue that this is appropriate, after all, you can’t have diplomats second guessing in public every foreign policy decision of every administration. So, the American public typically only hears about it when a diplomat quits. But given the two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the American public best served by this policy? And by the way, candid opinion like the case of the six-page memo, entitled “The Perfect Storm,” in the lead up to the Iraq War, is still classified. Why is that?
The new regs also say this:
“To the extent time and resources allow, reviewers may assist the employee in identifying possible modifications or other adjustments to avoid the inclusion of non-classified but otherwise protected information, or the potential for adverse consequences to the Department’s mission or efficiency (including the employee’s ability to perform his or her duties effectively in the future).”
If we weigh the Van Buren book against these parameters, how much of the book’s 288 pages would survive such “modifications” or “adjustments.”
There goes the book, We Meant Well in Afghanistan, Also.
The Peter Van Buren Clause
We’ve come to call “3 FAM 4172.1-7 Use or Publication of Materials Prepared in an Employee’s Private Capacity That Have Been Submitted for Review“ as the Peter Van Buren clause. Below is the original language from the 2009 version of the FAM:
An employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of official concern that have been submitted for review, and for which the presumption of private capacity has not been overcome, upon expiration of the designated period of comment and review regardless of the final content of such materials so long as they do not contain information that is classified or otherwise exempt from disclosure as described in 3 FAM 4172.1-6(A).
That section of the FAM appears to survive under the current 3 FAM 4174.3 Final Review Offices, underlined for emphasis below.
c. To ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed, an employee must not take any steps to proceed with a public communication (including making commitments to publishers or other parties) until he or she receives written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office, except as described below. If, upon expiration of the relevant timeframes below, the Final Review Office has not provided an employee with either a final response or an indication that a public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity (including a list of the entity or entities with equities), the employee may use, issue, or publish materials on matters of Departmental concern that have been submitted for review so long as such materials do not contain information described in 3FAM 4176.2(a) and taking into account the principles in 4176.2(b). When an employee has been informed by the Final Review Office that his or her public communication involves equities of another U.S. Government entity or entities, the employee should not proceed without written notice to proceed from the Final Review Office. Upon the employee’s request, the Final Review Office will provide the employee with an update on the status of the review of his or her public communication, including, if applicable, the date(s) on which the Department submitted the employee’s communication to another entity or entities for review. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.
The Van Buren clause appears to survive, until you take a closer look; italicized below for emphasis:
3 FAM 4176.2 (a) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications
a. When engaging in personal capacity public communications, employees must not:
(1) Claim to represent the Department or its policies, or those of the U.S. Government, or use Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos; or
(2) Disclose, or in any way allow the public to access, classified information, even if it is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure.
3 FAM 4176.2 (b) Content of Personal Capacity Public Communications
b. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), a purpose of this review process is to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization. Other protected information that is or may be subject to public disclosure restrictions includes, but is not limited to:
(1) Material that meets one or more of the criteria for exemption from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. 552(b), including internal pre-decisional deliberative material;
(2) Information that reasonably could be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings or operations;
(3) Information pertaining to procurement in violation of 41 U.S.C. 2101-2107;
(4) Sensitive personally identifiable information as defined in 5 FAM 795.1(f); or
(5) Other nonpublic information, when used in a manner as prohibited by 5 CFR 2635.703.
Can one make the case that the conversations between the writer and his boss in the Van Buren book are “internal pre-decisional deliberative material?” Or that any conversation between two FSOs are deliberative? Of course. State can make a case about anything and everything. Remember, it did try to make the case that the book contained classified information. (see “Classified” Information Contained in We Meant Well – It’s a Slam Dunk, Baby!). Also, we should note that documents marked SBU or sensitive but unclassified are typically considered nonpublic information. Under these new rules, it’s not just classified information anymore, anything the agency considers deliberative material or any nonpublic material may be subject to disclosure restrictions.
3 FAM 4174.2 Overview (2015): Waving the ‘suitability for continued employment’ flag
c. Employees’ personal capacity public communications must be reviewed if they are on a topic “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173). Personal capacity public communications that clearly do not address matters of Departmental concern need not be submitted for review.
(1) The personal capacity public communications review requirement is intended to serve three purposes: to determine whether the communication would disclose classified or other protected information without authorization; to allow the Department to prepare to handle any potential ramifications for its mission or employees that could result from the proposed public communication; or, in rare cases, to identify public communications that are highly likely to result in serious adverse consequences to the mission or efficiency of the Department, such that the Secretary or Deputy Secretary must be afforded the opportunity to decide whether it is necessary to prohibit the communication (see 3 FAM 4176.4).
(2) The purposes of the review are limited to those described in paragraph (1); the review is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, or otherwise provide assurances to employees on matters such as suitability for continued employment (see, e.g., 3 FAM 4130 for foreign service personnel and 5 CFR 731 for civil service personnel). Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal capacity public communications whether or not such communications are on topics of Departmental concern.
More 3 FAM 4170 Fun: Not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action
3 FAM 4176.1(e) General
e. As stated in 3 FAM 4174.2(c)(1), the review process is limited to three purposes. (See also 3 FAM 4176.4.) Therefore, completion of the review process is not a Department “clearance” or “approval” of the planned communication, and is not meant to insulate employees from discipline or other administrative action related to their communications, including for conducting personal capacity public communications that interfere with the Department’s ability to effectively and efficiently carry out its mission and responsibilities, by, for example, disrupting operations, impairing working relationships, or impeding the employee from carrying out his or her duties. Ultimately, employees remain responsible for their personal communications whether or not the communications are on topics of Departmental concern.
3 FAM 4176.3 Employee must disclose his/her identity to Department reviewers
a. PA reviews all personal capacity public communications on matters of Departmental concern by senior officials at the Assistant Secretary level and above, including Chiefs of Mission. For all other employees wishing to communicate publicly in their personal capacity on matters of Departmental concern, there are two review processes available:
(1) Individuals may, as a first step, submit their requests for review to the Final Review Office (as described in 3 FAM 4174.3(a)). For employees submitting a request to PA, such requests should be submitted via PAReviews@state.gov. The Final Review Office will then consult with the employee’s immediate supervisor(s) and any other offices concerned with the subject matter in accordance with 3 FAM 4176.4(c). The Final Review Office will then make the final determination; and
(2) Alternatively, employees may initially submit their requests for review to their immediate supervisor(s), the Public Affairs Office in their bureaus or posts, and any other Department offices concerned with the subject matter. The materials must then be submitted to the Final Review Office, noting all such reviewers and any comments received. The Final Review Office will then verify those reviews, assess whether other reviews are needed, and make the final determination.
b. Supervisors, Public Affairs Offices, or any other offices involved in the review process must flag for the Final Review Office any view that the proposed public communication may:
(1) Contain classified or other protected information;
(2) Result in serious adverse consequences to the efficiency or mission of the Department; or
(3) Be or become high impact or high profile, for example communication that is controversial, or otherwise involves a sensitive Department priority; and
(4) The Final Review Office will then apply the standard described in 3 FAM 4176.4(a).
c. In all cases, an employee must disclose his or her identity to the relevant Department reviewers.
d. If another U.S. Government entity seeks Department review of a personal capacity public communication by that entity’s employee, the Department office in receipt of such request must coordinate with PA.
3 FAM 4177 Noncompliance may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.
a. Failure to follow the provisions of this subchapter, including failure to seek advance reviews where required, may result in disciplinary or other administrative action up to and including separation. Violations by USAID employees may be referred to the Deputy Administrator for Human Resources or USAID’s Office of the Inspector General (see 3 FAM 4320). Disciplinary action will be pursued consistent with applicable law, including 5 U.S.C. 2302
b. Publication or dissemination of classified or other protected information may result in disciplinary action, criminal prosecution and/or civil liability.
This is the part where we must remind you that what the former State Department spokesperson said about the FAM being recommendations is a serious bunch of hooey!
Oh, hey, remember the 2-day clearance for tweets …’er scandal?
We wrote about it here and here, and the “ain’t gonna happen 2-day clearance” for social media posting is now part of the Foreign Affairs Manual. Apologies if the 2-working day review timeframe below for social media postings is too shocking for 21st century statecraft innovation purists. These are the rules, unless you can get the current State Department spokesperson to say from the podium that these are merely recommendations that employees/retirees/interns/charforce are free to ignore. We must add that the 2009 version of these rules, required that materials of official concern submitted in the employee’s private capacity must “be submitted for a reasonable period of review, not to exceed thirty days.” The old rules made no distinction whether the submitted material is a book manuscript, an article, a blogpost or a tweet.
screen grab from 3 FAM 4170
Yo! What’s Missing?
The new regs emphasized the need for official clearance for official and private communication “to ensure that no classified information is improperly disclosed.” It however, does not include any guidance on the use of a private server for emails and social media postings where classified information could be improperly disclosed.
A Much Better FAM Version, Hey?
From the organizational perspective, some folks would say that this is a “much better” version of the FAM. We’d call this a much better plug. An insider could argue that this is a “very fine sieve.”
Okeedokee, but what do you think will be its consequences for the rank and file? No one will officially admit this as the intent, but after reading this new version of 3 FAM 4170, this is what we think it really says:
The updated regs also says that “In light of the rapid pace with which many social media platforms are used, all offices, sections, or employees who routinely post to such platforms in their official capacity are encouraged to seek advance blanket authorization to engage for their social media communications, in accordance with 3 FAM 4175.1(c).”
The blanket authorization as far as we can tell only applies to those who are engaged in social media platforms in their official capacities, it makes no similar provision for employees in social media platforms in their private capacities.
Fun With Fido or Grumpy Cat
The new regs helpfully notes that “Employees who, in their personal capacity, wish to communicate publicly on matters that are clearly not “of Departmental concern” (see 3 FAM 4173) need not seek Department review under the procedures outlined herein, and need not use the personal capacity disclaimer discussed below in paragraph (b).”
So, basically, if you blog, tweet or write a book about Kitty Kat or Fidodog, or about their travels and adventures in Baghdad, Kabul, Sanaa, and all the garden spots, you don’t need to seek Department review. That is, as long as Kitty Kat is not secretly arming the rodent insurgents and tweeting about it and Fidodog is not flushing government money down the toilet and blogging about it.